By Perlita R. Dicochea
Acclaimed journalist and photographer, David Bacon, discussed his newly released book, “The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border,” and presented dozens of photographs of labor struggles in Mexico and Iraq on Wednesday. Himself a labor organizer of 20 years, Bacon’s book focuses on the experiences and analyses of the workers on both sides of the border who continue to fight for better wages and work conditions despite the devastating economic impacts of NAFTA.
“That’s what this book is really about,” Bacon said to an audience of 100 activists and organizers, “the exchange of ideas that’s going back and forth across the border.”
Bacon has been witness to many strikes and demonstrations in Mexico, along the border, and throughout California developing personal relationships with the workers he has interviewed over the last ten years.
“I am really moved by the willingness of workers in maquiladoras to fight for better conditions under dire circumstances. It is a testament to their courage,” Bacon assessed.
The dire circumstances include 507,000 jobs officially certified as lost due to NAFTA as of 2002. The U.S. Department of Labor and state unemployment offices certify applications for the NAFTA-related Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. Under the NAFTA-TAA program workers can apply for unemployment and other benefits if they can prove their job loss was due to NAFTA.
Furthermore, increased foreign investment in Mexico and an increased labor force for which private companies desire low wages are ripe conditions for jeopardizing Mexico’s labor laws. Cases in point, the privatization of Mexico’s airlines, railroads, and telephone lines entailed the demise of each industry’s unions.
Tanja Winter, Co-Chair of the Peace and Democracy Task Force, said David Bacon’s work addresses the concerns of the Task Force. “We host many events that focus on Latino-related issues and border issues,” Winter said. “We live so close (to the Mexican border), we have a responsibility to pay attention to border issues and to be a good neighbor.”
Winter added that labor struggles in general are important concerns of the Task Force. “Labor is an invisible issue. (The Task Force) is against the exploitation of people in other countries and opposed to all policies that oppress working people,” Winter said.
The Task Force’s efforts to bring David Bacon provided an opportunity for San Diego’s Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity Network host a reception to discuss current labor issues in the Tijuana/San Diego area in a more intimate setting the following day.
Enrique Davalos, community college instructor and organizer/activist for the Workers’ Information Center (CITTAC) in Tijuana, was among those present at both the lecture and reception. Davalos has a vested interest in promoting The Children of NAFTA as a labor organizer himself.
“This is a very important book that sums up the last ten years of border labor issues. (The book) helps us discuss our own situations and move forward.” Davalos sees the fight of the maquiladora workers as a very international and optimistic one even as he admits that the repression workers face in Tijuana is very powerful.
“The protagonists of (Bacon’s) book are the workers. And what we see is that little by little the struggle is gaining force. We are in a moment where worker’s movements are becoming stronger and more experienced,” Davalos said.
Davalos concurs with Bacon that signs of tenacity and experience are abundant. “There are strikes all along the border that over the last ten years have become more intense and frequent,” Bacon asserted. The Children of NAFTA captures the development of workers’ consciousness that enables such intensity and frequency.
The Iraqi Labor Connection
While Bacon’s book centers on NAFTA and border labor issues, he argued more broadly that neo-liberal economic policies have similar impacts throughout the developing world. Homeless children living on the streets of Baghdad are, for Bacon, the connection between Mexican and Iraqi labor issues similarly impacted by privatization.
“These children could be sleeping in Tijuana or Manila,” Bacon maintained. During his recent visit to Bagdad, Bacon witnessed the dire poverty in which most of the city, 70% of whose residents are unemployed, now live.
“It’s an extreme case of what we have already seen…One kilo of potatoes is $1.30 but emergency funds are $60 a month. What plan does the Iraqi Occupation have for the working people?” Bacon pressed.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bacon said many workers began re-organizing unions and strikes, which were illegal activities under the old regime. Yet occupying authorities also refuse the right to organize unions to Iraqi workers. “If you strike in Iraq,” Bacon said, “you are held as a Prisoner of War.” Even so, Bacon said, labor demonstrations and organizing activities continue in the war-ravaged country.
The bottom line for Bacon is that human rights must include social and economic rights. But, Bacon argues, the U.S.’s current plan for Iraq disregards the latter two. “Is this free trade at gunpoint? We are destroying a society and letting private company’s rebuild it. These are the basic causes of poverty in Iraq.”
Bacon concludes that global economic developments, or new world economic order, are not new as they follow the principles and motivations of historical colonizing methods of conquest and exploitation. “We need to wonder what the intentions of this war are,” Bacon contended.
Bacon’s presentation was organized by the Peace and Democracy Task Force, a non-profit founded after 9/11 to address local and global social issues. Although the Task Force grew out of the Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, half of its members are not members of the Unitarian church.
For more information on David Bacon’s writing and photography visit http://dbacon.igc.org.
For more information on the Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego visit http://www.uusc.org.
To get in touch with the San Diego Maquiladora Worker’s Solidarity Network write to firstname.lastname@example.org.