English
International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

The Working Class and the US-Mexico Trade Pact

Bill Van Auken

This article originally appeared in the “Bulletin” on May 24, 1991

The proposed free-trade agreement between the US and Mexico poses before the workers of both countries the burning need to join together their struggles across the Rio Grande against the joint conspiracies of crisis-ridden US imperialism and the corrupt and servile Mexican national bourgeoisie.

The plan to break down trade barriers between the US and Mexico is bound up with the preparation of the sharpest attacks on jobs, working conditions and basic rights of the working class on both sides of the border.

Workers can defend their class interests only by forging an unbreakable unity between the Mexican and American labor movements in the fight to put an end to capitalism.

The fight for such a revolutionary internationalist program is inseparable from an uncompromising war against the foul chauvinism of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which opposes free trade with Mexico not from the standpoint of the proletariat, but that of the most backward and reactionary sections of the US bourgeoisie.

Behind the proposed free trade pact is the drive by US imperialism to reinforce the subjugation of not only Mexico, but all of Latin America to the demands of its crisis-ridden economy. It seeks unrestricted access to the continent’s markets, raw materials and supplies of “cheap” labor. Above all, the American ruling class is determined to restore the undisputed sway of Yankee imperialism over the Western Hemisphere, to the exclusion of its imperialist rivals in Europe and Japan.

Far from representing some progressive economic integration fostered by a capitalist “new world order,” the attempt to dispense with trade barriers between the US and Mexico is one of the many manifestations of the irrevocable breakdown of the old world order which was established by the imperialists after World War II.

The postwar settlement has broken down. Global production, under the control of giant multinational corporations and spurred forward by developments in computer technology, telecommunications and transportation, has intensified the most basic contradiction of capitalism in the imperialist epoch: the conflict between the growth of the world economy and the outmoded capitalist nation-state system.

The sharpest expression of this crisis is the loss by US imperialism of the undisputed economic hegemony which was the foundation of the postwar order. The precipitous decline of America’s industry, finance and share of the world market has turned the US into the world’s biggest debtor nation.

With the breakdown of US hegemony, world capitalism is once again fracturing into hostile trading blocs. The European bourgeoisie, under the domination of German capital, has organized itself in the European Community with the aim of establishing a unified internal market beginning in 1992. Japan has assumed leadership of an Asian-Pacific trading bloc. The American bourgeoisie is responding with trade policies aimed at creating a “fortress America” in preparation for all-out trade war and, ultimately, a new world conflagration.

Far from solving the capitalist crisis which has driven the US economy into a protracted recession and created conditions of abysmal poverty in Mexico, the agreement will only serve to intensify class conflicts in both countries.

The US multinationals aim to fortify their position on the world market against their rivals in Europe and Japan through the wholesale rationalization of industry. They plan to transfer whatever production possible to plants in Mexico, where there is an official unemployment rate of 20 percent (and a real figure far higher) and an official daily minimum wage of $3.25 (with the majority of workers receiving considerably less). The inevitable result will be the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs, the lowering of production costs and the driving of the weaker capitalist firms in Mexico, Canada and the US to the wall.

The opposition to the free trade agreement by the trade union bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO has nothing whatsoever to do with defending the interests of the American working class. In opposing the pact, the bureaucracy has aligned itself with the labor-hating agricultural growers, the textile sweatshop bosses and some of the most right-wing capitalist politicians in the country.

Its “America first” chauvinism in relation to the trade agreement follows in the traditions of the AFL’s racist campaign against the “yellow peril” of Chinese labor at the turn of the century and the equally reactionary demands of the present bureaucracy for an intensified crackdown against undocumented immigrant workers.

So right-wing is the Kirkland leadership’s campaign against the pact that even Bush has been able to hypocritically denounce the bureaucracy’s opposition as “racist.”

Nothing is more revolting than the bureaucracy’s pious claims that its opposition to the pact is motivated in part by its deep concern for the welfare of Mexican workers and opposition to their exploitation by US-based corporations. The well-heeled bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO and the UAW have testified before congressional committees with tears in their eyes about the conditions of their Mexican brothers.

