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The Man Who Took My Job

A NAFTA adventure brings a laid-off worker to find his counterpart in Mexico

Bill Clinton and NAFTABill Clinton and NAFTA

President Bill Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Bob Michel and Speaker of the House Tom Foley watch, December 8th, 1993.


David Quinn spent what President Clinton calls “the longest period of economic growth in our entire history” tumbling down the economic ladder — from having a shot at being the first in his family to get a college degree to living a life of working poverty. David is twenty-six, a shy, unassuming man more attuned to rock & roll and classical guitar than to global politics, and his response to career calamity was simply to scale down his expectations and soldier on.

So while one could argue that David was forced out of college in 1997 because Clinton and Congress failed to reform health care, David would just say he was unlucky. He needed expensive oral surgery that his student health plan wouldn’t cover, so he abandoned his education and took a union job (with good medical insurance) making automobile steering wheels for Breed Technologies, outside Fort Wayne, Indiana. David’s father had been a union welder, and his grandfather had worked in the very same plant, and David figured that as a consolation prize for giving up college, he at least had a secure gig. Higher education had been a stretch anyway, and he had $12,000 worth of student debt to prove it.

He moved in with a woman he’d met in Spanish class, Alyssa Lewandowski, had his upper jaw sawed off and repositioned to correct a bad bite, and began thinking about buying a house. All day he pumped molten plastic into a chest-high mold and pulled out blazing-hot steering wheels. In his off hours, he coaxed fluid blues riffs from his Stratocaster guitar. It wasn’t all he’d dreamed of, but David started settling into the blue-collar life.

Less than a year later, in March 1998, David was unemployed again. Breed closed the factory and fired all 455 workers — not because of a drop in sales, but because the company figured it could make steering wheels more cheaply in Mexico. All around him factories were closing, and David wasn’t able to find another union job. He ended up delivering pharma-ceuticals to discount stores for seven dollars an hour, no benefits and no future. Then he and Alyssa had a baby. One day Alyssa said, “We’re out of diapers,” and without a word David took his beloved Strat to a pawn shop, sold it for a quarter of its value and stopped for a pack of Kimbies on the way home.

Still, he didn’t get angry. “A company’s got a right to do what it wants,” was how he put it.

David’s job at Breed was sacrificed to corporate globalism, specifically to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which turned six years old on January 1st. By easing rules and erasing tariffs, NAFTA makes it easier for American companies to do their manufacturing in Mexico, where the minimum wage is about $3.75 a day and enforcement of safety, labor and environmental standards is notoriously lax.

Breed aggressively pursued these advantages. The company was founded in 1987, in Lakeland, Florida, the brainchild of an engineer who had worked on triggers for the military and then applied them to civilian automobiles. By the time David got hired, Breed was selling almost $800 million a year in air bags, sensors, steering wheels, seat belts and other car parts to just about all the major automakers. By the late Nineties, it had developed a strategy to buy up factories in both the United States and Mexico, moving production from north to south of the border.

In addition to David’s workplace, Breed closed five other auto-parts factories across the U.S. in 1997, sending at least a thousand American jobs to Mexico and cutting labor costs on affected products by as much as ninety percent. But the company’s orgy of expansion brought with it unbearable debt, and last fall Breed filed for bankruptcy. Company officials declined to comment for this article.

David Quinn didn’t know it, but he was particularly vulnerable to such corporate maneuverings. Being a young male without a college degree, he had a big bull’s-eye painted on him. While the Dow was reaching delirious heights in the Nineties, people with only a high school or some college education — most American workers — ended the decade earning less, in constant dollars, than they had at the start. Being young in the Nineties hurt too: Entry-level wages fell more than seven percent, with men’s wages dropping slightly more than those of women. And it happens that Indiana is one of seven states that suffered disproportionate NAFTA-related job losses.

One by one, factories that Indianans had worked in for generations were shutting down and sending their jobs to Mexico. The names of the departed were a gloomy roll call: Thomson Consumer Electronics. Jay Garment. Magne Tek. Uniroyal Goodrich. Breed. Indianans blame NAFTA for job losses at 107 factories in their state so far.

