Review in Labor Studies Journal 38(3)

Continental Crucible
Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America

By Edur Velasco Arregui and Richard Roman  

The product of decades of close collaboration between two participant/observers of the Mexican labor movement, Continental Crucible is a significant contribution to the literature on NAFTA and labor that merits the study and consideration of labor educators. The originality of the work lies in its methodological orientation. The book presents itself in general terms as a “pan-continental” and “broad class struggle” approach to the study of NAFTA and labor. More specifically, the innovation lies in taking this perspective from the periphery of the asymmetrical relationships that define the political economy of North America, as well as from the standpoint of a Mexican working class that bridges US and Mexican labor markets.

This periphery/class perspective yields a series of insights. The first half of the volume deals concretely with the business organizations that were established in the 1970s with the intent of turning back a tide of nationalist economic development initiatives, health, safety and environmental policy, and trade union power. The Business Council on National Issues in Canada, the Business Roundtable in the US, and the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial in Mexico identified these trends as posing a threat to profits and capitalist control over investment and labor. These organizations mobilized on a class basis to win a unity of outlook and a shared political agenda that would come to be known as neoliberalism. NAFTA was promoted by the Business Roundtable in the US as a means of rationalizing continental production systems and disciplining US labor.

As the authors show very clearly, however, the initiative towards continental “free trade” lies elsewhere, in the efforts of Canadian and Mexican capital to realign public policy across a broad spectrum and to shift the relations of class forces domestically. NAFTA and its precursor, the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA), accomplished this by bringing the US trade-dependent Mexican and Canadian economies under a system of rules that reflected the more thoroughly neo-liberal state and society of post-Reagan America. In other words, Canadian and Mexican business used their countries’ asymmetrical trade relations with the US to midwife a neoliberal transition in a domestic context where labor was stronger (Canada) and the state more autonomous (Mexico). These trade and investment agreements are too often understood in the critical and labor-oriented literature as an imposition of the center on a dominated periphery or semi-periphery. It is important to correct this view. Otherwise, there is a tendency to discuss NAFTA as a matter of tariffs and capital mobility threatening to US or Canadian workers. Missing from this analysis is the deliberate political, constitution-like role of free trade and investment agreements in foreclosing public policy alternatives and shifting dominant discourses, a role that CUFTA and NAFTA pioneered. This is of direct relevance to a critical understanding of current trade negotiations and the making of neoliberal globalization more broadly. Roman and Arregui’s perspective on NAFTA makes clear the relevance of organizing politically on a class basis, for capital as for labor.

The second half of the volume turns to a discussion of how NAFTA has remade the Mexican working class and what this might portend for the future of organized labor in the US and Canada. The authors present remarkable material on the extent of Mexican workers’ integration into US capitalism: one-third of employed Mexican nationals reside in the United States and one-fourth of industrial workers in Mexico are employed in the maquiladoras or other continentally integrated production. “Based on these figures, we can estimate that over 58 percent of employed Mexican workers are employed continentally, either working in the United States in all activities (industrial, services and agriculture) or in plants in Mexico that are part of a continental production process” (pp. 74-75). Unlike in previous labor migrations, Mexican immigrants are entering US labor markets that have been degraded by the same corporate counter-offensive that gave us NAFTA, offering them few opportunities of social mobility along with the longstanding anti-Mexican racism. The authors find hope for a new continental trade unionism in this unstable integration into US capitalism of a Mexican working class, on both sides of the border, which carries with it a rich tradition of militant trade union struggle and enormous political potential.

The book is well written in an accessible language and would be an appropriate text for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in labor studies as well as worker education classes on global issues or economics. - reviewed by Ian Thomas MacDonald, Cornell ILR School, Ithaca, NY, USA

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