For decades the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s “solidarity” with the workers of Mexico and all of Latin America has consisted in its full collaboration with the CIA and the US corporations in imposing and maintaining conditions of super-exploitation. Offering itself as a “labor front” for the CIA in outfits like the AIFLD, it has actively participated in the subversion of militant unions in Latin America and in propping up right-wing regimes which act as puppets of the US banks and corporations.

If the bureaucracy is so determined to defend the jobs of American workers and to oppose the exploitation of Mexican workers, why then does it not organize joint industrial action on both sides of the border? Never in history have such powerful conditions existed for uniting the struggles of the working class across national boundaries. In auto, electronics and other industries, workers in the US and Mexico are joined in the process of production of one and the same commodity, making such action not only possible but absolutely necessary to defend any of the basic rights of the working class.

But the US labor bureaucrats are mortally opposed to such a strategy. Their claim to be defending “American jobs” is just as much a reactionary fraud as their pretense of concern for the Mexican worker. Over the past decade this bureaucracy has collaborated fully with the auto, mining, steel and other industrial bosses in the destruction of more than 10 million workers’ jobs. The bureaucracy has assured the corporations “orderly plant shutdowns” and mass layoffs, acting as an industrial police to prevent any attempt by rank-and-file workers to defend their jobs through industrial action.

In their battle against the free trade pact, the bureaucracy defends not the interests of the working class, but its own parasitic and privileged position as a corporate fifth column inside the labor movement, working to subordinate American workers to the profit drive of their “own” exploiters at home.

The position of the union bureaucracy is based on reaction in the most fundamental sense of the word. Its position that the economy should be tightly reigned in by the national borders and protectionist barriers flies in the face of the actual process of global industrial integration produced by capitalism.

Its economic nationalism is inseparable from the bureaucracy’s corporatist collaboration with the capitalist employers. Its essential argument is that American capitalism has no need for “cheap labor” in Mexico because it can get it in the US itself, with the full collaboration of the AFL-CIO leadership.

In its propaganda campaign against the trade pact, the bureaucracy recently published a frontpage article in the AFL-CIO News approvingly quoting a statement from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) accusing US trade negotiators of selling out the US textile, auto and steel industries to Mexico.

It is no accident that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is fighting shoulder to shoulder against the trade pact with Helms, mouthpiece for the textile and tobacco industries, and one of the most reactionary, racist and anti-working class capitalist politicians in the country. This political bloc is based on a program of economic autarchy and national chauvinism which shares much in common with the fascist economic program of both Hitler and Mussolini.

For Mexico, the free trade pact will mean the destruction of a national economy which has already been decimated by the starvation policies of the International Monetary Fund and the Wall Street banks, together with the parasitism of their local agent, the venal Mexican bourgeoisie.

The Mexican ruling class has paved the way to the present pact by way of an unbroken policy of subservience to imperialism and a class war against the workers and oppressed at home. Since the outbreak of the debt crisis in the early 1980s, it has imposed IMF-dictated measures which have cut the real wages of Mexican working people in half. The pretensions of national self-sufficiency and independence from imperialism once advanced by the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) have been abandoned.

Barely a decade ago the Mexican government attacked the conception of a free trade pact with the US as an affront to the country’s national sovereignty. When the idea was first floated in the 1976 US election campaign, it was universally denounced as a CIA plot for the colonization of Mexico. Now the Mexican ruling class begs US imperialism to use the country as a free trade zone and to subject its masses to unrestrained exploitation.

The Salinas government has ruthlessly prosecuted a program initiated under the previous regime of President Miguel de la Madrid of lifting tariff barriers, price controls and restrictions on foreign investment. Hundreds of enterprises which were nationalized in the 1930s, like the telephone company, banking, steel and the airlines, are being privatized with the destruction of jobs and unions. Preparations are well under way to scrap the Mexican constitution’s guarantee of national control of the country’s petroleum reserves and to turn the oil industry, the principal source of Mexico’s export earnings, over to foreign capital. Control of these reserves is a major objective in Washington’s drive for the trade agreement.

The one area of growth in the Mexican economy has been the maquiladoras, the assembly plants which have been set up by the multinational corporations to take advantage of starvation wage rates. The number of such plants has risen from 605 in 1980 to 1,900 today and the maquiladora work force has gone from 120,000 to more than half a million during the same period.

