US Trade Unionists Seek Mexican Allies

Unions south of border find North American counterparts wooing them for support

CLETO NINGNO wasn't a member of their union. He wasn't even a United States or Canadian citizen.Yet on Jan. 8, thousands of United Auto Workers (UAW) in Canada and the US strapped on black armbands in remembrance of this Mexican worker, killed in 1990 when thugs broke up a union dispute at a Ford Motor Company factory here. Why such widespread sympathy for "the enemy?" Wasn't Ningno just one of many low-wage Mexican workers "stealing" US and Canadian jobs? Such has been the strong impression left by labor organizations campaigning against a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In fact, US and Canadian trade unions are aggressively building bridges with their Mexican counterparts - including those that favor a free-trade pact. And the case of Cleto Ningno is a poignant symbol of a changing attitude. "Mexicans aren't taking our jobs," says Kansas City UAW Local 249 Vice President Jack Hedrick, who was among those wearing a black armband. "Multinationals are taking jobs out of the US and exploiting workers on both sides of the border. We need to work together to fight this." Motives for the developing alliances vary. In some cases, US and Canadian unions are looking for local allies to battle the free-trade pact in the political arena. In other cases, the free-trade debate has brought fresh impetus to a trend taking shape: Just as US companies are setting up subsidiaries and joint ventures abroad, unions, too, are discovering advantages to "going global." "It's been a real awakening for all parties," says David Brooks of the US-Mexico Dialogos, a group that helped organize a conference for trade union leaders from the three nations in April. For example, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Sindicato de Telefonistas de la Republica Mexicana (STRM) now share a common employer - Southwestern Bell, one of the seven regional phone companies in the US. In December, Grupo Carso (composed of Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helu, France Telecom, and Southwestern Bell) bought a major stake in the government-owned Mexican telephone company. Although the two unions disagree over the free-trade pact (the STRM supports it), both are seeking ways to work together. "We consider it vital to have a more active relationship with the CWA," says Francisco Hernandez Juarez, STRM's secretary-general. "If we can establish common strategies, ... we'll both benefit." Sharing information about union contracts, new technology, and management practices is envisioned. "With one company handling the calls between Texas and Mexico," wonders a CWA official, "will management try to set up one bilingual operator service center on the Mexican side and pay lower wages? Working with the Mexican unions may minimize US layoffs." With the hope of influencing free-trade debate, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) is talking to telephone, electrical, pilot, and teacher unions in Mexico. Canadian and US unions would like labor and environmental standards included in the free-trade agreement. "We're reaching out to build relationships with virtually anybody that represents workers," says Ron Blackwell, ACTWU research director. "We want to work together to broaden the free-trade agenda." The US and Canadian coalitions of labor and environmental groups are working with the far-less-influential "Mexican Action Network on Free Trade" here. Included are relatively small independent unions like the Frente Autentico de Trabajo (FAT) and the "Democractic Current" in the Mexican teachers union. "We're meeting ... with people from Mexico and Canada to discuss parallel talks, where we'll develop counterproposals to put before Congress," Mr. Blackwell says. Manuel Garcia Urrutia of FAT says free trade "must include a social as well as a corporate agenda." Canadian and US unionists recognize the limited political sway of the Mexican Action Network and independent unions such as FAT. But Mexico's biggest labor bloc, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico (CTM), strongly supports Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's trade initiative. The US AFL-CIO, which has had ties with the CTM leadership for many years, has attempted in recent months to shake the CTM's steadfast support for free trade. The CTM has not budged. Most labor analysts, and US rank-and-file unionists who have had contact with the CTM, consider it more of a political arm of Mexico's ruling party than a democratic organization dedicated to worker health and safety. Even trade-union partnerships that are progressing are not without problems. Mr. Juarez, the telephone union leader, says "there is a certain attitude that 'we [in the US] know the problems [free trade will bring] and you don't. Some Mexican unionists also see their northern cousins' awakening concern for their welfare as mere political opportunism. "Are they going to be quite so interested in our well-being after the free-trade fight is over?"asks a telephone unionist. "US and Canadian interest will diminish," Juarez predicts. "But it won't fall to previous levels. Economic integration is going to force us to have a better understanding of one another." FAT's Mr. Garcia is not concerned about US or Canadian motives. "Closer ties are a necessity with or without a free-trade agreement," he says. "Working conditions require them. It's an irreversible trend." Among US workers a "fraternizing with the enemy" skepticism remains toward union leaders' policy of cross-border detente. To counter this, the ACTWU has brought Mexican workers up to talk with workers in eastern Tennessee, an area hard hit by factories relocating south of the Rio Grande. The union plans to take US workers down to visit Mexican workers in Matamoros later this year. "It's easy to take the view we're against Mexican workers," says Blackwell. "It's much harder to take that position after you know Mexicans and their working conditions. Then the issue turns to what can we do together."

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