NAFTA’s gravediggers?

Continental Crucible:

Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America

Rather than bemoan the twentieth anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui have written a call to arms in their provocative new book Continental Crucible: Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America. Free trade has become such a bipartisan mantra that it may surprise some readers to learn that then president Bill Clinton had to strong-arm the treaty through the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in the summer of 1994. Or as Rahm Emanuel, serving as a senior presidential advisor, prosaically warned reluctant lobbyists, “Look, your bosses are for this, so stop fucking bad-mouthing us.”

Breaking the book into three parts, Roman and Velasco first demonstrate how significant sections of the US, Canadian, and Mexican capitalist classes created powerful corporate organizations in the 1970s (the Business Roundtable, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and El Consejo Coordinador Empresarial), all aimed at radically shifting the balance of class forces in their respective countries.

Though the US may have been the dominant promoter of the free trade agenda, Roman and Velasco demonstrate that the Canadian and Mexican ruling classes had their own reasons for turning to neoliberalism. “We are not talking about a situation of weak, dependent, comprador capitalists in Canada and Mexico,” the authors write. Especially interesting is their description of how this dynamic unfolded in Mexico. 

Ruling Mexico for seven decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) pursued a path of “state-guided” capitalist development in the years after World War II, leading to a huge boom based on import substitution and oil. This all came crashing down with the global credit crunch in the late 1970s, the 1982 peso devaluation, and a decade of wholesale privatization. However, as Continental Crucible shows, this was not merely a pragmatic scramble on the part of the old state-sector bosses and PRI politicos, it also signaled the rise of a new power in Mexico, “an increasingly strong, concentrated Mexican capitalist class.” 

However, as Roman and Velasco are quick to point out, no iron wall separates the “old” and the “new” bourgeoisie in Mexico, as many of the old-line PRI power brokers used their positions in the state to seize control of lucrative business ventures during the massive privatizations of the 1980s and 1990s. To top it all off, after losing its one-party dictatorship to the pro-business National Action Party (PAN) in 2000, the PRI is back in power under the neoliberal, Clinton-like Enrique Peña Nieto.

The authors expertly catalog the statistics of misery suffered, if to varying degrees, by workers both north and south of the US–Mexico border. The old methods of union organizing restricted to single nations and based on a limited social contract no longer work, they contend, insisting that “solidarity must replace competition” among workers in North America. The good news is that, despite the dire situation, as Continental Crucible argues, “The corporate offensive has also sown the seeds of resistance both by the intensification of hardship and suffering and the unintended promotion of cross-border working-class links.” These connections exist because, first, many US and Canadian workers belong to the same internationals—even if these organizational ties have been degraded over the last decades. And, second, mass migration on the part of Mexican labor into the United States (and Canada to a lesser extent) has created an integrated “continental” working class. 

The real contribution the authors make is to force us to think in terms of an integrated continental working class, as opposed to, as is all too often the case—at least in the United States—simply thinking about the impact of immigration on the US labor movement. This point of view opens important vistas. With respect to economics, US capital’s access to the growing Mexican reserve army of labor in the wake of NAFTA was not an “insignificant factor in maintaining the general rate of profit” in the United States in the 1990s, they argue. As tech boomed, Mexican immigrant labor helped restrain wage growth, especially in the service sector upon which high tech relied for its operations, freeing up capital for investment. Thus, according to Roman and Velasco, there was not a tech boom that subsequently drew in Mexican service sector labor; rather, there was a tech boom (partially) because of the availability of Mexican labor. 

But Mexican workers are not simply victims; they may also be neoliberalism’s gravediggers. Here, Roman and Velasco advance a set of interlocking theses in which they contend that Mexican workers are “radically different than . . . their northern counterparts.” In sum, the Mexican working class faces greater exploitation and repression (both in Mexico and in the North), it retains “strong revolutionary traditions . . . from the Mexican Revolution,” and the Mexican regime itself has become destabilized by decades of economic restructuring and the state’s loss of its monopoly of armed force because of the drug war. 

There are elements of truth in all of these observations as anyone familiar with the concurrent 2006 rebellion in Oaxaca and the immigrant rights May Day marches all over the United States knows. Moreover, as last year’s Mexican teachers’ strike, the 2012 student movement, and the rise of self-defense militias against both the drug lords and the state all demonstrate, the level of social and class struggle remains qualitatively higher in Mexico than in either the United States or Canada (with the partial exception of Quebec). 

All this notwithstanding, the authors veer at times too close to presenting a one-sided analysis of the complexities of the tri-national class struggle, placing too heavy a bet on what they call the “Mexican spark.” 

“The Mexican working class,” they write, “is rich in traditions of struggle and collectivity but weak in terms of organization and resources. The Canadian and US labor movements, as weakened and under attack as they are, are rich in resources and organization.” The danger here is that international working-class solidarity is conceived of as divided into distinct active and passive agents. 

I hasten to add that Continental Crucible’s authors generally present a much more dynamic picture than this; they note that “the spark and the fuel can come from different sources.” They also have no truck with the common notion that US and Canadian workers are “bought off” or somehow benefit from Mexican workers’ exploitation and oppression. Yet, their emphasis on Mexican working-class militancy can obscure the challenges immigrant workers face in the United States when putting forward class demands that are independent from the rising, and increasingly influential, Latino middle class, which has its own economic and political ambitions. 

None of this should obscure the importance of Continental Crucible. At just 144 pages, it is accessible, sharply written, and pulls no punches in asserting that the only force capable of undoing the damage NAFTA has wrought is international solidarity. Roman and Velasco model a materialist understanding of the nature of class struggles to come and lay bare the golden strings that unite the continent’s rulers even as they jockey to extract the maximum advantages possible from one another. However, not content with analysis, the authors end with a hope: “Rather than gold to line the pockets of the corporate alchemists, the intense heat may produce the energetic and resolute re-emergence of the salt of the earth, the working classes of the continent, imbued with a renewed determination to build a new North America.” It is a hope we should all share.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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