Just how many Americans have been hurt by NAFTA is unclear. The Clinton administration, which sold NAFTA to Congress partly on the promise that it would create jobs, sidesteps the question of exactly how many — if any — the treaty has created. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which quantifies the workforce from every conceivable angle, chooses not to compile such a number. Instead, the administration credits NAFTA only in general terms with helping to generate the current boom. Yet according to the Journal of Commerce, the U.S. went from having a $5.5 billion trade surplus with Mexico before NAFTA to having a whopping $16 billion trade deficit today, and the prestigious Economic Policy Institute estimates that almost 400,000 Americans lost manufacturing jobs due to NAFTA in the agreement’s first three years.

That’s about the same number of jobs that have been created in the maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories in Mexico, since NAFTA was signed. So one might conclude that there’s been a huge transfer of wealth and that Mexican workers are profiting from the misfortune of their American counterparts. Mexican factory wages may be low by U.S. standards, but in the Mexican countryside people commonly earn as little as ten dollars a week — when they can find work. A job in an American factory, especially a new one, sounds better than whacking weeds with a machete in the hot sun or selling chewing gum to motorists on the streets of Mexico City. In raw terms, factories generate wealth — for those who work in them, for those who own them, for those who market, advertise, transport and sell the products they make. Shiny new American factories — built where once stood only a patch of beans or a few goats — sound like a dream come true for Mexicans.

The transfer of wealth, it turns out, has not been nearly so neat. David Quinn was painfully aware of how NAFTA had damaged his own life when, in January, he and I traveled together to Mexico. Our goal was to see whether we could find the worker who was doing his old job — to see, in essence, how David’s life had fared in translation.

I’d found David by calling trade activists around the country, who directed me to dozens of union locals savaged by NAFTA-related factory closures. He turned out to be a depressingly typical NAFTA casualty. Instead of him, someone from Lowland, Tennessee; McAllen, Texas; or Arab, Alabama, to name but a few places in America devastated by the treaty, might have made the trip. David was simply the first worker I found who was willing to go.

But he turned out to be a staunch traveler, gifted with empathy, courage and a quiet knack for crossing boundaries. During a four-day journey through modern industrial Mexico, David would wade through Dickensian misery and emerge ready to see what had happened to his life and why. We left Fort Wayne on the morning of January 29th, on the trail of the man who got his job.

It’s freezing cold and pitch dark, and David shows up at Fort Wayne Airport for the flight to Brownsville, Texas, badly wanting a cigarette. This is his first airplane trip, and he looks a little miffed standing alone in one of those glass-walled airport smokers’ lounges, wolfing a Marlboro Light and a Mountain Dew. He says he doesn’t know what he expects to find in Mexico; he hasn’t thought about it.

David is taciturn about the way he lost his job, too. He heard a rumor. Then it was posted on the bulletin board. No, the union didn’t do anything, he says. There was nothing to do.

“How did you feel about it?”

“Bad, I guess.”

Two years ago, when Breed announced that it would close the plant where David worked, Local 7452 of the United Paperworkers International Union offered to take a pay cut to keep it open. Breed dismissed the idea. Management in effect told union negotiators that American workers couldn’t compete with Mexicans willing to accept fifty-one cents an hour.

The union wasn’t able to wrest anything more from the company than severance pay of $150 for each year of service, plus a few months of health insurance. So men and women who had worked at the plant for, say, twenty-five years, walked away with $3,750 — before taxes — to help them start again. (Breed offered an extra $300 per year of service if workers would remain until the bitter end, though few did.)

Under similar circumstances, some unions do fight back. When Nabisco tried to close a factory in Pittsburgh last year, the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union raised enough hell to attract the attention of a buyer. Impressed by the devoted workforce, the new owner found a way to keep the plant open. Elsewhere, unions made such a stink about the low wages their companies were planning to pay in Mexico that the firms tried to buy good will by offering retraining or college tuition to their laid-off workers. But David’s union didn’t put up a fight.

Walking across the Gateway Bridge from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, David is wrenched through a transition that is neither gradual nor subtle. He’s far from the sterile landscape of Fort Wayne, where acres of parking surround homogenized outposts of national corporations — Ethan Allen, Cracker Barrel, Circuit City — and everything is experienced through the windshield of a car. Here on the border, tightly clipped lawns, orderly intersections and credit-card-ready gasoline pumps give way abruptly to cracked and crowded sidewalks, business owners standing in their doorways urging you inside, the overamplified accordions of ranchera music competing with the roar of badly tuned bus engines and the blare of sound trucks hawking everything from lettuce to light bulbs.

