Report on Mexico Forum: “Workers Facing NAFTA 2.0”

(reprinted from August 2020 issue of Transición)

On July 15, the online forum « Workers Facing NAFTA 2.0, » organized by the New Workers Central (Nueva Central de Trabajadores, or NCT), a new independent labor federation in Mexico, was held with the goal of orienting workers on the consequences that the implementation of this new treaty will bring for them.

This event had a binational character. The participants from Mexico were Dr. Cirila Quintero, researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, and Hector de la Cueva, coordinator of CILAS [Labor Research and Trade Union Advisory Center]. U.S. participants were Alan Benjamin, union delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council (AFL CIO), and Al Rojas, vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, LCLAA – Sacramento chapter. The forum was broadcast on Facebook live. Members of the NCT National Executive Committee participated through the Zoom platform.

Dr. Cirila Quintero

Dr. Cirila Quintero, a specialist in labor relations, explained the transformations experienced on the border as a result of the implementation of the initial NAFTA treaty, in particular the proliferation of the maquiladora pass-through, sweatshop industries.

She insisted that the low wages are due to a deliberate policy, agreed to by the government, the charro [company] unions, and the corporations. She said it is a lie that companies leave Mexico because of labor disputes, explaining that, « the closing of factories has had to do with variations in demand for their products at the international level, as a consequence of the crises of 1995, 1999 and 2008. What’s involved is a competition between state governments [in Mexico] to see who can offer the lowest wages, and who gives more subsidies or land to the maquiladoras.« 

Dr. Quintero concluded by explaining that, despite the legal changes with the new labor law, « what really counts in obtaining higher wages is the organization of workers and the enforcement of rights and contracts, and for that, it is necessary to think as a united working class in all three countries.” She concluded by addressing the NCT leaders and members and asking them to put this issue of union organizing at the center of their agenda.

Alan Benjamin

In his presentation, Alan Benjamin discussed the expected consequences of NAFTA 2.0 for the U.S. and Mexico labor movements. He began by stating that the views he was about to present were his own and not necessarily those of the San Francisco Labor Council. He stated:

« The original NAFTA treaty has been a disaster for workers in all three countries — with massive job losses, deregulation, privatization, and loss of sovereignty in Mexico, in particular. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), in his joint press conference in Washington with Donald Trump, explained that the new ‘free trade’ agreement — known officially as US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, but more aptly called NAFTA 2.0 — represented a ‘significant improvement’ over its predecessor. AMLO highlighted the new treaty’s Labor Rights Chapter 23, and especially its Section 10, which ‘stipulates that there are tribunals where any worker with a complaint can come before the body and demand enforcement of ILO Convention 89.’

“This all sounds very good, but the reality is quite different. There is an institutional framework in Mexico, with an entire bureaucratic apparatus, which prevents the language codified on paper in the treaty and in Mexico’s own labor legislation from becoming a reality. The examples today, more than two years after Labor Law Reform was enacted, are countless; you know them better than I do. This is no accident. By its very nature NAFTA 2.0 is a corporate agreement that seeks to lower wages, benefits, and the level of unionization. It’s an agreement that seeks to remove any ‘barriers to free trade,’ such as state-owned industries and public services.

« In the United States, many unions have taken issue with the ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) clause in the new treaty, which was held over from the original NAFTA agreement. ISDS protects U.S. investors and corporations. Should Mexico decide to re-regulate or renationalize its oil extraction and processing, for instance, the investors’ complaint would be taken to an international tribunal and the renationalization would be reversed through the ISDS clause, which has been given primacy over all other clauses in the treaty and over the signatory nations’ own labor laws. The treaty has been written in such a way that any and all challenges to the U.S.-owned transnational corporations will be defeated. The ISDS clause is a central pillar of the new treaty.

« NAFTA 2.0 will not make it easier to organize independent trade unions, notwithstanding all claims by its supporters that the new labor provisions are a step forward. It’s only the struggle for labor rights and independent unionism across borders by labor and its allies that will secure our rights and enable us to make new gains. So what do we do? We mobilize, build broad-based cross-border alliances — and we prepare the terrain to repeal NAFTA 2.0.”

Hector de la Cueva

Hector de la Cueva was the next to address the gathering:

« It is hard to believe that the inauguration of USMCA, or NAFTA 2.0, is being celebrated widely by social sectors and people who say they are on the left and who even opposed NAFTA in the past. …

« With respect to AMLO: One can understand that there is a pragmatic commitment in the immediate future regarding the crisis and the pandemic. One could think that the treaty might give us some breathing space. However, in the name of such a short-term reprieve the future of Mexico is being compromised. It is presented as a panacea for the country’s economic development when in fact it represents a huge obstacle to Mexico’s economic development.

« We already have the experience of more than 25 years of NAFTA, and none of the promises were kept. We were told that we were going to be in the First World, and we are still in the Third World. The economic results are disastrous, even according to official figures; these are the years with the lowest GDP growth. It is said that we have become an export power, but what is not said is that these are U.S. companies that import and export to themselves and only use Mexico as a platform to reduce costs.

« The maquiladoras grew, but they do not feed the productive chains because 90% of their inputs are imported. … NAFTA caused a disaster in the countryside that led to a giant wave of emigration. Better wages were promised, and in these years of the treaty 75% of the purchasing power was lost. Where is the economic success? There are only a few aspects that we could call « positive, » such as the Labor Chapter, but this is nothing more than a beautiful mole on a monstrous body, and besides, there is nothing in that chapter that involves increasing wages. »

Al Rojas

Al Rojas highlighted the effects of NAFTA on agricultural workers on both sides of the border, in particular the agricultural day laborers who have been denied the right to sign collective-bargaining agreements, and this, in a sector that is highly exploited.

Rojas denounced the fact that the governments of the three signatory countries are seeking to expand the guest-worker programs, which he called « true modern-day slavery legalized by the employers.”

« Good wages will not be achieved through this treaty,’ he said, “they will only be achieved when there is a real right to organize in independent unions, and there is real enforcement, not paper endorsement, of labor rights.” He explained that the Democratic Party has lobbied for the approval of NAFTA 2.0, defending the interests of the corporations from which it receives massive funding for its election campaigns. Rojas called for support for farm workers in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, in particular by joining the campaign to boycott the Driscoll’s corporation.

Both Alan Benjamin and Al Rojas invited the NCT to participate in the next Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0 and the Wall of Shame, to be held October 10 in the Mexican border city of Tecate, B.C., and by zoom for those unable to travel. Some of those attending the NCT forum pledged to attend the conference and continue this work.

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