My Trade Activism in 1991

by Bill McGaughey 

This book - A U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement: Do We Just Say No? - began with a lengthy discussion of free trade and the Mexican labor situation that I had with Jose Quintana in the first week of January, 1991. Three weeks later, I attended a conference sponsored by UAW local 879, “Competition vs. Solidarity in an Era of Free Trade”, which was held at Macalester College in St. Paul thanks to Peter Rachleff, a history professor there.

The conference, allegedly first of its kind in the country, set the tone for much that has followed. We had three young labor leaders from Mexico - Raul Escobar, Jose Santos Martinex, Hector de la Cueva - who were finally given visas to enter the United States after Local 879’s Tom Laney contacted most of the Minnesota Congressional delegation. They told of their struggle for union democracy at Ford of Mexico’s Cuautitlan assembly plant and wore black ribbons in commemoration of their slain brother, Cleto Nigno. We had a group of Canadians from Winnipeg - Jim Silver, Bob Ages, Susan Spratt - ready to share with us their considerable knowledge and experience of free trade. We had some American labor people - Joe Fahey, Jack Hedrick, Mary McGinn, Matt Witt - attending from distant places, along with David Morris, Mark Ritchie, and many other local people.

An organization was formed as a result of this conference called Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition. Lynn Hinkle, Larry Dunham, Jim Mangan, Kristin Dawkins, Rachel Lord, Larry Weiss, and Dave Butcher, from Pequot Lakes, Minn. were some of the regulars at our steering-committee meetings. We twice met with Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey at the time of his trip to Mexico with a human-rights delegation, and once with an Hispanic neighborhood group in West St. Paul. Coalition members held a press conference at the state capitol in St. Paul, featuring U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, to express opposition to “fast-track” extension. The issue was beginning to attract public attention.

A group of us piled into a rented van and drove down to Chicago to participate in public hearings of the U.S. International Trade Commission on April 10th. Six people shared two rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and, between us, gave three of the testimonies heard by the Commission that day, including Larry Dunham’s stirring, impromptu narrative of his experience with unemployment and work with a temporary-help agency. Tom Laney and Ted LaValley flew directly from Chicago to Mexico to participate in a continental meeting of free-trade opponents.

Two weeks later, some of the same people took another van and this time drove to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, for the Labor Notes conference. We saw old friends from previous gatherings, including Jose Santos and Hector de la Cueva from Mexico, and heard the Teamsters’ Ron Carey speak. The workshops on the U.S-Mexico Free-Trade Agreement, at which Local 879 people made presentations, were some of the liveliest and best attended ones of the conference.

I had read in a book published by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights that anyone could file a petition with a committee in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office challenging a country’s right to receive trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) if the country violated internationally recognized worker rights. Tom Laney, Jose Quintana, and I decided to make the challenge in Mexico’s case. We had plenty of evidence to document worker-rights violations at the Cuautitlan Ford plant. Dan LaBotz, at the Labor Notes conference, and Pharis Harvey, his publisher, gave permission to use additional materials from Dan’s yet unpublished book on Mexican labor practices. A Minneapolis attorney, Dan Gerdts, helped with preparation of the petition. The lengthy petition and the twenty required copies were in the mail by May 15th.

A letter arrived asking for volunteers to be international observers at the court-ordered union election that would be taking place at the Cuautitlan plant on June 3rd. I answered the call as did Skip Pepin of Local 879. Equipped with camcorders, we spent 20 hours standing outside the plant gates waiting for tidbits of information about the election held inside the plant. Matt Witt translated for us. Some 2,000 police in riot gear guarded company property as supporters of COR, the challenging union, chanted slogans and made speeches. The incumbent union, CTM, won by a margin of 1,325 votes to 1,112. There was, however, evidence of fraud.

While pausing for lunch in the early afternoon, Matt Witt said something to Skip and me which left an impression. He suggested that individuals can indeed be effective in influencing political situations. Most people, he said, make the mistake of trying to change the world by petitioning large bureaucratic organizations. That approach seldom works. Instead, the important thing is action that puts pressure on those organizations. A group is defined not merely by how many members it has but what it does. Even a small group of people, through action, can create its own gravitational force that will sooner or later require the larger organizations to adjust. That is why it was important that we personally came to Mexico.

