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Bill Fletcher, Jr, "NAFTA's Knife"

"NAFTA's Knife: Class Warfare Across the U.S.-Mexico

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Reviewing David Bacon, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the
U.S./Mexico Border

(Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2004), 348 pages, cloth $27.50.

I once heard a discussion about the first sentences of
books and those sentences that were among the most
famous and most powerful. The opening of Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude was among the
most popular. David Bacon's first sentence in chapter
one of his book must now rank among the most gripping:
'NAFTA repeatedly plunged a knife into José Castillo's
heart.'Bacon's book, as it is subtitled, is about a war. This
is a war that is as merciless as any conflict with
arms. Yet this does not concern either a conventional
or unconventional (guerrilla) war. It concerns the
combination of class and national struggles taking
place on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The U.S.-Mexico border has always been a complicated
region, geopolitically and economically. The current
border is the legacy of the land grab by the United
States through its victory in the 1846–1848 war of
aggression against Mexico. The border was for years
very permeable, and subject to the influences of
politics in both countries. Mexicans regularly crossed
the border in either direction, and even with the
passage of time and the development of a Chicano people
in the United States, the connections remained.

The importance of the border has evolved, as Bacon
demonstrates through his various essays, and by the
1960s the border was rapidly growing more important to
both countries. The creation of maquiladoras, factories
created for export processing, offering very low wages,
attracted U.S. capital as well as the migration of job-
seeking Mexican workers (and often, former farmers) in
search of an improved livelihood. The ability of U.S.
and other multinational corporations to exploit this
situation has become legendary. Not only were new
operations established, but U.S.-based companies soon
began moving in toto to this region.

Yet Bacon's book does not simply focus on these
economic changes. Fundamentally, this is a book about
human beings and their capacity to struggle under very
adverse conditions. Sensing an opportunity for
enrichment, the once progressive PRI (the Institutional
Revolutionary Party, the ruling party of Mexico for
over 70 years) not only encouraged the growth of low-
wage employment along the border, but also collaborated
with employers to suppress organization efforts within
this workforce. Sweetheart agreements were arranged
between various employers and PRI-aligned unions. These
unions, workers' organizations in name only, siphoned
off dues but did nothing to represent the interests of
their members. In response, progressive alternative
forms of organization began to develop, including
independent unions. Perhaps the most well-known
independent union movement has been the Authentic
Workers Front (the Spanish acronym is FAT), though
there are other such federations and individual unions.

The Children of NAFTA takes the reader to the
maquiladoras and to the workers employed there. It also
examines the situation on the U.S. side of the border
and the impact that NAFTA, and the neoliberal
globalization that spawned it, have had on workers in
the factories and the fields. As such, the book is a
clarion call for international working-class
solidarity. Such solidarity, to borrow from the words
of the late president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, is
not about charity, but about identifying common
interests. Like few other books, Bacon successfully
demonstrates how the material basis for such solidarity
currently exists, and details the steps that
progressive forces on both sides of the border are
undertaking to address it.

While The Children of NAFTA is an outstanding and
compelling book, it left me reflective and, to some
extent, perplexed. The gritty, intense struggles for
workers' rights on the border, as well as for national
self-determination in Mexico, call forth admiration and
demand our support. Yet, while Bacon details the
actions that have been taken by Mexican and U.S.
workers in opposition to the avarice of capital, the
matter of strategy is not considered in any depth.

As Bacon would be the first to acknowledge, U.S.
capital has moved or established manufacturing
facilities in Mexico that, to a great extent, can be
relocated yet again. Additionally, through the
existence of NAFTA, thousands of Mexican farmers have
had their livelihoods destroyed, and thousands of
Mexican workers have often seen their employment,
whether in the public or private sector, weakened or
eliminated. Beyond supporting workers or farmers in
particular fights, what should be the direction for
those seeking an alternative to neoliberal
globalization? Additionally, what steps, if any, can be
taken to constrain or restrain capital mobility in this

At the end of The Children of NAFTA I found myself
concluding two things. First, cross-border solidarity
is far more than the rhetoric of internationalism. It
also requires more than support rallies. It must
involve the creation of organizations and institutions
that can serve as a venue for the sort of strategic
planning and coordination necessary to address
multinational capital. The international trade union
secretariats, created in the early years of the 20th
century and largely based in Western Europe, are
supposed to serve such a function, but too many of them
are hopelessly stuck in bureaucracy or continue to
carry with them the stench of Cold War trade unionism.
Thus, at issue for progressive forces is whether these
institutions can be transformed or whether newer
formations must be brought into existence. This is
further complicated by the need to address more than
just the formal working class, but to embrace farmers,
the permanently unemployed and other social sectors
that are being crushed by neoliberalism.

The second conclusion concerns the importance of
political struggle and state power. In the midst of the
ongoing crisis of socialism, it became popular for
postmodern and poststructuralist movements to disdain
the question of state power. In fact, the Zapatistas
have often been upheld by poststructuralist allies in
the Global North for their alleged abdication of the
struggle for state power in Mexico. Whether the
Zapatistas have done so is a matter for another
discussion, but it does become clear both in reading
Bacon's book and also in studying neoliberal
globalization, that this phenomenon of capitalist
restructuring is not the result of some natural
evolution, but rather a combination of political
decisions that were made over a period of time in order
to address the stagnation of capitalism.

Reaching such a conclusion means that who occupies
state power, and how such state power is exercised,
remain critical questions for all those who consider
themselves progressive or left. This is true whether
one is speaking of reform administrations that make it
possible for workers to exercise their right to self-
organization, or of more radically-directed governments
that are attempting to create an alternative
socioeconomic paradigm. It is for this reason that the
Bush administration is so deeply concerned with, and
wishes to undermine, the efforts in Brazil and
Venezuela to break with the so-called Washington
Consensus and chart a different course for regional

Even without a full exploration of these issues, The
Children of NAFTA remains an exceptionally well-
written, compelling story of struggle and of hope. The
book can serve to promote countless discussions
regarding neoliberal globalization, class struggle, and
the efforts to create a different world for not only
the people of the Global South, but those of us in the
Global North as well.

This book is to be applauded, as are the companeros and
companeras -- on both sides of the border -- who, often in
the face of overwhelming opposition, tyranny, and
tragedy, have not and will not forget the class

[Bill Fletcher, Jr. is president of TransAfrica Forum, a
Washington, D.C.-based organizing and education center
formed to raise awareness in the United States of
issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the
Caribbean, and Latin America. He is also a board member
of the Monthly Review Foundation and a longtime labor