David is unruffled. He walks straight into a grubby little store and, in lumpy but serviceable Spanish, buys himself a pack of Marlboro Lights and a 500-milliliter Coke.

“I liked Spanish class,” he says.

First stop is Pastoral Juvenil Obrera, or Pastoral Working Youth, a Catholic group organizing to improve conditions in the foreign-owned factories. Its “office” is actually a tiny, windowless room in the back of a squat cement house, where portraits of Jesus Christ share a wall with pictures of Che Guevara and Salma Hayek. Redheaded Maricela Rodriguez, whom everybody calls Gorda (Fatty), not only knows Breed workers, she used to be one.

“I was there six months, sewing leather covers on steering wheels. Was that your job?” she asks David.

David shakes his head. “Tell her I operated a mold,” he says.

“Here’s what I did all day,” Gorda says, demonstrating three quick stitches and then a jerk of the threads to tighten them. “I ended up hurting the nerves in my arm, got bad tendinitis.” She does the stitch-stitch-stitch-yank again. “Fifteen wheels a day. That’s 1,600 repetitive motions. We did a study.”

In walks Manuel Mondragon, looking like a Mexican revolutionary from a Hollywood movie, with a rakish beard and the eyes of a panther. Manuel can’t work in the maquiladoras anymore, he says, because the factory owners blacklisted him as a troublemaker. Now he works for PJO, his salary paid by the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, which supports worker-justice programs in the U.S. and Mexico. When asked whether he can help find a Breed worker making plastic steering wheels like David used to, Manuel pushes his hands deep into the pockets of an old tweed sport coat and looks us up and down, as though deciding whether we’re worth the risk. After a long, frowning moment, he says, “Let’s go see Erick and Maribel.”

It takes forty minutes to go six miles — not because of traffic but because any of the million potholes we skirt could total Manuel’s sprung-shot 1986 Buick. Once it’s too late to turn back, he says that neither Erick nor Maribel has actually worked for Breed. “But Maribel used to work in a different [American-owned] steering-wheel factory,” he adds. “So she can describe the work. And maybe she’ll know somebody.”

Maribel and Erick turn out to be a well-dressed and handsome young couple who live with their eight-year-old son in a ten-by ten-foot plywood cube. With the growth of the maquiladora industry since NAFTA, the number of factories in and around Matamoros has expanded by a third, but almost no additional housing has been built. Erick and Maribel’s shack, which isn’t much bigger than their double bed, is one of several slapped together in the garden of a dilapidated house that has another sprawling family crammed into it — and the only bathroom in the compound.

Maribel’s job was to receive the plastic steering wheels hot from moldsmen like David. She enunciates carefully the chemicals she handled: Sicomet, toluene, Varsol and Lokweld. “I learned their names after leaving the job,” she says. “While I was working, the company refused to tell us what they were or what health effects to watch for.” They are associated with a horrifying list of ailments, ranging from “defatting of the skin” and blurred vision to nervoussystem damage and birth defects, according to medical journals, U.S. government bulletins and literature from the chemical manufacturers themselves.

“Ask if she had a mask,” David says.

“No,” Maribel answers. “Only goggles, and some days not even gloves to handle the chemicals and hot plastic.”

David whistles.

“When I got pregnant, I asked to be moved to a job where I didn’t have to breathe chemical fumes all day,” she says. As Maribel talks, her son, Erick, bundled against the cold, walks in and scrambles across the bed for a hug. He’s small for his age, and when he unwraps his scarf, he reveals a port-wine stain that mottles half his face. Also, there’s something odd about his eyes; they’re unusually wide-spaced, as though the top of his face is built on a broader scale than the bottom. When he pulls off his wool beanie, it’s clear why: His head is twice the normal size, with two great bony growths the size of doorknobs sprouting from his forehead.

He’s clearly not retarded — he has a sprightly, grown-up wit — but Maribel says he suffers terrifying seizures. “And other children are afraid of him,” she adds, “so he’s lonely.” His parents don’t know what’s wrong with him, or even whether the chemicals caused his deformities, because when Maribel quit work to care for him, the family lost its health insurance.

Manuel mentions a 1998 study conducted by the Autonomous University of Mexico: Two-thirds of the maquiladora workers surveyed reported health problems from the chemicals they used at work. Usually, Manuel adds, the workers have no idea what they’re using.

