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Transnational Unionism

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For several decades, labor has flirted with transnational unionism as a way to combat globalization and the loss of jobs in the United States. American unions began showing interest in other nations during the Cold War, when George Meany made fighting communism at home and abroad his number one priority. The more beneficial ideas of transnational unionism came out of the 1970s and 1980s, when it became clear that companies had shattered the post-war peace pact with workers and were moving as many jobs as possible overseas.

These transnational efforts have always had problems on the local level. Workers have tended to blame others for stealing their jobs (even though many of the newly closed factories had in fact opened as part of a similar process when companies looked to escape Northeast unions by moving operations to the Midwest or South). Anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner bias got in the way and language problems and the lack of a clear goal hampered their effectiveness.

Yet the idea persists and here’s an interesting piece by Kari Lydersen about how the United Steelworkers of America are trying again to establish international solidarity:

For the past six years, the Steelworkers have been motivated by the idea that fighting for better wages and conditions in Mexico is not only an act of solidarity, but could also protect U.S. jobs by bridging the chasm between labor costs and relieving the pressure for northern migration.

“Between us, Canada and Mexico the relationship is very tangible,” says Jim Robinson, director of USW District 7, which covers Indiana and Illinois. “We have two countries with roughly the same standards and one country with much lower standards. That creates a tremendous drag down on wages and working conditions in the U.S. We need to support Mexican workers so we’ll be on a level playing field.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 manufacturing workers in Mexico made only $3.93 an hour on average compared to $23.03 for workers in the United States.

The “current wave of solidarity,” as USW International Affairs Director Ben Davis calls it, was sparked by the Mineros’ support of U.S. Steelworkers who were on strike at Asarco copper mining and smelting operations in Arizona in 2005. Many Mineros members work at mines and other operations owned by the politically-connected company Grupo Mexico, which owns Asarco. A solidarity agreement between the two unions was signed that year. Now, when an employer is hostile to the union on one side of the border, members on the other side can apply pressure through letter-writing, picketing at consulates and public-awareness campaigns.

The Mineros are one of the few independent unions in Mexico. The PRI brought in the unions as part of the revolutionary government from the beginning which both increased union power and made them clients of the government. Although the PRI has lost power (though it will probably win it back in 2012 elections), most unions remain under control of the state. The Mineros are not part of this corporatist package, meaning that it is a real threat to the Mexican government’s drive toward neoliberalism with all the requisite attacks on worker rights and environmental conditions.

As Lydersen suggests, this particular cross-border unionism has greater potential than many campaigns for a couple of reasons. First, the miners have a long tradition of radicalism. The I.W.W. was heavily involved with their ancestors during the 1900s and 1910s. A strike in these mines helped spark the 1910 Mexican Revolution. This radicalism remains strong today, in no small part because working conditions are still outrageously atrocious. Second, these mines are just over the U.S.-Mexico border, meaning that there has always been a lot of cross-border traffic with these workers. Mexican miners have long made up a large percentage of the labor force in the mines of Arizona, often traveling north when conditions got too bad at home. Some have moved from the mines to steel mills and mines farther north, including in the upper Midwest where the USWA made its home. Thus, a lot of connections already exist. The location also helps in that the mines are in a relatively tangible place for steelworkers in the United States, making these connections more accessible for the Americans.

It remains unclear how useful this cross-border solidarity will be for the American workers. It’s clearly key for the Mexicans, who have thrived under USWA support. This is a campaign and a trend worth watching as we rethink the future of the American labor movement.

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