Why Borders Are Bad for the Working Class: An Interview with Justin Akers Chacón

March 10, 2022   •   By Andrea Penman-Lomeli

JUSTIN AKERS CHACÓN has been writing about labor and immigration for decades. His most recent book, The Border Crossed Us: The Case for Opening the US-Mexico Border, outlines the most important cross-border actions of the past decade and links immigration with its fundamental driver of labor.

Like Akers Chacón’s previous work, The Border Crossed Us centers the low-wage worker in this story about trade and international relations. It is a compelling portrait of the challenges and successes of labor movements and solidarity across borders and along international supply chains today. Akers Chacón shows the many push factors — failed land reform and a weakened Mexican social safety net — that led to the exodus of low-wage workers from rural areas and how these workers have taken action on both sides of the border.

In the 2019 maquiladora strikes in Matamoros, workers from over 45 different workplaces walked off the job with clear demands: they wanted a 20 percent raise and a bonus of 32,000 pesos (about $1,500). The shutdown lasted for 11 days and reportedly cost the sector $50 million a day. After the workers won their demands, the movement gained traction beyond the border region.

The United States labor movement has always had a complicated relationship with immigration. Akers Chacón tracks the AFL-CIO’s relation to Trump’s anti-international trade agenda and asserts that recent gains will be short-lived if the labor movement doesn’t take a firm stance toward a more relaxed border. Workers in the United States are often painted as being nervous about having their jobs taken away, but Akers Chacón argues that they benefit more from international support than from the protectionism that US unions have largely favored. We spoke over video about his latest work and how he understands the power of the workers that the mainstream labor movement has sometimes considered a threat.

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ANDREA PENMAN-LOMELI: What do you see as challenges to solidarity between pro-worker and pro-immigrant movements?

JUSTIN AKERS CHACÓN: There have been episodes where labor has been geared toward inclusion. And there’s a longer arc away from the old AFL-CIO, the old positions grounded in the AFL, which favor the skilled worker, the white worker, the craft worker. It’s important to recognize that in the United States, there really is no such thing as a kind of standard American working class. It’s always a mixture of immigrants and children of immigrants of different nationalities, etc. But for much of the 20th century, the official position of the AFL, and then the AFL-CIO, has been that we have to focus on domestic jobs for United States workers, which has changed, really, for two reasons.

One is the way that immigrant workers historically have been at the forefront of the labor movement, meaning advocating for union rights, taking action, strike action, all of the things that go along with what we call the “labor movement.” The fact that immigrant workers tend historically to be more pro-union or more pro-labor, in terms of “action,” than the previous group of workers already here in the United States, has caught the attention and activated sections of the union movement and begun to orient them toward immigrants.

And then the other element of this is the changing composition of low-wage work. In the last several decades, much of the labor migration into this country has come from south of the US border, and from other parts of the world that are not Europe. And so the racial and ethnic dynamics of the working class have become much more non-European. And I say that because there have been currents of white supremacy and white nationalism throughout the labor movement that have been a factor in exclusion.

In many ways, immigrants from south of the border are at the forefront of much of the labor movement, specifically Spanish-speaking Latino workers. And so in my current book, I document how those two factors, the increase in labor migration from south of the border and the willingness and desire among this section of the working class to organize with and join unions, sort of combined.

Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, we see some sections of the AFL-CIO, especially those in which the industries they’re representing workers within are becoming more Latino, more immigrant, and more transnational. These workers are not only joining the unions, but they’re also actually doing the work of organizing themselves. And I give several examples of how this happened in different industries, starting in the late 1970s. And so organized labor, the AFL-CIO in particular, came out in support of an amnesty in 1986, recognizing that this was the way forward to expanding union membership. Amnesty became a negotiated component of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. And then not only that, but the unions who were more farsighted invested money and helped to organize these workers into unions. It started with providing legal resources for them to learn how to navigate the amnesty and to get legal status. Overall, we see surges of union membership in those unions that are oriented toward immigrant workers, and we find stagnation in the membership of other unions. So there is a clear recognition that the role that labor played in amnesty and legalization facilitated union growth.

By the 2000s, a couple things happen. One is that workers who became unionized go into the unions. Many of them now become key to organizing the next generation of immigrants who grow the union locals. And then in 2000, the AFL-CIO reiterated [itself]; it took a further step toward an official position and supporting the rights of undocumented people to join unions and called for a new amnesty.

After 9/11, instead of continuing in that direction, much of the political trend shifted toward anti-immigrant posture. And there’s more to say about that, but just the bottom line is, even the unions began to back away from this project.

By 2005, you have a reinvigorated right-wing movement against immigration in this country, expressed in the Congress through immigration restriction, down to the street level where one finds hundreds of different anti-immigrant groups operating around the country. And so instead of the amnesty, we have the criminalization. The Sensenbrenner bill would have made it a felony to be undocumented, and it would have made it impossible for organized labor to actively support undocumented workers because it had language within it that said that any assistance to undocumented workers made you complicit in their “crime.”