David swivels on the bed toward Manuel. “In the United States, every container in the plant has to have a label,” he says. “If it contains something dangerous, it has to have a big Hazmat label with the name of the chemical and a number, one to four, that says how dangerous it is.”

“That’s allá,” says Manuel ruefully, meaning “over there” — the term Mexicans use for the United States.

NAFTA may have created jobs in the maquiladoras, Manuel says, but working conditions have worsened. He brandishes a university study showing that wages in the maquiladoras around Matamoros have dropped since NAFTA was signed, in an era when inflation has run between ten and fifty percent a year. And in this town, ordinary consumer goods are more expensive than they are on the Texas side of the border. People who can get permission to cross into the U.S. often do their grocery shopping in Brownsville, Manuel says. But low wages are only part of the problem for Mexicans, according to the university study: The workweek has gone from forty to forty-eight hours; benefits such as life insurance, scholarships and regular raises have been replaced by a bonus pegged to productivity; and the right to strike is gone.

“It’s what the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization were about in December,” Manuel says. “Liberalizing world trade should not harden the lives of ordinary working people. It’s why your AFL-CIO fought against NAFTA in the first place.”

The AFL-CIO fought, but by 1993 the labor federation had become a toothless old lion. The share of the U.S. workforce that its unions represent had fallen by half since World War II, to one worker in six. The best the AFL-CIO and its allies could secure were all-but-unenforceable “side agreements” on labor and the environment. But proponents of better-regulated world commerce are gaining strength. The protests at the Seattle WTO meeting, in which the AFL-CIO was a key participant, not only disrupted the meeting but also so frightened the world’s captains of finance and industry that their following meeting, in Switzerland in January, was almost entirely occupied with Seattle.

The day ends for David on an upbeat note. First, he finds something he recognizes on the hotel restaurant’s dinner menu: chicken tacos. Then, as he rises to walk outside for a cigarette, a waiter hands him an ashtray.

“You can smoke in a restaurant here?” he asks, gratefully lighting up and exhaling luxuriously. “Well, that’s one good thing about Mexico.”

Manuel finishes eating and rises to go. So what about the guy who has David’s old job? we ask him.

“Tomorrow,” he says with a courtly bow. “Tomorrow we will find him.”

In the morning, David is unusually talkative. He saw a rock band on TV the night before that he really liked — Los Estrambóticos — and he wants to find their CD. And talking yesterday about the weakness of the AFL-CIO has got him thinking about his old union.

“We once had a vote on whether we entry-level guys should get a raise, and fifty guys voted no,” he says, sipping his breakfast Coke. “You had to vote before your shift started, which means these guys got out of bed a half-hour early to vote against their fellow union members getting a raise!” He shudders and lights a cigarette. David doesn’t use foul language, but the memory makes him mad enough to come close. “F-ing a-holes,” he mutters. “Union guys getting out of bed early to burn other union guys. No wonder the AFL-CIO is weak.”

Finding David’s old job is a slow process in a world with few phones and much suspicion. Manuel is inching us closer, but it’s clear that an American journalist interested in the plight of Mexican workers is an unusual thing, so he’s making the most of it. He has assembled a small group of people who used to work in a Breed steering-wheel plant.

They’re waiting for us in a musty print shop, crowded around a cast-iron press that looks old enough to have crossed the ocean with Cortéz. Martha Ojeda of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, which is an ally of Manuel’s organization, runs the meeting like an orchestra conductor, pointing to each worker in turn to elicit his or her story. Sitting among the lead slabs of type, we hear in detail from Sylvia, who was bullied back to work by her own union when she tried to complain about being sick from chemicals; from Mathias and Christina, a young couple whose baby lived only two days; and from Ezekiel, whose baby was born without a brain.

David lets out a sigh like a locomotive clearing its brakes, and everybody turns to look at him.

“Sorry,” he says, though it isn’t clear whether he’s apologizing for the interruption or for being a comfortable white person in a room full of suffering brown ones.

Toribio Rezendis speaks last. He’s a solid forty-two-year-old with strong Indian features who migrated from the state of Veracruz to sew leather covers on steering wheels. “Like Gorda,” he says, “only I did it for nine and a half years.” His elbows are so disfigured that out-of-place tendons are visible through the skin, and his arms hang at his sides, immobile and useless. “If I’d stayed home,” he says, “at least I’d still be able to work.”

