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At the crossroads: challenges and opportunities of union organizing in the Mexico-US border

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This essay examines recent labor and political struggles by maquila and agricultural workers in northern Mexico to establish independent unions. For several decades, assembly plants and agro-export enclaves have been at the center of economic and regional development along the Mexico-US border. Capitalizing on geographical proximity, and economic and commercial ties, multinational companies have created flexible production and labor regimes with the support of the Mexican government and official unions. From a critical political economy perspective, we contend that the production regimes of these twin export industries along with the weakening of the state and traditional patronage-based business unions have created the conditions for the re-emergence of independent labor unions as arenas in which workers mobilize not only for labor demands but also for human and citizenship rights. Focusing on labor strikes by maquila workers in Tamaulipas and farmworkers in Baja California, we analyze the goals, organizational strategies, and political discourse of these recent union campaigns and the structural barriers they confront. The Mexico-US border, we contend, is a fruitful terrain to analyze the challenges and opportunities that independent unions confront in an era where traditional forms of labor organizing are in decline while alternative forms for labor mobilization are still in flux.

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    In Ciudad Juarez, the FAT helped to form social cooperatives, foment community organizing, and document abuses against women in the workplace including high exposure to toxic materials and the use of pregnancy tests by employers for hiring.

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    Another example of cross-border collaboration is the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) with more than 100 coalition members from Canada, the USA, and Mexico; it has fostered economic and political activism addressing issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace and reducing job injuries for women workers (Staudt and Coronado 2002, pp. 122–123).

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    Other organizations that emerged were the Coalición de Mujeres de Baja California, the Comité de Apoyo a las Maquiladoras, and the Comités de Apoyo Regional a los Trabajadores de la Frontera (CAFOR), which counted with the support of several international unions, religious organizations, and human rights groups in the USA, Canada, and Germany (Bacon 1997).

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    Two years after the strike, women in the San Quintin Valley organized their First Women’s Meeting in collaboration with SINDJA. Indigenous women of Mixtec, Triqui, Zapotec, Purépecha, Nahua, Tlapaneca, and Mixe origin met to discuss their labor rights, the harsh working conditions and the violence they confronted in the agro-industries, and the right for a fair wage and access to the Seguro Social with health coverage (Espinosa and Luna 2013). The resolutions of the meeting included the preparation of material in different native languages and organization of workshops to educate women about their rights, especially those who do not read or write (Jimenez August 22, 2017, The Daily Left, MTS Movement of Socialist Workers).


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Correspondence to María Eugenia De la O.

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De la O, M.E., Zlolniski, C. At the crossroads: challenges and opportunities of union organizing in the Mexico-US border. Dialect Anthropol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-020-09584-4

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  • Labor unions
  • Mexican-American border region
  • Maquiladora workers
  • Agricultural laborers
  • Social movement unionism
  • Mexico