On the following day, I had a chance to visit the offices of Frente Autentico Trabajo, an independent labor federation, to meet Manuel Garcia Urrutia, Alfredo Dominguez, Betha Lujan, and Alejandro Quiroz who were members of the Mexican committee (RMALC) opposed to free trade. We had a long and interesting conversation that carried through a late-afternoon lunch at a nearby restaurant. Wednesday morning, there was time for me to stroll through Chapultepec Park and do a quick tour of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia before heading for the airport and the return flight to the United States. Two weeks later, my lost luggage containing my only change of clothes, which had not arrived in Mexico City, was returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

In August, I flew east for a two-week visit with family members and made side trips to see two advocates of shorter work hours, Barbara Brandt in Boston and Fred Gaboury in New York. Then I drove down to Washington, D.C. to visit some Congressional offices, the AFL-CIO, ILO, International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, and Neil and Wendy Kotler. While in Washington, I learned that the U.S. Trade Representative had rejected the GSP petition our group had submitted in May. Having now waited over four months to receive the legally mandated statement of reasons for the rejection, we intend soon to send letters of rebuttal to all members of Congress.

The Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition hosted a national conference on free trade in the first week of September. Manuel Garcia flew up from Mexico City. Rebekah Greenwald drove in from Washington, D.C. to attend this conference and her brother’s wedding. Jim Benn and Laurie Michalowski of Chicago, Craig Merrillees and Frank Martin del Campo of San Francisco, Mary McGinn and Pete Kelly of Detroit, Nelson Salinas of Miami, Jerry Tucker of Missouri, Les LaFleur of Massachusetts, Steve Hecker of Oregon, Bruce Allen of Ontario, Bob Ages of Winnipeg, Lori Wallach and Doug Hellinger of Washington, D.C., and Dan Leahy of Olympia, Washington, among others, all gathered in the Macalester College chapel of consider issues related to free trade, discuss the formation of a national network, and hear Bishop Tom Gumbleton of Detroit deliver the principal talk. This conference inspired Dan Leahy to organize fair-trade conferences of his own on the west coast.

In the fall, we became serious about local organization. The Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition established formal committees and received an infusion of fresh blood. A new group of people including Barb Kesler, Mark Thisius, Pia Sass, Faye Hamm, Joe Burns, Steve Peterson, Chris Moon, and Rocky, a Viet Nam vet, brought renewed energy and purpose to our enterprise. With the help of a spirited group of housing activists, Up and Out of Poverty St. Paul, we picketed the Minneapolis headquarters of Green Giant to protest the failure to install waste-water treatment facilities at their food-processing plant in Irapuato, Mixico, and, in the process, learned that the company planned to install the long-promised facilities in early 1992. A month later, in subzero temperatures, we attended the Christmas open-house at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion and had some colorful and frank exchanges with the Governor himself that were shared with local television audiences.

In October, Raul Escobar came up from Mexico to address the Minnesota AFL-CIO state convention. He stayed with Tom and Barb Laney, and gave us an informal Spanish lesson at dinner one evening. Tom called Raul a “cine estrella” (movie star) after watching his dynamic convention performance on videotape. Tom Laney, Rod Haworth, Ted la Valley, and I attended yet another two-day conference on the North American Free-Trade Agreement at the Minneapolis convention center in late November. Contrary to earlier expectations, this one was unique in providing a good balance of views between supporters and opponents of the proposed agreement. And, finally, there was a chance to meet Pharis Harvey.

In the course of these various activities, I collected a mountain of literature, videotapes, etc., about the free-trade issue, and from these and other materials wrote a book. I am grateful to Mark Ritchie for a discussion helping to clarify some concepts, to Donna Montgomery, Pat Ricci, and other friends at Minnesota Independent Publishers Association who helped with the publishing end, and artist Dick Perlich and bookseller J.T. Stout, and, of course, to my many comrades in arms, both local and international, who have carried on the good fight during much of this past year.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
December 29, 1991


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