Toribio asks David why some American workers feel the Mexicans have “stolen” their jobs.

David doesn’t even glance over for help with translation; his Spanish is limbering up. “I guess because they don’t know you,” he says. “They only think about what they lost. . . .”

Martha suddenly thrusts her face into David’s and yells, “We’re not the enemies, guys!”

David jumps and scrambles back against the wall. “Yeah,” he says, “I know.” By the end of the meeting, he’s shuffling like a man in irons, as though he’s dragging the burden of the Mexicans’ stories. It’s been a gloomy morning, and we’re no closer to finding David’s old job.

Lunch — chicken tacos — perks David up enough to make for a music store. The posters in the window are of guys in embroidered sombreros the size of satellite dishes — an unlikely place to find a rock band, but David wants to try. As he pushes open the door, he’s rehearsing his Spanish. “They’re like the Ramones, doing ska. They’re like the Ramones, doing ska.” The woman behind the counter just arches her heavily painted eyebrows. Ramonays? Sha?

Manuel is waiting to take us to meet someone named Alma, “who might know someone in the Breed plant.” The afternoon is a horrific detour through a squatter camp that has grown from a garbage dump. The shortage of housing in Matamoros is so acute that 2,000 families live here. Shacks made of tar paper, tin and scrap wood stand amid mountains of plastic bags full of reeking refuse. The families live without electricity, water, plumbing, transportation or schools.

Running through the camp is a creek that serves as an open sewer for maquiladoras upstream. A yellow liquid is flowing from a pipe into the creek, near where children are buying tamales from a cart, and the air is thick with stinging fumes. These people, Manuel points out, aren’t the poorest of the poor, because most of these families have at least two members working in the maquiladoras.

Manuel’s extended tour of maquila-doraland isn’t just for our education — though the repetition of brutal scenes and tragic stories is working its effect — it’s also a way for him to check us out, to see whether we’re worth helping. Alma doesn’t know anyone from the Breed plant, she says, but apparently we have passed muster. As we leave the dump, Manuel is grinning. David’s old job isn’t in Matamoros, he says, and it’s clear he knew it all along. The job went about an hour away, to a factory in Valle Hermoso. Manuel graciously presents us with a scrap of napkin bearing the name of an activist there who can help us.

“Good luck,” he beams as we squeeze into a taxi held together with baling wire and Virgin Mary stickers. The drive is a nightmare of shattered pavement and suicidal dogs, and as we bounce along, David shares another memory that the events of the day have jarred loose.

“Right after the factory closed, I was having dinner with my uncle, who’s a real right-winger. He said, ‘Do you think they’d have closed it if it wasn’t union?’ As though it was the union’s fault.” David shakes his head at the idea. “But you know,” he goes on, “when they announced they were closing the factory, the union did nothing. Everybody just ran off to find his own job.”

Actually, his uncle might have had a point. David’s local didn’t have the strength to protect itself, but the fact that the plant was unionized might have helped motivate Breed to move the jobs. More than half of companies recently surveyed by Cornell University used the threat of moving to Mexico to fight off union organizing drives, and one in six actually closed all or part of a plant when forced to bargain with a union. David and his co-workers may have had just enough of a union to induce Breed to close the plant, but not enough of one to stop Breed from doing so.

The taxi driver leaves us in downtown Valle Hermoso, a ragged little village of cracked-cement storefronts huddled in a chilling winter rain. We kill an hour eating and then wander the grimy streets, trying record stores for Los Es-trambóticos. “Es como los Ramones haciendo sha!” David keeps saying, but he gets nowhere.

Late that night we finally find the guy whose name is scribbled on the napkin; he turns out to be, at first glance, a kid of fourteen. In face, Pedro Lopez is twenty, but his baby face and slicked-down hair give him the look of an altar boy. He lives with his mother in a decent if simple cement house, with electricity and plumbing. There’s even a bookshelf, with three books on it: one on Mexican labor law, a Spanish-English dictionary and the Holy Bible.

Pedro is tougher than he appears — when he was only seventeen, he helped lead a long and brutal strike against a Canadian steering-wheel factory that ended when the workers filed charges. Two years later, the Mexican government decided in the workers’ favor, but the victory was moot — by then the company had changed hands. The new owner was Breed Technologies, which had just closed its plant in Fort Wayne so it could move the jobs down here.

