Teamsters New Challenge: Organize Mexican Drivers!

by Charles Walker

By the end of the year, Mexican trucking companies (perhaps some U.S.-owned) expect to be sending their big-rigs and Mexican drivers across the U.S.-Mexican border, under bipartisan NAFTA legislation. Up to now, the Teamsters leadership has led the union’s longhaul drivers to expect that their wages and working conditions, and perhaps their jobs, are at stake because of low-wage Mexican workers’ competition.

The union’s counter strategy has two prongs. The first is to woo both Democrat and Republican politicians to block cross-border trucking. An unacknowledged Teamsters deal with the Clinton administration maintained the pre-NAFTA status quo. But it was understood that no matter which party won last year’s presidential election, the NAFTA agreement would be implemented.

The second prong of the Teamsters strategy is to argue that Mexican trucks are hazardous, and consequently American motorists nationwide will be at greater risk as they drive the nation’s congested roads and highways. It’s true that Mexico’s truck fleets are older, its highways rougher on tires and brakes. But stateside highway safety checkpoints miss many U.S. trucks that should be tagged and repaired. So undoubtedly some unsafe Mexican big-rigs will be on the highways, and inevitably accidents and fatalities will result.

However, the safety argument hasn’t gained much traction, perhaps because of the union’s mediocre record when it comes to fighting trucking bosses on safety issues. For decades the Teamsters had the contractual right to strike over deadlocked grievances, but the leadership avoided using that hard-won right to back up the ranks’ safety grievances.

The Teamsters union has failed to fight trucking bosses who push drivers to violate hours-in-service regulations, purportedly designed to keep sleepy, exhausted drivers off the road. Numerous studies indicate that the majority of truckers work more hours than the law specifies. Indeed, one union-friendly academic analyst calls today’s big-rigs “sweatshops-on-wheels.”

And no wonder. The Teamsters union has thousands of members working under contracts that are clearly piecework schemes. Rather than get paid by the hour, these drivers are paid by the mile and the load. The more loads they deliver, the more they are paid. And the faster they drive, the more loads they deliver. 

The failure of the Teamsters two-prong strategy was predictable, partly because it was based on getting favors from politicians wedded to the bosses’ profiteering interests. If the union’s leadership had mobilized the independent strength of its members, as was done during the 1997 UPS strike, if it had sought a strategic alliance based on workers solidarity with Mexican truckers, the union would be in a much stronger position to resist the bosses’ use of Mexican labor to increase their profits at the expense of both American and Mexican drivers.

At least one top Teamster official has talked about the possibility of organizing Mexican drivers. Teamsters Vice President Chuck Mack has said, “If we have cross-border trade, and possibly cross-border trucking, why not cross-border organizing?” At a March meeting in California of financiers, politicians, and labor officials with Vicente Fox, the recently elected Mexican president, Mack raised the issue of cross-border organizing with Fox. Mack says that Fox “did not summarily dismiss the idea. He thought and then said he was open to discussing it and suggested that I follow up with Mexican representatives.”

However, Fox’s real attitude about workers’ problems may be indicated not by his talking to Mack, but by the fact that Fox employs child labor on his agricultural holdings, according to numerous reports. So it’s likely that Fox was just shining Mack on. Nevertheless, Mack seemingly talks as if Fox can be relied on to do the right thing for the union, just as Mack relies on American politicians—who have failed to even maintain the buying power of the minimum wage.

During the Great Depression, the Teamsters union faced the challenge of organizing the mostly unorganized over-the-road drivers. Clearly the problems of organizing during a time of mass joblessness, cutthroat business competition, antiunion laws, and vicious, organized antiunion opposition were complex and tough. To successfully meet the challenge the union had to break out of the cities where it was pent up, and move into the up-to-then impregnable havens for nonunion bosses.

As everyone knows, the Teamsters won, hands down. A key union strategist, organizer, and fighter, the secretary-treasurer of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544, Farrell Dobbs, said, “For the Teamsters International, it was an unprecedented triumph.” The membership jumped to nearly 500,000 by 1939 from only 80,000 six years before. At the heart of the union’s winning campaign was, as Dobbs wrote, “a class-struggle outlook…the industrial form of organization…We defended and sought to advance trade union democracy. We bargained on an area-wide basis to establish uniform wages and conditions for all workers involved.”

The strategic principles of the 1930s Teamsters militant organization of the over-the-road truckers might well be applied to the problems of organizing today’s Mexican drivers, as they appear on the nation’s roadways. First, rely on a mobilized Teamsters membership, not on the false promises of politicians whose first loyalty is to their own power and wealth. Second, make being a union member really mean something, by winning contracts that Teamsters can be proud of, not merely get by on. In other words, give workers on this side of the border tangible reasons once again to be excited about unions, their members, their causes and issues. Third, extend a hand of solidarity to all Mexican workers, with no ifs, ands or buts. And of course, be prepared to take on the organized forces of antiunionism, who, as experience shows, will line up politicians, judges, cops, and private goons to protect their profitable turf.

If Dobbs were around today, he’d likely say, “With the opening of the U.S.-Mexican border, don’t mope and mourn! Organize, Teamsters, organize!”