Working USA

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

By Edur Velasco Arregui and Richard Roman  

Roman and Velasco have two interrelated goals for their book, to explain the corporate-driven rise of neoliberal political economy across North America, and arguing for the importance and present prospects of continent-wide labor solidarity. In the first third, the authors present the distinct trajectories by which the leading corporate sectors of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico each grounded in distinct national political-economic contexts, worked with sympathetic sectors of their respective states to overcome perceived limits and threats to the power of big business, along the way weakening the power of labor, curbing nationalistic governments and implementing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Their history focuses on the sometimes overlooked but critical institutional role of elite national business associations in laying the groundwork for the neoliberal shift, both by directly lobbying state actors and by changing the dominant ideas of popular culture through think tanks and public relations firms. Beginning in the U.S., the authors explain how the political context of rising labor militancy and civil rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s led corporate leaders to feel that not only was their immediate term profitability at stake through successful strikes for wage increases, but that the very power and long-run viability of the private sector was at stake. These executives founded the Business Roundtable in 1972 as a means to unify the sometimes divergent interests of big capital, and pursue a pro-corporate agenda.

Consciously modeled after their U.S. neighbors, leading executives of both Canadian-owned firms and U.S. subsidiaries in Canada formed the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI) (now the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) four years later. In addition to confronting increasingly assertive workers (Roman and Velasco note how in contrast to the U.S. labor movement whose militancy had subsided by the mid-1970s, Canadian workers continued to strike in large numbers into the 1980s), private sector Canadian employers in the 1970s were concerned on the one hand by threats of U.S. protectionism, and on the other, by the Canadian government’s nationalist response of increasing state intervention in the economy. Beneath it all, there was a sense among the leaders of Canada’s most dynamic firms that their companies were constrained by markets defined at the national scale, and that their future lay with globalexpansion and began with a continental approach.

The same year in 1976, Mexican capitalists formed the Business Coordinating Council (Consejo Coordinador Empresarial), with similar objectives. It confronted the death throes of “revolutionary nationalism” under presidents Luis Echeverría and Jose Lopez Portillo, weathering the latter’s short-lived initiative to nationalize Mexico’s banks as a response to the country’s deep

economic crisis in 1982. Unified by the experience, Mexico’s private sector leaders worked with subsequent administrations to roll back the economic policymaking autonomy of the post-revolutionary state through mass privatization. In doing so, they consolidated their own wealth and power. Like Canadian capitalists, leading Mexican chief executive officers (CEOs) concluded by the mid-1980s that future growth and preventing a return to economic nationalism depended on opening their country’s borders to foreign direct investment. Roman and Velasco clearly explain through these narratives that despite emerging from distinct national contexts, elite corporate actors in each country organized to advance their interests, reinforcing a parallel alignment within the dominant state apparatuses and converging at complementary conclusions in favor of free trade. The authors remind us that the initial impetus for NAFTA emerged from the Mexican state and leading capitalists, who subsequently recruited the eager support of U.S. CEOs who recognized the opportunities for more secure investments south of the border with the threat of expropriation greatly diminished, especially in Mexico’s finance sector and in the export processing factories known as the maquiladoras. Not to be left out, the Canadian government and the BCNI ensured Canada’s inclusion.

The authors clearly recognize the emergent international power in its own right of the Canadian capitalist class, a useful reminder to nationalists focused on the obvious penetration of U.S. capital into Canada. Canadian firms have since joined the top five sources of foreign direct investment in Mexico, driven by the massive expansion of its mining companies. More attention to this dynamic would have been useful, especially as an interesting departure from the predominantly Mexico-U.S. and U.S.-Canada explanation of capitalist continental integration. In his review published in New Politics, Dan La Botz, a long-time solidarity activist and researcher on the Mexican labor movement, is skeptical of Roman and Velasco’s optimism that the Mexican working class as migrants in the U.S. and in Mexico, could imminently become an insurgent force, by drawing on its “revolutionary, collectivist and class-conscious rhetoric and traditions” (114). La Botz reluctantly argues that the authors are over optimistic on the prospects for radical social change, and that the “crucible of North American transformation” is not in fact “heating up” as the authors proclaim on the first page. La Botz argues intriguingly that the century-old slogans, symbols, and secular saints of the Mexican Revolution may in fact “inhibit the development of a serious and realistic revolutionary politics appropriate for today” (Bacon 2013).

Foreign labor activists visiting Mexico and especially its capital city for the first time will quickly be impressed with the prominence of revolutionary labor symbolism. You will find not only a major thoroughfare named “Workers of the World,” but neighborhoods, streets, and a subway station honoring anarchosyndicalist Ricardo Flores Magon, an intellectual inspiration for the Mexican Revolution–and a name inscribed in gold in the Mexican legislature alongside a couple dozen other A-List national heroes. However, in light of the “many protests but few major conflicts,” over the past thirty years of the neoliberal era in La Botz’s assessment, he is right to question what all of this revolutionary heritage actually means for unpoliticized as well as many politically active Mexicans concerned with the increasingly precarious conditions of employment and social security.

Nevertheless, it is also readily apparent to me that while a revolutionary anti-capitalist outlook remains far from the mainstream, there does exist a far greater tendency toward organization and militant struggle among specific, significant groups like Mexico’s democratic teachers’ movement, than is currently present among their peers north of the border. I believe that much of this emerges from deeply rooted traditions of struggle that foments a much broader and potentially more radical composition of what community organizer Saul Alinsky described as the repertoire of world views and specific tactics that were “within the experience” or “common sense” of a given group. For thousands of public school teachers in southern and central Mexico, it is considered a reasonable and feasible tactic to occupy the central square of Mexico City in opposition to neoliberal education reforms. When I visited the sea of tents erected in the summer 2013 with approximately 2,000 teachers present day and night, and the escalation in the fall to actions including wildcat strikes, occupations of highway tollbooths and blockades of government buildings across most states in Mexico, I had difficulty imagining the circumstances that would spur my teacher colleagues back in Toronto, Canada to follow their example.

In the final third of their book, Roman and Velasco take on the “limits of presently existing unionism” within North America, arguing both the need to strengthen continent-wide solidarity, and for organized labor to become more inclusive and oriented toward transformative change within the national and local scales as well. The authors laud the well-known and perhaps most profound example of coordination between a northern union and Mexican labor, the “Strategic Alliance” of the United Electrical Workers (UE) and Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT). From its origins in opposition to NAFTA, the relationship between these two unions of comparable size, sectoral composition, and political tendencies has gone well beyond the standard repertoire of joint declarations, international conferences, and north-south donations, to include organizer exchanges leading to unionization victories in both countries. Roman and Velasco have made a valuable contribution to understanding the convergence of North American political economy under free trade and neoliberalism, and a timely intervention in their call for a transnational labor movement with transformative ambitions. - Paul Bocking for Working USA, Volume 16, Issue 4, Published online 14 November 2013

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