Not All Strawberries and Cream

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Review of 'The Children of Nafta', David Bacon, University of California £18.95

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) has been destructive of the lives of workers in Canada, the US and Mexico. This excellent history focuses particularly on the Mexican connections. But Bacon's reach is broad - he is an activist as well as a journalist and photographer. He writes movingly of the courageous union organisers who are the central characters of this story and of the social movements and strikes provoked by Nafta in both Mexico and the US. Of these, by far the most important are the new, imaginative and potentially enormously powerful strategies for cross-border organising. They offer models of 'global unionism' for trade unionists and anti-capitalists everywhere.

The Nafta agreement in effect ratified dramatic economic changes that have been taking place in Mexico since the global recession of the early 1970s. The Mexican government was increasingly pressed by foreign debt. It was forced to drop the protectionist policies, labour laws, and welfare and educational programmes put in place after the Mexican Revolution, and to open the country to privatisation and foreign investment. Now US agribusinesses in Mexico use child labour to produce cheap strawberries for US supermarkets. The maquiladora industry are foreign-owned factories that exploit low-wage Mexican workers to produce for export. They employ more than a million Mexicans in some 3,800 factories along the US/Mexican border. But these 'throwaway' workers have not been passive. They have battled for wages, work safety, secure housing and clean water. They have fought for transport and protection for young women in Juarez, where some 300 have already been murdered, and another 450 disappeared in the past decade.

Nafta has made factory relocation easy and profitable. As capital moved south, workers in the US lost their jobs. In a sad irony, some of these were the same people who had risked death to cross the border and enter the US as illegal migrants. Others were among the itinerant labourers who had dared to organise and win the great 1973 grape strike by the United Farm Workers. And yet others were among the first activists to follow their own former employers south and make contact with comrades in newly relocated factories in Mexico. Bacon brings these people and their struggles alive.

Threats of relocation have also squeezed US workers far from the border harder and harder in increasingly difficult and dangerous work settings. Some of these workers have moved to the right. They have become protectionist and bought into the racist rhetoric that blames Mexican workers for taking US jobs. Other US workers have gone the other way, and have seen neoliberal capitalism for what it is-a system which uses the wage to play workers against each other.

Bacon describes the labour organisations that have grown in response to the threat of free trade, the response of the US trade union federation the AFL-CIO, and the American congressmen who have taken up the cause of workers south of the border. International working class solidarity has become 'a set of practical and political problems confronting workers in the border plants themselves. And a powerful support movement has been organised to help them solve these problems.' Yet gross inequalities remain between ordinary workers and their unions, and the multinationals, banks and governments. The only way forward is international organisation, where a corporation doing business in 15 countries can be confronted by labour in each of those places. As Benedicto Martinez, the general secretary of Fat, the independent union which has been a model for progressives along the border, put it, 'In certain industries, the process of organising happens in a certain way, while in others it's totally different. We have to prepare, long in advance, the international relationships that will enable us to survive attacks from the government and the [corporations].'