These plants, which assemble parts and materials imported by the foreign capitalist owners only to send them back to the imperialist markets, are isolated from the national economy. They do not contribute to Mexico’s development, but serve only to make the country more dependent on US imperialism and to intensify the regional divisions within Mexico.

Conditions of super exploitation and low wages are maintained in the maquiladora plants themselves while, the corporations enjoy the complicity of the Mexican government in ignoring environmental laws and routinely dumping toxic wastes into rivers and the atmosphere. Pollution of the Nogales River by the maquiladoras has led to a 20-fold increase in cases of hepatitis across the border in Arizona and the declaration of a health emergency over the past six months.

The Mexican bourgeoisie, which once postured as the inheritor of the Mexican Revolution and defender of national dignity against the “colossus of the north,” openly extols these conditions as its main contribution to the free trade agreement.

Behind the claims that the pact will better the living conditions for the workers and oppressed in Mexico lie the interests of a thin layer of multimillionaires represented by the Salinas government. One recently published study revealed that barely 1,000 families control more than half the wealth of Mexico. Working as junior partners with US capital, this native ruling class will reap whatever share of wealth falls to Mexico through the rationalization of production and the super exploitation of Mexican workers.

Manuel Alonso, Mexico’s Consul General in New York and a prominent spokesman on the free trade pact in the US, recently spelled out the Salinas government’s position in a statement condemning opposition from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and others in the US on the grounds that it will destroy “American jobs.”

The maquiladoras, he stated, “have been fundamental in preventing many US firms from completely shutting their doors in the face of brutal competition from other countries, principally Japan, Korea and Europe.” US corporations, he went on, “are able to continue in the market, competing with Sony or Sansui, thanks to the cheap labor of Mexico.”

The Mexican government, he concluded, “wants to join an economic bloc which will allow Mexico, the United States and Canada, all three countries, not only Mexico, to confront the fierce competition of the Asian and European blocs.”

Cuahtemoc Cardenas, the leader of the bourgeois nationalist opposition party, the Partido de la Revolution Democrática, with the backing of the petty-bourgeois left and revisionist elements in Mexico, has attempted to pose as the defender of Mexican sovereignty against the trade pact. His political role is to mask the discredited face of bourgeois nationalism and to maintain its stranglehold over the working class and oppressed masses.

Recently Cardenas dropped his opposition to the pact and, instead, is insisting only that it include a “social charter” such as the one introduced into the agreement to unify the European internal market, supposedly safeguarding jobs, working conditions and the environment.

Nothing could more nakedly expose the historic bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism than this attempt by its “left” spokesman in Mexico to make an economic integration pact with US imperialism “equitable” by way of a few high-sounding amendments.

The official leadership of the Mexican labor movement, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, is fully aligned with the Mexican government and the ruling party and consequently supports the pact. The gangster bureaucracy of the CTM, led for nearly six decades by 91-year-old Fidel Velasquez, has long served both Mexican and foreign corporations by enforcing “labor discipline” and violently repressing militant trade union struggles.

The development of Mexico, from the 1910 revolution to the free trade agreement, has demonstrated in the clearest possible fashion the organic incapacity of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism to wage a consistent struggle against imperialism and achieve genuine national self-determination. Only the working class, leading the masses of oppressed peasants and poor behind it, and in unity with the workers of the US and the world, can free Mexico from backwardness and misery by means of the socialist revolution.

The attacks which are being prepared on workers throughout the Americas can only be answered by the working class establishing its complete independence from the bourgeoisie—both its protectionist and free trade wings—and uniting its struggles across national boundaries.

The genuine unification of the productive forces of the Americas and the world will never be carried out by the bourgeoisie. Capitalist private property is inseparably tied to the nation-state, and the bourgeoisie is organically incapable of wrenching itself from its national soil.

Only when production is liberated from the profit interests of the handful of corporate millionaires and billionaires and the national boundaries of the capitalist state system are tom down can the revolutionary advances in science and technology which have made global production possible be developed in a rational and progressive manner.

The only answer to the growing unemployment and misery and threat of war facing workers in the US, Mexico, Canada and the entire hemisphere lies in the fight for the Socialist United States of the Americas, as part of the world socialist revolution.

The unification of the workers on both sides of the Rio Grande in common struggle against the imperialist ruling class can be achieved only through the building of a new revolutionary leadership—the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution, and, in the US, the Workers League.