"Next New Year's Day, Americans may face a flood of unsafe Mexican trucks driven by untrained, unlicensed, and virtually unpaid drivers," Teamsters union president James Hoffa wrote earlier this spring. Quoted in newspapers across the country it appeared in the September 1999 issue of America@work, a monthly magazine published by the AFL-CIO in an article titled "Putting the brakes on unsafe trucks," which charges that Mexican truckers pose an imminent danger to users of the highways in the United States.
Lurid descriptions of truck accidents involving drivers and cargo from Mexico, along with headlines warning of "thousands of ticking time bombs on our roads," have also been featured in the Teamsters' magazine New Teamster, previous issues of America@work, as well as editorials and press releases issued by Hoffa, John Sweeney, and other union officials over the past couple of years. Invoking concern for the safety of "America's families," union officials, led by those in the Teamsters and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), are asking Washington to impose further restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border to trucks and drivers from Mexico.
This "America first," protectionist campaign by the labor bureaucracy plays into the employers' efforts to pit workers against each other. It cuts across building international working-class solidarity. It also paves the way for rightist radicals like Patrick Buchanan who has been working hard over the last decade to recruit cadre to an incipient fascist movement to get a broader hearing for their economic nationalism and their overall reactionary course within the working class and its allies.
The occasion for the union tops' sudden preoccupation with highway safety is a provision of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which will allow truck and bus drivers from Mexico to operate their equipment anywhere in the United States beginning Jan. 1, 2000. The trade agreement currently limits Mexican drivers to a "commercial zone" extending 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Teamsters and other union officials have organized picket lines, which they have then highlighted in their publications, with people carrying signs saying, "NAFTA: threat to highway safety."
NAFTA like other economic and military pacts, conferences, or organizations that the capitalist rulers use is aimed at extending the domination by the handful of wealthy ruling families in the United States and Canada over superexploited workers and oppressed nations such as Mexico. For that reason, class-conscious workers oppose NAFTA just as they oppose APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation), the European Union, or NATO. At the same time, they are not more opposed to NAFTA than they are opposed to any of the alternative ways for organizing bourgeois trade proposed by liberal opponents of this pact, trade union officials, or rightist politicians. They reject the labor tops' nationalist, anti-NAFTA campaign.
Hoffa and the other union tops promote class collaboration with the trucking bosses, in this case, those who seek to use trade restrictions and other protectionist measures as a club against their competitors. What's good for the company is good for "us," union officials argue, and keeping "Mexican trucks" out, will save "American" jobs.
Of course, other capitalists in the U.S. freight transportation industry look forward to January 1 as another opportunity in the relentless drive by Washington to extend its penetration of Mexico to fatten their profits. And one can be sure that every trucking company will raise the threat of contracting out work to drivers from Mexico to extract deeper concessions from their employees.
The union officials' campaign disarms workers in the face of these attacks by the employers, attacks which will intensify as competition among capitalists in the United States, and with their rivals abroad, sharpens in the midst of the disorder of world capitalism. The officials' goal is to convince working people that we have common national interests with the employers that stand above class differences. So we're fed the demagogic lie that to protect jobs or highways in "our own country" we need to support "our own employers"
The chauvinist campaign by Hoffa, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and the others who sit on top of the labor movement is part of the preparations that the exploiting classes use to try to drag the working class into war. The capitalist rulers don't just demonize their adversaries against whom they are preparing a military attack. They also bank on economic arguments transmitted by the union tops, who serve as their lieutenants in the labor movement.
When workers come to think of themselves as "Americans" first, last, and always, we are hamstrung in fighting the bosses and advancing the struggle for a just society that puts human needs first, not profits. Our starting point needs to be defending the interests of our class, the working class and its fellow toilers on the land, who have no borders not the interests of "our nation," "our country," or "our company."
Teamsters president Hoffa is leading workers into the trap of ultrarightist politicians like Patrick Buchanan who promote the reactionary lie that workers from other countries should be seen as a threat, rather than potential allies in a fight against the trucking bosses on both sides of the border.
The article "Putting the brakes on unsafe trucks" is itself a chauvinist broadside against Mexican drivers. Readers are reminded over and over that these workers are "unqualified" and "unsafe." They demand that Mexican drivers be subjected to the demeaning drug and alcohol tests that have been forced upon workers in the United States without protest from union officials.
Teamsters officials imply that Mexican truckers are involved in smuggling drugs or transporting unsanitary food. "Inspection gaps provide one more avenue for the flow of illegal drugs into this country, the Teamsters say," states the article. "Two years ago, schoolchildren in Michigan contracted hepatitis from Mexican-grown strawberries uninspected fruit that can be brought into this country more easily after Jan. 1."
Their contemptuous tone is indicative of their views of all workers. America@work, along with Hoffa promote the notion that the deterioration of truckers' pay and working conditions, as well as the outright loss of union jobs can be explained by events other than the trucking bosses' drive for profit. Today they talk of the threat of competition from bosses paying very low wages to drivers from Mexico that soon will be allowed under NAFTA, and urge workers to look to politicians from the two capitalist parties to back off from implementing NAFTA's trucking provisions.
In the 1980s, the threat to truckers was described by union officials as competition from bosses who opened up companies under relaxed rules allowed by the deregulation of trucking. In both cases, Teamster and AFL-CIO officials pay lip service to fighting the bosses but in fact try to divert the ranks toward class collaboration.
Underneath all the demagogy of protesting abysmal wages, bad working conditions, or laxness in environmental standards, one theme emerges protect jobs in the United States and buy "Made in America" products.
America@work's presentation of the issue of highway safety is also a fake. Workers in the transportation industry do face deteriorating conditions, and the broader public does have a stake in ensuring that trucks, trains and water transport are operated in the safest manner possible. But by scapegoating Mexican workers as the main danger drivers along the roads face, we let the profit-hungry owners of the trucking, rail and shipping companies off the hook.
Along with their chauvinist calls for restricting the entry of Mexican workers, union officials also demand that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) inspectors crack down on Mexican truckers for operating unsafe vehicles. They note that 44 percent of a tiny sample of trucks registered in Mexico were taken off the road by DOT inspectors. They also note that 25 percent of U.S.-registered trucks inspected by the DOT nearly 438,000 vehicles were also taken out of service in 1998. Drivers of all nationalities are being forced to operate decrepit equipment. But the nationalist campaign of the Teamster tops undermine the possibility of united action that U.S. and Mexican workers need in a fight for public safety and safer working conditions.
Instead of opposing entry of workers from Mexico, working people should welcome the opportunity to meet, discuss, and fight with fellow workers south of the border and learn from their militant struggles. The ranks of labor need to organize immigrant workers in the United States and collaborate with unionists and unorganized toilers across the border, not try to keep them out.
Over the past summer, truck drivers at the ports of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle waged hard fought strikes to win Teamsters union recognition. A similar fight was waged two years ago at the port of Los Angeles. These workers come from all parts of the globe: Russia, Eritrea, Mexico, India, and elsewhere. They did not ask one another for immigration papers. They recognized their common condition as workers, regardless of national origin, and fought together against the port owners. They sought and won solidarity from unionized longshore and railroad workers.
Fresh from their victory in Vancouver, a group of port drivers tried to travel to Seattle to join a Teamsters rally in Seattle, but were stopped by the same border patrol that Hoffa and the AFL-CIO officials want to strengthen. The drivers won some important victories, including on safety and working conditions. And they remain determined to fight to win a union for all the drivers at the ports. Their example, not the chauvinist anti-Mexican campaign of the union officials, points the way forward for all workers.
Jim Altenberg is a member of the United Transportation Union in San Francisco.
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