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NAFTA’s Knife: Class Warfare Across the U.S.-Mexico Border

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based organizing and education center formed to raise awareness in the United States of issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. He is also a board member of the Monthly Review Foundation and a longtime labor activist.

David Bacon, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 348 pages, cloth $27.50.

I once heard a discussion about the first sentences of books and those sentences that were among the most famous and most powerful. The opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was among the most popular. David Bacon’s first sentence in chapter one of his book must now rank among the most gripping: “NAFTA repeatedly plunged a knife into José Castillo’s heart.”

Bacon’s book, as it is subtitled, is about a war. This is a war that is as merciless as any conflict with arms. Yet this does not concern either a conventional or unconventional (guerrilla) war. It concerns the combination of class and national struggles taking place on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The U.S.-Mexico border has always been a complicated region, geopolitically and economically. The current border is the legacy of the land grab by the United States through its victory in the 1846–1848 war of aggression against Mexico. The border was for years very permeable, and subject to the influences of politics in both countries. Mexicans regularly crossed the border in either direction, and even with the passage of time and the development of a Chicano people in the United States, the connections remained.

The importance of the border has evolved, as Bacon demonstrates through his various essays, and by the 1960s the border was rapidly growing more important to both countries. The creation of maquiladoras, factories created for export processing, offering very low wages, attracted U.S. capital as well as the migration of job-seeking Mexican workers (and often, former farmers) in search of an improved livelihood. The ability of U.S. and other multinational corporations to exploit this situation has become legendary. Not only were new operations established, but U.S.-based companies soon began moving in toto to this region.

Yet Bacon’s book does not simply focus on these economic changes. Fundamentally, this is a book about human beings and their capacity to struggle under very adverse conditions. Sensing an opportunity for enrichment, the once progressive PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the ruling party of Mexico for over 70 years) not only encouraged the growth of low-wage employment along the border, but also collaborated with employers to suppress organization efforts within this workforce. Sweetheart agreements were arranged between various employers and PRI-aligned unions. These unions, workers’ organizations in name only, siphoned off dues but did nothing to represent the interests of their members. In response, progressive alternative forms of organization began to develop, including independent unions. Perhaps the most well-known independent union movement has been the Authentic Workers Front (the Spanish acronym is FAT), though there are other such federations and individual unions.

The Children of NAFTA takes the reader to the maquiladoras and to the workers employed there. It also examines the situation on the U.S. side of the border and the impact that NAFTA, and the neoliberal globalization that spawned it, have had on workers in the factories and the fields. As such, the book is a clarion call for international working-class solidarity. Such solidarity, to borrow from the words of the late president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, is not about charity, but about identifying common interests. Like few other books, Bacon successfully demonstrates how the material basis for such solidarity currently exists, and details the steps that progressive forces on both sides of the border are undertaking to address it.

While The Children of NAFTA is an outstanding and compelling book, it left me reflective and, to some extent, perplexed. The gritty, intense struggles for workers’ rights on the border, as well as for national self-determination in Mexico, call forth admiration and demand our support. Yet, while Bacon details the actions that have been taken by Mexican and U.S. workers in opposition to the avarice of capital, the matter of strategy is not considered in any depth.

As Bacon would be the first to acknowledge, U.S. capital has moved or established manufacturing facilities in Mexico that, to a great extent, can be relocated yet again. Additionally, through the existence of NAFTA, thousands of Mexican farmers have had their livelihoods destroyed, and thousands of Mexican workers have often seen their employment, whether in the public or private sector, weakened or eliminated. Beyond supporting workers or farmers in particular fights, what should be the direction for those seeking an alternative to neoliberal globalization? Additionally, what steps, if any, can be taken to constrain or restrain capital mobility in this period?

At the end of The Children of NAFTA I found myself concluding two things. First, cross-border solidarity is far more than the rhetoric of internationalism. It also requires more than support rallies. It must involve the creation of organizations and institutions that can serve as a venue for the sort of strategic planning and coordination necessary to address multinational capital. The international trade union secretariats, created in the early years of the 20th century and largely based in Western Europe, are supposed to serve such a function, but too many of them are hopelessly stuck in bureaucracy or continue to carry with them the stench of Cold War trade unionism. Thus, at issue for progressive forces is whether these institutions can be transformed or whether newer formations must be brought into existence. This is further complicated by the need to address more than just the formal working class, but to embrace farmers, the permanently unemployed and other social sectors that are being crushed by neoliberalism.

The second conclusion concerns the importance of political struggle and state power. In the midst of the ongoing crisis of socialism, it became popular for postmodern and poststructuralist movements to disdain the question of state power. In fact, the Zapatistas have often been upheld by poststructuralist allies in the Global North for their alleged abdication of the struggle for state power in Mexico. Whether the Zapatistas have done so is a matter for another discussion, but it does become clear both in reading Bacon’s book and also in studying neoliberal globalization, that this phenomenon of capitalist restructuring is not the result of some natural evolution, but rather a combination of political decisions that were made over a period of time in order to address the stagnation of capitalism.

Reaching such a conclusion means that who occupies state power, and how such state power is exercised, remain critical questions for all those who consider themselves progressive or left. This is true whether one is speaking of reform administrations that make it possible for workers to exercise their right to self-organization, or of more radically-directed governments that are attempting to create an alternative socioeconomic paradigm. It is for this reason that the Bush administration is so deeply concerned with, and wishes to undermine, the efforts in Brazil and Venezuela to break with the so-called Washington Consensus and chart a different course for regional development.

Even without a full exploration of these issues, The Children of NAFTA remains an exceptionally well-written, compelling story of struggle and of hope. The book can serve to promote countless discussions regarding neoliberal globalization, class struggle, and the efforts to create a different world for not only the people of the Global South, but those of us in the Global North as well.

This book is to be applauded, as are the companeros and companeras—on both sides of the border—who, often in the face of overwhelming opposition, tyranny, and tragedy, have not and will not forget the class struggle.