Union leaders from Mexico and the United States are struggling to find a mutually acceptable way to resolve an awful dilemma.
They want to stop the disgraceful exploitation of Mexican workers by U.S. manufacturers in their plants south of the border and to halt the exportation of American jobs to those facilities.
On the other hand, they don't want to slow the dramatic increase in employment at the maquiladora plants because workers in Mexico still need jobs urgently.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is expected to name a task force of top American union leaders next week to meet soon with their counterparts in the Mexican labor federation, the CTM, to discuss the matter.
Union leaders from California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona met last month in El Paso to formulate U.S. proposals for the Mexicans, and the issue will be considered next week at the national AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue said some preliminary talks in Mexico City in December between unionists from both countries produced agreement that "we must map joint plans to counter the exploitation of workers on both sides of the border."
Achieving that admirable goal, however, won't be easy.
Mexico is poor; its unemployment is high; underemployment is almost universal among those with jobs; its inflation rate is devastating, and the country has a huge foreign debt. But the foreign-owned plants along the border, the fastest-growing sector of the Mexican economy, provide some hope for the nation.
Maquiladoras derive their name from the fee, or maquila , Mexican millers collect for processing grain. As they operate today, maquiladoras usually take parts from the United States or Asia, assemble them in Mexico and ship them to nearby finishing plants in the United States.
There now are nearly 1,000 maquiladora plants employing almost 300,000 Mexicans, up a whopping 40% from a year ago. The current numbers are even more astonishing when compared to the 57 plants with 4,000 workers that were included in the maquiladora system when it began in 1965 under a Mexican program designed to attract foreign capital.
The plants generate an estimated $2 billion in foreign currency, which means they are Mexico's second-largest source of foreign money after petroleum sales. If the maquiladora expansion continues at its present rate, the plants will employ as many as 3 million workers in a dozen years.
So why then are Mexican union leaders unhappy about the foreign-owned plants?
For one thing, most of them are subsidiaries of giant multinational companies including General Electric, with 16 plants, RCA, Rockwell, Zenith, Hughes Aircraft, Eastman Kodak and others that can afford to offer good wages, especially by Mexico's standards.
While U.S. companies still have by far the most plants, more and more firms from other countries are opening plants in Mexico too. Such Japanese giants as Sanyo, Sony, Matsushita and Hitachi also want the cheap labor.
Mexican unionists are justifiably disgusted that the maquiladoras pay workers from 40 cents to 70 cents an hour, relying heavily on women, particularly young women, who are willing to accept the low pay.
The U.S. companies pay 10 times more than that to workers in this country and up to three times more in such notoriously low-wage countries as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The unionists of both countries must step up efforts to stop such exploitation.
The maquiladora system also weakens the Mexican unions.
Foreign owners of maquiladoras vigorously and usually successfully oppose efforts to unionize their Mexican workers. Fewer than 10% of the maquiladora plant workers are union members, compared to about 25% in Mexico's overall work force.
The U.S. and Mexican governments encourage the maquiladoras with everything from special breaks on taxes and tariffs to massive aid to the multinational corporations in the form low rent for land and buildings in Mexico.
For American workers, the impact is clear: Americans are losing jobs because U.S. companies are closing plants or failing to expand plants here so that they instead can operate maquiladoras and take advantage of the shockingly low labor costs.
Cooperation between the U.S and Mexican union leaders can help relieve the maquiladora dilemma, one part of America's vast complex of international trade problems. Ultimately, they must bring into their talks unions from Japan and other nations using the border plants.
For starters, the American and Mexican unionists should listen to the ideas of the AFL-CIO's Donahue. He calls for implementation of the original concept of the maquiladoras, meaning that each plant on the Mexican side of the border would have a sister plant on the U.S. side, providing jobs for American workers.