|Participants from from UE, CSN and FAT with the leaders of Met-Life, an affiliate of the FAT.|
April 24, 2013
Organizers from Three Countries Share Experiences, Inspiration
by Robin Alexander, UE International Affairs Director
The challenges of organizing were explored from February 16 to 24 by union members and organizers from three countries: six from UE, eight from the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), and four from Quebéc’s confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). Several national leaders and senior staff also took part in the Organizers Institute, which coincided with a global week of action in solidarity with Mexico’s independent unions.
UE rank-and-file participants included Pauline Wilson, president of Sub-local 60 in Farmington, Connecticut, part of statewide Local 222; Jamie Beaton, chief steward of West Virginia Local 170; and James Hill who has held several leadership positions in Chicago’s Local 1177 at Renzenberger. They were joined by Field Organizer Fernando Ramírez, International Representative Karen Hardin, Education Director John Thompson, Director of International Affairs Robin Alexander, and for several days, Director of Organization Bob Kingsley.
FAT Co-president Benedicto Martínez explained the interactive format: “There were no teachers and no students; everyone did their best to develop the topics for which they were responsible, whether it was as a co-facilitator or as a presenter speaking from experience about a particular topic. It was this structure that made all the difference! It was an ambitious program, but I believe that the kinds of organizing campaigns we face today require that we must be able to count on organizers with the necessary experience, knowledge and capacity to confront the challenges we face.”
We got acquainted on the first day by climbing the ancient pyramids north of Mexico City. Back in the city, the meeting kicked off with presentations by Bob Kingsley, Benedicto Martínez and Dominique Daigneault, general secretary of the CSN’s Montreal Regional Council.
The next day members performed skits to illustrate the procedures and difficulties of organizing and winning first contracts in their countries. Participants learned that in Mexico, workers organizing independent unions have to overcome the opposition of not only the boss, but also the official or “charro” unions and a hostile labor board. Recent changes in labor law have ripped away protections that Mexican workers won in their revolution 100 years ago, increasing the threat of subcontracting and reducing workers’ back pay in cases of unlawful discharge.
In Québec, in contrast, when a majority of workers sign union cards, the employer must recognize and bargain with the union and if necessary, a first contract is imposed through arbitration. The skit by UE members demonstrated the roadblocks to organizing in the U.S. imposed by antiunion bosses and union-busters.
Unionists from the three countries shared their experiences in organizing campaigns in the public and private sectors, and compared their approaches to identifying contacts, mapping a workplace, developing an organizing plan, building leadership, and overcoming fear. We found that we have a lot in common, but our tactics vary with the situations we face. Organizing campaigns in Mexico, for example, are completely underground because, if the company finds out, workers will be fired.
David Bergeron-Cyr of the CSN observed that learning the organizing strategies used by other unions in organizing campaigns will be of great value, and he offered to work for a few days on a UE campaign, and invited UE members to visit Québec to learn firsthand about organizing there.
Andrés Barrera of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) led an in-depth session on neo-liberalism. He explained that the obstacles unions are facing result from policies that are promoted by powerful transnational corporations, including privatization, deregulation and free trade. The impact is felt by working people around the world through attacks on pensions, health care, labor laws and governmentfunded services and jobs. The earth itself is now in jeopardy as corporations try to privatize water and accelerate extractive industries such as mining and natural gas drilling. James Hill said that Professor Barrera’s talk “allowed me to get a better understanding of how one country’s actions adversely affect another and how real survival comes from collective responses, not individual concerns.” Victor Salas of the FAT added, “The policies of the three countries arise from a similar platform and the objective is the same: to do away with the rights of workers. Based on this understanding we can see that the struggles that result are very similar.”
Meeting Mexican Workers
|Dominique Daigneault and Karen Hardin listen to the explanation of Jose Perez San Luis about the production process in his plant|
We also visited three groups of workers at their job sites. José Pérez San Luis, DMI worker and participant in the Institute, led a tour of his plant, the FAT-represented DMI auto parts plant.
It’s the same company that employs UE members in Edon, Ohio. It took over three years to organize the plant and win a first contract. The company used all of the tricks we had heard about – and then some. Management had signed not one, but two sweetheart contracts with charro unions in an effort to keep out a real union. Instead of punishing the company, the labor board delayed the election. Many workers were fired, and only after the FAT won two elections did the company change its attitude.
There are still some problems, but labor-management relations have improved significantly, as indicated by the company’s welcome of our entire delegation, providing snacks, and allowing us to tour the plant.
