The fierce battle that U.S. unions waged against the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite ending in bitter defeat, may give new vigor to the American labor movement.
Unions emerged from the fight against NAFTA with new potential allies, both at home and across international borders. Just as important, labor leaders found an issue that had mass appeal and attracted substantial grass-roots support--backing that unions could harness for future conflicts, labor officials and researchers said.
"This anti-NAFTA grass-roots wildfire movement is the first real grass-roots movement that labor has started in the last 15 or 20 years," said Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer and author of a 1991 book on the U.S. labor movement.
Moreover, the movement may have learned a valuable lesson in the NAFTA struggle: Unions are far more influential when they link themselves to broad social causes than when they pursue what appear to be narrow, self-serving special interests.
For instance, unions cast their fight as a bid to protect the environment along with workers' rights and wages. Unionists joined local anti-NAFTA networks that included environmentalists and consumer groups.
U.S. workers also discovered an ally where they had previously seen only a rival, in Mexican unions, especially those struggling to break free of government control.
When U.S. union leaders organized a caravan last fall to visit 50 California cities to drum up opposition to NAFTA, they invited Raul Marquez, a leader of Mexico's Authentic Workers Front, a 25,000-member independent federation.
Marquez became a major attraction as he talked about poor working conditions and miserly wages in U.S.-owned factories in Mexico. The Mexican union activists became such an integral part of the anti-NAFTA campaign that Teamster President Ron Carey, in his statement after passage of the agreement, pledged to expand efforts to support them.
As a practical matter, union leaders said, the House's vote on NAFTA and the anticipated Senate approval will spur stepped up cross-border labor organizing efforts. Most Mexican unions are government-dominated, but in recent years, U.S. unions have been reaching out to emerging independent unions in Mexico.
"We'll see stronger calls for U.S. labor participation from independent (Mexican) unions. That's been going on for five or 10 years, but with NAFTA the need will increase very much so," said Victor M. Munoz, a cross-border union representative for the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles.
But he also conceded that there is powerful self-interest involved in helping Mexican workers organize: Stronger unions in Mexico could lead to higher wages and better working conditions, which in turn could raise business costs and slow the expected flight of capital and jobs from this country.
Other labor organizers are skeptical about the progress of cross-border efforts.
"A lot of it, to be frank, is just pretty words at this point," said David Young, the assistant national organizing director for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
That has to change once NAFTA takes effect on Jan. 1, said Manuel Fuentes, a Mexico City labor lawyer.
"Lack of communication among unions has benefited the multinationals that operate in the three countries," he said. "Unions must start exchanging information and setting common negotiating strategies."
He expects common efforts to start with an effort to strengthen the labor side deal to NAFTA and to extend to contract negotiations with multinationals.
The Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee has already successfully coordinated with its counterparts in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa in contract negotiations with Campbell Soup Co. Campbell's U.S. and Mexican contracts are both up for renegotiation next year, and union leaders on both sides of the border are already in contact to develop a common strategy, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the U.S. farm workers union.
He plans to visit central Mexico in February to meet with Mexican workers who pick cucumbers for Vlasic pickles, which also employs FLOC members.
Mexico is the logical place for the U.S. labor movement to start. Besides the new impulse provided by NAFTA, many U.S. union members were born in Mexico or have family ties to the country.
In any case, for the labor movement on both sides of the border, the Mexican work force represents a big growth opportunity. While about 25% of the Mexican work force is unionized, compared to a U.S. level of just less than 16%, unionization rates are far lower at U.S. companies operating in Mexico, Munoz said.
Darling reported from Mexico City and Silverstein from Los Angeles.