Pedro and David suffered on both ends of the same deal. And Pedro knows just the guy we’re looking for.

The guy who got David’s job never knew that David — or someone like him — even existed. It had never occurred to him that for him to get a job, somebody up north had to lose one.

Alejandro Morales is seventeen, almost a decade David Quinn’s junior. A wispy mustache tries, without much success, to make him look older, and a shiny pompadour adds intensity to his deep, dark eyes. He was born in Valle Hermoso and lives with his father and older brother in a particularly wretched shack of scrap lumber and canvas. When David asks to use the bathroom, he’s directed to the weeds out back.

But this is an up-and-coming family. Alejandro’s father, an aging longhair named José Angel, is just back from two years of working construction in Texas, during which time his sons stayed with relatives. With the wages he earned there, José Angel is building the family a spacious cement house right behind the shack. A stack of sheetrock — an uncommon luxury in Mexico — waits under a tarp. “Eighty pesos a sheet!” José Angel says, sounding amazed that he can afford such a thing.

More striking than Alejandro’s matinee-idol looks is his remarkable calm. He’s willing to talk on the record, and to risk being fired, because, like David, he dreams of a life beyond the factory. Every day after his eight-hour shift, he attends high school until eleven at night. He’d have liked to have gone to a technica, or technical school, but Valle Hermoso has only a general high school. So he’s unsure about what he’ll do with his degree. All he knows is that he wants to get out of the maquiladora soon.

We sit on the upturned paint buckets and sacks of cement that litter the yard. To Alejandro, the idea that this blond guy once did his same job, and now has come looking for it, is almost too much to believe. He and David explore each other tentatively by talking a little shop.

“I spray the mold with mold release and a layer of paint,” Alejandro says. “I close it and inject the polyurethane. Then I open it up and hand it behind me to a man who trims it with a knife. I make twenty wheels an hour.”

“What does the mold look like?”

“Like a big clamshell,” Alejandro says.

“That’s it exactly,” David says, slapping his knees. He asks whether Alejandro’s factory has eyewash stations, which the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration required Breed to have in Indiana.


“How about hearing protectors?”



“Only sometimes.”

“Jeez,” David says to me. “Those wheels are so hot when they come out of the mold that sometimes I’d have to wear two pairs.” He turns to Alejandro. “How do you handle a wheel without gloves?”

“Rapidly,” Alejandro answers, without irony. Then it’s his turn. He asks David what it was like when the company moved.

“I’d come in to my shift,” David says, “and every night there’d be another mold pulled off the line, mounted on a pallet and shrink-wrapped. On the side, someone would have written ‘Mexico’ in big black letters. It was like watching your job get shipped away right in front of your eyes.” A thought strikes him. “You’re not only doing the same job, you’re probably using the same mold!”

Alejandro pulls out a pay slip. His base pay for forty-eight hours is 274.68 pesos, or about twenty-nine dollars. To that are added bonuses for punctuality, perfect attendance and productivity; subtracted are union dues and taxes, leaving a take-home pay of 459 pesos, or forty-eight dollars a week. A dollar an hour. Company transportation to and from work costs about a dollar a day, and lunch in the company cafeteria is another dollar, so Alejandro’s net is closer to thirty-six dollars a week, or seventy-five cents an hour.

“I made $10.49 an hour,” David tells him, and Alejandro, who has maintained a gelid blankness until now, grimaces. “Dollars or pesos?” he asks.

“Dollars,” David says. “We thought they were getting a pretty good deal off our labor, but here!” He sits back, puts his hands on his knees and, in English, exclaims, “Fuckin’ A!”

They do a little math together. According to what David’s union told him, Breed charge about ten dollars for each wheel it sells to automakers. A Breed worker, in that case, whether American or Mexican, makes $200 worth of product an hour. So David got five percent of the value of each wheel he made. Alejandro gets one half of one percent. That simple difference — to say nothing of freedom from effective unions, OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency — is why companies move jobs to Mexico.

Another thing Alejandro didn’t know is that his employer recently filed for bankruptcy. Not even the employees’ rumor mill picked that one up, he says.

We rise to say our goodbyes to Alejandro and his father. As we do, David leans over and takes José Angel by the arm. “Somos hermanos en la lucha,” he says, looking deep into the startled man’s eyes. We are brothers in the struggle. The older man grasps David’s hand and shakes it warmly.

