Solidarity and Mexican truckers

The U.S. Senate voted 75-23 Sept. 11 to ban Mexican trucks from U.S. highways. The vote rejected a Bush administration program that would allow Mexican truck drivers to operate beyond commercial zones near the Mexican border.

The Teamsters Union had gone to court in San Francisco Aug. 30, demanding that the judge ban the Bush-run Transportation Department’s “pilot program,” which would let trucks from 38 selected Mexican firms roll unhampered over all U.S. highways.

Included on the list of those in the Senate who supported the Mexican truck ban are Democratic presidential candidates Biden, Clinton, Dodd and Obama and many other Democrats with good labor records, including Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Harry Reid and Edward Kennedy.

The Senate deserves to be applauded for this move. The real issue here is the North America Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA allows corporations to go to Mexico, exploit cheap labor and create intolerable conditions that force workers to emigrate. At the same time, NAFTA creates joblessness, lower wages and worse working conditions in the United States. NAFTA hurts workers in both Mexico and the U.S.

Currently, Mexican trucks are restricted to zones within 20 miles of the U.S. border. NAFTA contains a provision that says these trucks should be able to travel throughout the U.S., provided they pass U.S. safety standards. U.S. standards include minimum safety requirements and drug tests for drivers.

The Bush administration had picked 38 Mexican companies to be the first to be allowed to operate trucks throughout the U.S., falsely claiming that it selected those companies because they met the standards.

In fact, the companies did not meet the standards, and they pay their workers very low wages and provide few, if any, benefits. They are either subsidiaries of U.S. firms or connected to U.S. firms looking to find ways of evading responsibility to pay good wages and benefits to workers in the U.S. and Mexico. Opening U.S. highways to these companies would only keep the standards low in Mexico and put downward pressure on wages and working conditions in the United States.

It should be noted, however, that some of those who supported the ban on Mexican trucks did so in ways that are wrong and even dangerous. They resorted to anti-Mexican fear-mongering which, in the end, can only backfire against trade union and progressive forces here in the U.S.

Some, for example, made “drug testing” of Mexican truck drivers the big issue. Their concern about drug use evaporates, however, when it really counts. Many U.S. truck drivers who work for nonunion companies in a deregulated industry are forced to work 14-hour shifts to meet delivery deadlines. Some have taken drugs to stay awake. Most truck drivers, U.S. and Mexican, would choose good salaries, humane working conditions and reasonable hours instead of long hauls and drug-assisted attempts to stay awake.

Some who fought for the ban supported anti-Mexican attitudes in general, claiming U.S. workers should have nothing to do with Mexican truck drivers or immigrant workers, period. If this idea prevails, the fight for justice for U.S. workers will never be won.

The approach to Mexican workers or any immigrant workers on the job in the United States must be one of fighting for union rights and union wages for these workers, and for paths to citizenship for immigrants, if citizenship is what they want. This approach will result in an upward pressure on the wages and working conditions of all U.S. workers, the opposite of what would happen if the Mexican trucks rolled on all U.S. highways.

Some of the individuals who opposed the ban on Mexican trucks claimed they did so because they opposed discrimination against Mexico and Mexicans. In the Senate, these crusaders against “discrimination” included Republicans Cochran, Domenici, Lott, Lugar and Sununu, all with right-wing, anti-labor and anti-immigrant records.

If this crowd was serious about fighting discrimination against Mexicans, they would support citizenship rights for all immigrants and union rights and wages for all workers. Fat chance!

Allowing 38 Mexican companies favored by Bush because of how thoroughly they exploit their workers to operate with impunity all over the U.S. is not the way to fight discrimination against Mexico, Mexicans or anyone else.

What is especially needed at this time is labor solidarity. U.S. workers must join hands with Mexican workers in this fight for justice for all of us.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney put it this way recently: “American labor is as concerned about the rights of workers all over the world as it is about the rights of workers here in America. The two cannot be separated.”

John Wojcik (jwocik @pww.org) is People’s Weekly World labor editor.