The reading for this week looks at the ultimate destination of Mollie’s job, and the resulting outcomes for the various workers involved (Mollie, workers at the Mississippi and Arkansas plants, and those at the Mexican “maquiladora” like Balbina Duque who end up holding the job. Across the board, the results are not pretty.
The scene where Balbina Duque travels north for a job is reminiscent of Mollie’s similar trip north decades earlier. She is looking for the same thing: a more stable, secure existence anchored in a job that pays better. Yet, there are also differences from Mollie’s earlier situation: Mollie actually did improve her lot enormously, and the job helped — her to achieve a reasonable living for decades. Balbina’s new job only allows her to live in a dirt floor shack shared with her sister and children; it does not put her on the path toward a sustainable future or a clearly rising standard of living wherein she shares in the fruits of her own labor. So, there is a bit of irony is her “similar” situation being so much different (and worse) than that of Mollie leaving home over 40 years earlier.
The reading provides some of the necessary context to understand the situation in Mexico, and the difficulty for workers when they attempt to better their condition. The largest Mexican labor federation, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico, or CTM (Mexican Workers Federation) for the most part does not act as an independent union federation dealing with employers and the government as an independent force. Instead, through its alliance with the primary political party all those years, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), it acts as an arm of the government which in turn behaves primarily as an agent of the employers controlling the workers rather than representing them. (This is a bit of an overstatement that generalizes a bit too much, but it does capture the primary role that the CTM in general ended up playing in Mexico in the final decades of the 20th Century). As portrayed in the reading, note that a union leader in a CTM union who actually does represent the workers in the union militantly is usually dealt with severely — Agapito Gonzlez Cavazos gets thrown in jail on charges that are probably trumped up, simply because he actually did try to fight for the interests of the members of his union (the SJOI). This context is important to understand why the workers in Mexico are paid so poorly — they often want to struggle for their interests, but lack any effective mechanisms through which to do so, and government policy aims to repress true independent unions in the country.
Another piece of the context is of course the economic and trade policies of the United States and Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement provided U.S. manufacturers major tariff and tax advantages to move production to a Mexican facility (maquiladora) right on the U.S. border. U.S. managers could live across the Rio Grande River in the U.S., and extremely cheap labor could be obtained. It was almost like bringing cheap “Third World” labor and wages into the U.S. without having to actually do so. For the Mexican PRI government, NAFTA and the maquiladoras also seemed like a good deal because it relieved the pressure on the government to provide jobs to lower a very high unemployment rate. But in reality, following NAFTA’s passage, the Mexican currency crashed and the pretension that Mexico was rapidly moving up to “First World” standards was punctured — the standard of living of the Mexican worker declined for years.
The reading displays the political context of the Carlos Salinas government’s enthusiastic support for NAFTA and “free market” solutions to the country’s problems, the corruption endemic to that regime, the terrible living conditions that make scavenging at the dump sometimes a desirable alternative to such low-wage employment, the flowering of prostitution by many female maquiladora employees as a way to make ends meet, the terrible environmental problems flowing from the effectively unregulated market and the anencephaly (deformed brain) condition of some children born in the area, etc. Clearly, the author is critical of the economic line of thinking that “the free market will take care of all problems and improve the lives of everybody” that has been prevalent in the two countries and in the relations between the two countries.
The aftermath at Bytheville, Arkansas and the Mississippi plants is also detailed – unemployment, declining economic fortunes, etc. In Paterson, NJ, Mollie never finds work again; her retraining efforts fail to gain her meaningful employment. And Paterson, victim of “deindustrialization” as most manufacturing plants shut down or move out, becomes a deserted wreck. This is well described in the reading; pay close attention.
You also will be viewing two videos as part of this week’s class. One is a serious policy discussion, and the other is a lighthearted jokey examination of the same issues by gadfly filmmaker Michael Moore. View the film “Trade Secrets” first. When you do, pay very close attention to the arguments made against trade pacts like NAFTA by those in it, and think of possible counter-arguments against their position (i.e., claims that the “free market”, backed up by governmental enforcement of corporate and property rights will best improve things for all concerned.) Then, you can view the Michael Moore segment of his former TV show “TV Nation” on maquiladoras for some comic relief on what is a very contentious and serious topic.
By the end of this module, you are to turn in third assignment. The question you must answer in this assignment is the following:
Mollie’s job moved from New Jersey to Mississippi and Arkansas and eventually to a maquiladora in Matamoros, Mexico. There are a couple of possible ways to look at this:
(a) This was basically inevitable, and nothing could really be done about it. Besides, even though some people may have been hurt along the way, it was probably for the best because this was necessary to keep the company competitive and to keep the price of goods low.
(b) This was not inevitable, or at least wouldn’t have been inevitable, if proper “rules of the game” had been set up. The move was probably harmful overall, because it only ended up destroying jobs in the U.S. while exploiting workers like Balbina Duque in Mexico.
Argue which viewpoint is closer to the truth, and why you think so. (Remember that paper is to be 2-5 pages in length — probably 3 or so being the average).
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