Then, and this is important, literally millions of people came out in protest that year against the Sensenbrenner bill, defeating it and showing the strength of the immigration movement and perhaps how labor could align with it and harness that power. [In Los Angeles, for example, official estimates suggest that over 500,000 people came out in protest of the bill.]

One of the potent moments of action with international effects that have taken place since then are the maquiladora strikes of 2019, which you address in the book. Could you talk a little about how and why workers took action, and why they are important to the lineage you trace?

So there’s so much about the border that never really gets reported in the United States press. It lived briefly on the shores of the press and then disappeared very quickly. But it was monumental, and the effects of it are still being felt throughout Mexico.

I’ve lived in San Diego since 1992. When I first moved here, there was a strike solidarity movement with workers at a company called Han Young, a Korean company that had manufacturing facilities in Tijuana and then corporate headquarters here in San Diego. Workers were getting beaten up by this company, by these fake union representatives. There was this transnational solidarity campaign that was ultimately defeated. But this is all to say that there’s been ongoing efforts to try to organize within the maquila, but there’s always been a massive state repression because from the Mexican state’s point of view, in the free trade era, these maquilas are large sources of its income. Aside from oil and tourism, foreign exchange is really crucial. So there’s a direct line from the federal to the state to the local, these highly elaborate systems of repression to make sure that union workers don’t organize themselves.

It starts with the fact that the company will form fake union contracts with protection unions. These are just on paper, and some of them are former CTM unions (Federation of Mexican Labor). [These contracts often don’t require the consent of the workers they are meant to protect.] And in 2019, we saw how, in terms of this repression, the union would go and try to physically harass and even beat up people who would walk out of work. In Mexico, workers who want to go on strike have to get it approved through regional labor boards. And so the state can declare any kind of labor action illegal to the state government. In the recent strikes in Morelos, the military was brought in to fight criminal gangs, in theory, but it often happens as well when there’s significant political protest or labor activity. So there’s multiple layers, echelons of repression.

In this particular case in Matamoros in 2019, workers across about 45 different industrial production facilities went on strike.

In auto production, companies like GM and Ford, and internationally, Volkswagen, all of them move components of production into Mexico, because the United States is still one of the largest consumers of automobiles. So moving production to Mexico makes sense from a business standpoint because you’re closer to the market where your product is going to end up, and the labor costs are much lower than producing in the United States. And of course, you have big transportation costs. So because of the significance of the auto economy to the United States and the significance of scale, through the supply chain that goes across the world, workers in Mexico became aware of the value of their labor. And so much of auto part production has been shifted to Mexico that if the workers go on strike, you can’t make cars.

The maquilas tend to be clustered in a certain part of town, in these huge, relatively new industrial parks. So, the workers developed a strategy of uniting workers in different workplaces and across these huge distances. When they went on strike, they didn’t just shut down one; they were able to shut down all of them — though it wasn’t like everyone came out on the first day. It was like six came out and then 12 and then, ultimately, they hit 45.

The workers in Matamoros also confronted the fake union leaders who were running interference for the companies, and, at one point, they almost surrounded the office of one of the union leaders, and they forced him to make public statements in support of the strike, even though he was there to prevent it from happening. I think one of the reasons why it didn’t get covered as much as it could have or should have is because this was a major blow to the United States owners of those maquiladoras.

The interesting thing about these strikes in Mexico is that they did call for solidarity from US labor unions, and ultimately, the AFL-CIO has, in one particular case, partnered with the new union because these strikes coincided with the launch of a new union, the new maquila Auto Workers Union.

And so, the strikes spread, and they won the 20 percent wage increase they had originally demanded.

It almost sounds like you are depicting Mexican labor as the vanguard of American labor. You manage to see power against United States industry in this place where labor is incredibly weak. But how does Mexican labor see itself? Is there a sense of a renewed kind of labor movement in Mexico?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. But I also don’t want to understate that there are a lot of objective difficulties in organizing in Mexico still. But to understand what has happened just in the last three years, you know, compared to the previous 30 or 40 years. The breakthroughs of independent union organizing across the border are significant. As we’ve seen earlier this year, over 4,000 workers at a GM plant in Silao, Mexico, voted to decertify the company union and then voted to be represented by the Sindicato Independiente Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Industria Automotriz (SINTTIA), which is expanding throughout the assembly arm of auto production. For example, SINTTIA is now backing other workers in a Mazda plant. There’s also another parallel movement happening through the maquiladoras. We’re seeing this victory spread across the country which represents a historic moment for labor on this continent.

I think the transnationalization of the Mexican working class and Central American and Caribbean workers has been the force at the forefront of labor. And I’m talking about the immigrant workers and the rebuilding of unions in this country, the mass mobilizations of May 2006 … to me, the millions of people who came out on that one single day in 2006 against anti-immigration policies, are like a vanguard of the labor movement because it’s a working-class people acting as a class, right?

And I think we can learn a lot. I think organized labor can learn a lot by what people are doing in Mexico.

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Andrea Penman-Lomeli is a labor communicator and a doctoral student based in New York.