By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
On Saturday, January 31st, I attended an event in Edinburg sponsored by the Southwest Workers Uni*n (SWU). One of the founders of the group – they just celebrated their twentieth anniversary — is Ruben Solis, who spoke on NAFTA, the increasing economic crisis and the need for better organization to defend the workers’ interests.
When people responded, going around the room afterward, answering a question about the effects of NAFTA in the Valley, I mentioned that the community college I work at is seeing more and more students getting their AA degrees in Criminal Justice and not majoring in the liberal arts right now. I also mentioned my concern that the Border Patrol has doubled in size in the last two years. My point was relevant because Solis had addressed the question of the militarization of the border. I agree with Solis that the Border region, slumping rapidly in jobs and services, is a potential trouble spot for the globalization crowd and they watch it closely.
He told me afterward that he personally planned to spend much more time in the Valley over this next period, in fact spending more time here than in San Antonio for a while. He is right: this is a very important area right now.
Leading up to the Saturday event, I interviewed one of the Valley organizers, Anayanse Garza, for my column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier. I will share it here.
Braune: I am somewhat familiar with the Southwest Workers and have attended two of their activities up in San Antonio over the recent years. One was an excellent workshop about the militarization of the Border, and another was a forum about a San Antonio military base that showed no concern for the surrounding environment. So I am happy your group is active in the Rio Grande Valley. Tell us about it.
Garza: The SWU is noted as a grassroots organization that organizes low-income public school workers like custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers in San Antonio and South Texas. We empower communities to fight for justice where we live and work from the ground up. Because of this we are also active in developing the leadership of youth and students so they can be part of the social justice movement in the community.
We create a “space” for grassroots voices, create connections that strengthen our local struggles, and construct global understanding. We proudly see ourselves at a crossroads between the global north and global south and U.S. south and southwest.
Braune: On the leaflet you distributed, it says that The Wall and NAFTA have devastated our community. What do you usually tell people who ask about this?
Garza: In the last 15 years of this forced neo-liberal experiment, NAFTA has proved to be an economic disaster for Mexico and for the U.S. In the U.S. generally, NAFTA has devastated our jobs and income. And the Rio Grande Valley is no exception. NAFTA caused job loss for workers who face limited or no opportunities, and forced them to compete for poverty wages. Hidalgo County and Cameron County, 15 years later, continue to be among the poorest counties in the nation.
Our border community bears witness to NAFTA’s failures. Look at the poverty. NAFTA benefitted the multi-national corporations while the working poor in Mexico became poorer. It simply dislocated millions of working poor from Mexico’s rural farm areas, forcing them to move to the border cities and later to emigrate to the U.S. NAFTA devalued the peso by 50 – 60 percent, and NAFTA industries have paid exploitation wages. And NAFTA has robbed the US of light and medium manufacturing jobs, closing thousands of plants and factories, such as Levi Strauss & Company. Companies moved to Mexico, China or elsewhere.
Braune: Yes, I lived a few years ago in Harlingen when Fruit of Loom closed, robbing that city of hundreds of jobs; greatly because of NAFTA, the owners flitted off to some other country to pay cheaper wages. It is amazing how damaging it has been to Mexico’s workers and to U.S. workers.
Garza: And NAFTA industries have created massive environmental contamination: pollution, discharge and toxic waste. Our event will discuss this and also how NAFTA has dislocated workers in Mexico to face abusive and exploitative situations, and we will show how NAFTA has spawned narco-wars, border violence, feminicide, and militarization.
Braune: Your literature is demanding that the Obama administration (particularly the Labor and Commerce departments) and the Mexican government make efforts to dismantle NAFTA. Right?
Braune: Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got interested in working with a worker’s organization.
Garza: Certainly. As a woman of Mexican heritage who grew up in a colonia right here in the Rio Grande Valley, I understand the need to fight for justice, the need to defend our dignity, our rights. And no one else will fight harder than us, the people who are living that injustice, but only if we organize ourselves to rise up, take action, and speak out. Through my own experience and through witnessing the experiences of other workers, I know that an organized community makes real change possible, and that means a better quality of life for all working families.
Braune: Thanks for your time, and I hope you do well in your organizing.