Hermanos,” he says.

The moment surprises everyone. David fumbles with his glasses, then punches his arms into his nylon Steelers jacket, zips up and says something about needing to buy silver earrings for Alyssa before we cross the border.

Then, as we’re leaving, he turns back for a moment to Alejandro, and they stand, foreheads almost touching, talking quietly. A snatch of their conversation makes its way across the room.

“They’re like the Ramones,” David says, “doing ska.”

One shouldn’t judge the entire maquiladora program by those in Mata-moros and Valle Hermoso, says Martha Tovar, president of Solunet: Infomex, an El Paso, Texas, firm that does market research for companies that do business with the maquiladoras. “Matamoros is a very troubled place for maquiladoras, perhaps because there is lots of union activity there.”

There may someday be even more. Unions worldwide used to begin their meetings by singing the Internationale, the workers’ anthem of global solidarity. Nowadays, it is capital that sings that tune. Fort Wayne and Valle Hermoso find themselves bound to each other by way of a Florida corporation named Breed and its partners in Berlin, which make products in Mexico and Indiana but also in Spain, Finland and Hungary, for clients in Michigan, Italy and Tokyo, so they can repay lenders in North Carolina and shareholders everywhere. Breed’s president, Charles J. Speranzella Jr., earned more than three quarters of a million dollars in 1998 — a year when the company lost money and was heading for bankruptcy, a year when Alejandro would have earned $2,300. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, during the richest years in American history, employees of American corporations are living and working under medieval conditions, and if the barons of the WTO have anything to say about it, the exportation of jobs will only accelerate.

It’s illegal in most countries for U.S. unions to organize. But U.S. unions can and do support unions and worker-justice movements abroad. The United Auto Workers, for instance, is helping Manuel’s organization compile data on repetitive-stress injuries. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) is supporting the formation of a new, independent federation of militant unions in Mexico. The Steelworkers Union last year signed a formal alliance with a Uruguayan union to help it stand up to Titan International, which has tire factories in South America, Europe, India and the United States.

What goes around comes around: When a member of the UE was fired by a Wisconsin company during an organizing drive, the Japanese labor federation Zenroren, which has an alliance with the UE, was able to pressure the parent company in Japan to lean on its Wisconsin subsidiary to reinstate him. When Titan International tried to send employees from Uruguay to its Des Moines plant to break a strike, the Uruguayans refused.

Such global thinking is new for the American labor movement, which turned insular during the Cold War and timid in the face of Reaganism. But even the creaky old AFL-CIO is starting to rouse itself. In February, the federation took two steps in the direction of crossborder solidarity. First, the AFL-CIO reversed its fifteen-year-old support of tough immigration laws and the policy of criminalizing businesses that hire undocumented Mexicans.

“The world has changed,” a senior federation official said, announcing the AFL-CIO’s new support for a general amnesty for millions of Mexicans illegally working in the United States and the people who hire them. Then AFL-CIO president John Sweeney embarrassed the Clinton administration by walking out on its effort to lower trade barriers with China. Sweeney said he didn’t trust the government to consider workers’ interests in trade policy. The AFL-CIO would never use these words, but the organizing principle of its future might be summed up as “workers of the world, unite.”

Los Estrambóticos do indeed exist, and their CD is available on the Internet. A clip is available, too, and they sound like . . . the Ramones doing ska. I send the CD to David, then give him a call. Alyssa has to call him in from the freezing sidewalk, where he’s gone to enjoy a cigarette away from his baby daughter.

With the economy as strong as it is, David has found a new union job in a pot-and-pan factory, earning $12.50 an hour plus benefits. So he and Alyssa have started talking once again about buying a house, and he’s window-shopping for guitars. But he knows the job is unlikely to last, that the factory will pull up stakes when it decides to make saucepans cheaper in Matamoros or Shanghai. Perhaps the most important change in David is that where once he shrugged in helpless resignation, now he’s angry.

“We have these nickel-grabbers, that’s what I call them,” he says. “They only care about what they’re going to get. ‘He got more overtime than me,’ that kind of thing.”

He says the trip to Mexico was an incredible experience, but he doesn’t know how he can get across to his co-workers that a bunch of poor brown people on the other side of a tall fence are their hermanos en la lucha.

“They wouldn’t even listen,” he says. “They wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

In This Article: Coverwall


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