Date: Thu, 30 Oct 97 10:05:35 CST
From: rich%pencil@VMA.CC.ND.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NACLA: Unions Globalizing
/** nacla.report: 310.4 **/
NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June 1997
For every Mexican, Central American or Caribbean worker who migrates to the United States, another is hired by a U.S. firm that has migrated southward. Companies in virtually all industries have discovered that geographical mobility can have substantial payoffs, and have become adept at playing desperately poor countries and workers off against one another, convincing their hosts (and workforce) that awful jobs are better than none.
Not only cheap labor, but low (or no) taxes and tariffs, and lax (or no) health, safety and environmental regulations have attracted U.S. firms to areas of the world not covered by the gains won by U.S. labor, environmental and other progressive activists over the last century. In turn, a variety of free-trade agreements have given those firms the same access to the lucrative U.S. market they would have if they were still producing in New Jersey or North Carolina. A new productive sector defined by a variety of free-trade arrangements with the United States (ranging from designated "free-trade zones" to in-bond maquila production) has attracted thousands of U.S. firms to areas in the Caribbean and Central America, as well as - of course - to Mexico.
The sobering news for these companies is that U.S. unions are beginning to follow the work to other countries. The Teamsters, United Electrical Workers (UE), Communications Workers of America (CWA) and, among the most active in the free-trade zones, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), have established working relations with their counterparts abroad to deal with this internationalization of production. UNITE's concern is the half-million unorganized apparel workers in Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico working for companies that sell exclusively to the U.S. market.
This past March, the union held a press conference at its New York headquarters announcing its support for local organizing drives in Central America and the Caribbean - particularly Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. "There is not a single collective-bargaining agreement in a maquiladora in Guatemala,"
UNITE president Jay Mazur told the press conference, "but we are hopeful there will soon be a breakthrough." The breakthrough came a few days later when Phillips Van Heusen, a major U.S. employer in the maquila sector, recognized the union which had organized its workers, and pledged to negotiate a contract. The rest of Guatemala's 80,000 maquila workers, however, remain without labor contracts.
In the free-trade zones of the Dominican Republic - in which 140,000 out of 170,000 workers are in the apparel industry - there was not a single agreement until 1994. In that year, a contract was signed with a small subcontractor for a U.S. label in the Bonao free- trade zone. At UNITE's New York headquarters, a union official was optimistic that the Bonao agreement would usher in a period of union successes in the Dominican free-trade zones.
"International organization and pressure is the key," says Mazur.
"Laws have to follow trade, and follow work." As UNITE follows the work to other countries, it keeps a low profile, concentrating on building consumer solidarity back home and on providing advice and support for host-country unions. In many Latin American countries, the legacy of U.S. domination is a hard one for a U.S. union - even a union as progressive as UNITE - to shake off. Union officials say this legacy is exaggerated. When they get attacked, they say, it's not from the left but from the right, and, they emphasize, the attacks are not meant to defend sovereignty but to neutralize attempts to organize.
Even so, the union never goes in by itself. Rather, it establishes a "strategic partnership" with a local union, frequently affiliated with the same international trade secretariat - in UNITE's case the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, based in Brussels - so that the relation is more clearly one of solidarity.
UNITE has deep roots in New York City, the old center of apparel production for the U.S. market. For a century, the union's precursors - the ILGWU and the ACTWU - have "followed the work," as manufacturers and their subcontractors, or "jobbers," tried to escape union jurisdiction by moving further and further from the city. While New Jersey and Pennsylvania were once considered foreign territory for the apparel unions, the last few decades have considerably expanded the industry's geographic scope. Once again, the union is catching up - this time internationally. As transnational capital increasingly considers the globe its home, labor is following suit. "We don't consider ourselves to be intervening in the affairs of a foreign country," says Mazur. "We have a right to be there, pressing for worker rights." And the union, says Mazur, has a right to exhort workers of all countries to defend themselves against the depredations of companies of all countries, especially when those companies are producing for the U.S. market. "And that," he says, "is our message: Workers of the world, join UNITE."
Reprinted from the May/June 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas. For subscription information, E-Mail to email@example.com