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  • The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border
  • Andrew G. Wood
The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border. By David Bacon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. 348. Illustrations. Index. $40.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.

This book offers powerful testimony documenting both the failure of neoliberal economic policy as well as the struggles mounted by ordinary people to resist the arch-capitalist collusion of global corporations and their government collaborators. Former labor organizer and intrepid journalist, David Bacon goes well beyond the stereotypical coverage of the U.S.-Mexican border in documenting grassroots organizing and resistance. Bacon's compelling work spans the critical years of the North American Free Trade Agreement—roughly between 1988 and 2003—and leaves little doubt as to where the contemporary battle lines have been drawn. The story is a familiar one in that the free trade "globalizing" feeding frenzy has pitted working people against those whose human spirit has been displaced by demons demanding absolute loyalty to the ill-fated bottom line.

Blood curdling NAFTA-era labor history is chronicled in every one of Bacon's well-written chapters. The book begins in Southern California as agricultural workers follow the "migration" of their jobs south from former grape growing [End Page 669] areas such as Coachella Valley across the Mexican border. There, low wages, extensive use of child labor and unsafe/unhealthy labor conditions show just how low producers will go to turn a profit. Their avoidance of hard fought gains for farm workers in the U.S. over the past 30 years reveals the cutthroat character of international business facilitated by the passage of free trade legislation such as NAFTA. As worker turned organizer Gema López Limón observes when surveying the scene in Mexicali Valley, growers find Mexico an attractive environment because of the low wages paid. Contrary to free trade discourse suggesting that economic gains will essentially trickle down, transnational corporations "produce wealth we never see" (p. 39) while workers are left miserable. She adds, "trade agreements like NAFTA promised protection for workers but they don't prohibit child labor—they regulate it" (p. 41). With extensive coverage of Tijuana workers, Bacon follows unsuccessful independent organizing efforts at the Plasticos Bajacal maquiladora as well as the Han Young manufacturing plant (a division of Hyundai that produces truck chassis and metal shipping containers). In one of the bitterest struggles in recent history, workers battled with plant management for improved working conditions and better wages. An intense period of labor conflict broke out in the summer of 1997 at the Han Young plant that soon led to hunger strikes, workers chaining themselves to plant entrances, bitter confrontations with scab workers, beating, corrupt union betrayals and a host of official investigations on the part of both Mexican and U.S. governments.

Bacon's excellent reportage discusses a wide range of independent labor organizing (including copper miners in Cananea, Sonora, bus drivers in Mexico City and Latino meatpackers in Nebraska, among others) as well as other grassroots movements dealing with campaigns focused on popular housing and indigenous rights. His Epilogue considers "the confrontation to come" as violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, racism, low wages and environmental devastation plague not only residents of the border region but Americans throughout the hemisphere as the negative effects of neoliberal economic policies continue to play out. As the book's title suggests, we are all Children of NAFTA in that (conscious or not) everyone today is living in a new era of unprecedented economic, political and social interconnectedness.

This is an important and passionate book that reveals the ugly truth behind the callous and empty free trade discourse propagated by North American elites. Yet as Bacon rightly points out, we cannot go back to an earlier time when trade barriers, anti-immigrant legislation and national labor movements once, however wrongly, comforted workers. Instead, "the challenge to progressive social activists is winning sufficient power to control [social] forces and reorder economic priorities" (p. 17). Indeed, current debate over CAFTA as well as South American resistance to Washington-headed free trade initiatives suggest that the tide...


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