Crisis on the other side

By Michelle Chen Mar 23, 2009

Lately, politicians have made some bold pronouncements about violence along the US-Mexico border. Yet the economic downturn is posing a different, though related threat in Mexico, fueled by the volatile ebbs and flows of “free trade.” Dan LaBotz at Labor Notes reports that various industries, including manufacturing, tourism and oil, "are hit hard by the crisis north of the border." US-based autoparts maker Delphi is shedding workers. Maquilas in Tijuana have hemorrhaged tens of thousands of jobs, leaving the city “choked with laid-off workers who’ve started street businesses with their small severance payments.” Meanwhile, wage losses for Mexican immigrants in the United States have depleted the flow of remittances. And just as foreclosures and economic crisis are spurring grassroots organizing in US cities, Labor Notes reports, Mexican workers are channeling frustration into direct action:

The staggered stoppages included strikes, roadblocks, the seizure of toll booths, and demonstrations. Thousands of trucks and buses were stopped and hundreds of companies affected.… Many thousands of workers and retirees, mobilized by the Mexican Union Front and the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), rallied at the Congress in late February to demand that social security funds be re-nationalized. These government funds, roughly similar to Social Security and Medicare, cover 60 million people and support pensions and health care. In 1997 they were turned over to private interests, and in the last year, those funds lost $4.7 billion.

Schemes to privatize social programs have roiled on both sides of the border, though in many ways, failed privatization experiments have gone further in Latin America, tying into the moral challenges of the global trade structure and the inequities that ultimately drive migration northward. The Center for International Policy Americas Program recently put street-level uprisings in a global context:

Revving up their familiar tractorcades again, farmers are mobilizing in support of lower fuel prices, higher commodity prices, and a renegotiation of NAFTA, which has left many corn and milk producers pulverized in the dust. Mexico joins France, Russia, Greece, England, Ireland, Guadalupe, and other countries as a scene of popular protest against government economic policies. Noticeably absent from the movements spreading across Mexico, though, are Chiapas’ indigenous Zapatistas.

More established sectors on the Mexican Left are also getting energized, paralleling a push on this side of the border for a renegotiation of NAFTA and other trade deals. The LA Times has a different take, alleging that drug cartels are co-opting anger among the poor to boost political clout. Mexico’s economic tensions are stretching to a breaking point as the migration economy sputters, the sweatshop regime continues to erode, and more are forced to cling to unstable or low-wage work. If Mexico’s experience is a magnified reflection of the fallout of neoliberal policies, US-based activists might want to look south for transnational solidarity in response to transnational crisis. Image: Maquila worker in Ciudad Juarez (Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)