After the plant tour, we shared a meal (including beer made by workers in a FAT brewing co-op) with DMI workers, as well as leaders of another FAT local based at the huge wholesale food market. These workers clean restrooms in the market, but when their immediate employer lost its contract, they fought back with an unusual strike in which they kept the restrooms operating without charge, instead asking customers to donate two pesos to their strike fund. Years after winning that strike they were forced out again, this time with the added threat of violence by thugs. They won a second time. Pauline Wilson was moved by the stories: “Hearing about the struggles of unions in other countries was the most fascinating thing for me and really brought home the value and hard work of unions.”
The following afternoon we met with another group of unionists – insurance workers at Met-Life. They shared what James Hill called “stories of deep struggles and inspiration” about how they organized their independent union and joined the FAT. Their leaders were fired, but by remaining united, they won the right to their jobs and recognition of their union. Since then they have expanded their union leadership to involve young activists, pairing each of them with an experienced leader. “I love that idea,” exclaimed Wilson, “and will begin a mentoring program at my local.”
“It was very inspiring to learn that Mexico, Canada and the U.S. all face the same struggles in the labor movement and how each country has different strategies and approaches when it comes to organizing workers into the union,” said Karen Hardin. “The highlight for me was meeting with and talking with the Mexican workers. Although we have the same struggles it is much more difficult for them to organize a union.”
We also participated in the Days of Action in solidarity with the independent trade unions (see sidebar), joining Los Mineros for a silent march with coffins, a Tri-National Solidarity Alliance (TNSA) press conference and rally at the headquarters of the Mexican Electrical Workers union (SME). Jamie Beaton was impressed. “The most important thing I learned in Mexico was the importance of building a stronger union and to form coalitions to support our causes. Now that I am home, I am already working to form coalitions with other unions,” he said.
All the participants seem to agree that they gained not only information but inspiration from this weeklong encounter with other workers and organizers. “We really got to know each other better,” says John Thompson, “and got a deeper understanding of difficulties and obstacles workers face in all three countries in organizing unions today. Although there are obvious differences in our approaches to organizing due to the obstacles we face, there are a lot more things that we have in common. We all come from union organizations that are fighting to maintain a democratic, rank-and-file orientation in the face of both serious internal and external challenges, and we certainly can learn from one another.”
FAT member María Magdalena Lopez Betancourt said of the conference, “I was strengthened, I was educated, and it will make my trade union work easier.”
Annie Deschénes of the CSN reflected on her experience. “Of course I loved the fact that I was discovering a new culture and acquiring knowledge, but what I liked best was the people. I met extraordinary people who showed an exemplary devotion to human rights. They are an inspiration.”
She added, “There’s a saying in French that means ‘traveling shapes one’s character.’ I’ve been hearing that since I was very young, but I finally understood the meaning of it. Of course, the knowledge that I gained is priceless and I couldn’t have gotten it in books, but, although it might seem cheesy, I’ve learned about myself and this trip changed a few things. I also realized that until you develop relationships with people living in certain situations, no matter how outrageous, you can’t fully understand the implication because the emotional connection isn’t there.”
UE Organizer Fernando Ramírez summed up the impact of the week: “The presentation by Andrés from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) on neo-liberalism really educated me more on the issue and the struggle we face as workers of the world. Visiting the different independent unions like Met-Life, pilots union, SME, DMI, and meeting with the Central de Abastos workers really inspired me to continue what I do best, and that is to organize and help the working class fight for a better world.”
INTERNATIONAL DAYS OF ACTION
|Jamie Beaton, Pauline Wilson and James HIll stand with Los Mineros in condemning the death of 65 miners in the Pasta de Conchos mine disaster|
For the past three years, unions and allies have conducted an annual week of action in solidarity with the independent unions in Mexico, targeting embassies and consulates around the world. The Days of Action coincide with the anniversary of the Pasta de Conchos mine disaster on February 19, 2006, when 65 miners were buried alive.
This year, global union federations organized meetings and demonstrations in some 50 countries around the world. The Tri-National Solidarity Alliance (TNSA) coordinated events in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Actions took place at the Mexican embassy and 16 consulates around the U.S., with UE members taking the lead in the Boston and Raleigh actions, and participating in demonstrations in Chicago and Los Angele. In Ottawa, Canada, labor representatives met government officials at the Mexican embassy, while other events took place in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
In Mexico, participants in the UE-FAT-CSN Organizers Institute joined Los Mineros (the miners' union) on February 18 for a silent march with 65 coffins representing the miners who were killed. A press conference the next morning at the office of the pilot’s union included Bob Kingsley as one of the speakers. That afternoon they took part in a meeting of the Tri-National Solidarity Alliance, which discussed the plan of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) for a caravan to Washington to the headquarters of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The day concluded with a rally at SME's headquarters.
In 2010, the Mexican government wiped out the jobs of 44,000 SME members. Some 16,000 electrical workers have refused a severance pay buyout and continue to fight for their jobs. In February, SME won the release of all but one of its members jailed during protests, and they are now back in negotiations with the government.