Title: Mexican workers in the United States: A profile.
Source: NACLA Report on the Americas, Nov/Dec 96, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p38, 2p
Author(s): Figueroa, Hector
Abstract: Focuses on Mexican workers in the United States. Reference to the United States/Mexican War in 1845-1848; Immigration of Mexicans to the United States during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1917; History of the relation between Mexico and the United States.


The earliest Mexicans-American workers lived in the parts of northern Mexico that became the U.S. Southwest during and following the U.S.-Mexican War of 1845-1848. This territory--christened Aztian, the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs, by the Chicano movement---consists of Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and large parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah. At the time of annexation, the region was scarcely populated: about 80,000 to 100,000 Mexicans stayed on in the region. As U.S. and European immigrants moved in large numbers to the West, they eventually dominated major cities and large rural areas. Under the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans were decreed to be U.S. citizens, but many were soon submitted into peonage. In the case of Texas, a slave state, they were submitted into outright slavery.

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 many Mexicans crossed the border into the southwestern United States to work on farms, railroads, and in the mines. A smaller number of Mexican professionals and skilled workers, mostly from the northern state of Sonora, also crossed into the United States. Responding to worker shortages induced by World War I, other Mexican immigrants increasingly entered manufacturing. During these early years Mexican workers began to organize on both sides of the border, with Mexicans on the U.S. side sometimes belonging to the same labor organizations as their compatriots who remained in Mexico. Some U.S. unions, like the radical Industrial Workers of the World (Iww), were actively organizing migrant workers during this period, sometimes even across the border into Mexico.

Mexicans continued to migrate until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when massive unemployment and growing intolerance towards "foreign" workers led to mass deportations. These deportations briefly interrupted a growing, militant labor movement among Mexican-American workers in' agriculture and in the emerging auto, manufacturing and railroad industries. Still, organizing was widespread, with migrant farmworkers frequently developing their own union structures both in and outside of mainstream labor

In agriculture, organizing efforts among U.S.-born Mexican as well as Filipino farmworkers led to massive actions such as the 1930s strikes in the San Joaquin Valley which mobilized tens of thousands of workers. Among the the unions organizing farmworkers in those years was the Cannery and Agricultural Workers industrial Union (CAWlU), a union with strong links to the U.S. Communist Party. The formation of the militant Congress of industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938 led to increased organizing activity of Latino workers in California in sectors such as auto, steel, mining, railroads, meatpacking, electrical, transportation and garment production.

When agricultural labor became scarce during World War II, the U.S. Government instituted the bracero program, which allowed hundreds of thousands of migrant Mexicans to temporarily work on U.S. farms. The use of low-wage, unprotected migrant Mexican labor allowed farmers and agribusiness to undermine ongoing attempts to organize farm workers. Even after the program was discontinued in 1964, Mexican migrant workers continued to engage in low-wage farm work. And as California and the western states expanded economically, the number of Latino workers in industry, trade and services also continued to grow.

By the late 1960s, the end of the bracero program and the powerful wave of Chicano activism in cities and college campuses created conditions favorable for Latino labor organizing. These conditions were recognized by Cesar Chavez and other organizers who decided to organize the most exploited sectors of the Mexican-American workforce--farm workerst-under a new independent union, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). The union's innovative and militant tactics, consisting of consumer boycotts, large mobilizations, strikes, civil disobedience, and outreach to religious, student and community organizations brought new life to Latin labor and to the labor movement as a whole. Since then, the most progressive sectors of labor have adopted similar organizing methods. By 1970 the UFWOC had a membership of 70,000 farm workers.

The 1970s saw the development of high-tach industry and agribusiness throughout the western states. it also saw the growth of poor Latino populations in cities like Los Angeles, and the spread of contracting and informal business arrangements in services and manufacturing. During this time the Mexican and U.S. governments advanced the maquiladora program to attract U.S. and other foreign capital to the border areas of Mexico. As these processes unfolded, a new urban Mexican labor force emerged, available for low-wage manufacturing jobs as well as lowwage service work on both sides of the border. The expansion of public sector activities in the United States, along with key services such as health care also created low-wage opportunities for Mexican workers.

The 1970s also witnessed significant Mexican/ Chicano trade union activism. Rivalry erupted between the UFWOC and the Teamsters, who represented workers in the food-processing canneries. Farmers attempted to crush the UFWOC by recognizing the Teamsters (who at the time were as fierce as the employers in their opposition to Chavez' organizing efforts) as bargaining agents for their workers. By 1973 Teamsters had a membership of 35,000 farmworkers whereas the UFWOC represented only 6,500. To counter the resources of the Teamsters and the opposition of the employers, the UFWOC affiliated with the AFL-CIO and became the UFW. Signing a jurisdictional agreement with the Teamsters, the UFW then continued organizing campaigns throughout the 1970s. The scale of its organizing activity began to decline in the early 1980s, however, and it has only been within the last few years that it has begun to regain its earlier dynamism. [See "Unions," p. 22.]

In other unions with large Latino memberships, issues of leadership became important. For example, while Chicanos accounted for about 30% of organized steelworkers in western states during the 1970s, there were virtually no Chicanos among the top leadership of steelworker locals. A similar situation developed within the United Auto Workers (UAW). As a result, the decade saw the emergence of Latino caucuses in several unions. It also led to increased support of Chicano organizations like the Raza Unida party by local unions with significant Latino representation.

The Chicano student movement of the 1970s played a major role in the labor movement. MECHA (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), MAYO (Mexican American Youth Organization) and UMAS (United Mexican American Students) helped mobilize support for the farmworkers, undocumented workers and the Chicano community in general. These groups played a key role in popularizing the concept of independent Chicano politics, and helped launch several state and local Raza Unida parties. Many of the activists in these movements eventually became trade union activists during the 1980s, and are leaders in the current resurgence of the Mexican-American labor movement.


By Hector Figueroa

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Source: NACLA Report on the Americas, Nov/Dec96, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p38, 2p.
Item Number: 9612192744