Altha J Cravey, 1952-

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The interview was conducted with Altha Cravey, an expert on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She discusses its effects on labor relations and it how it can be damaging to communities within Latin America, specifically Mexico. The interview covers NAFTA’s original goals, from both the United States and Mexican perspectives, and transitions into covering labor effects on both sides of the border. Cravey talks extensively about labor unions, their power in Mexico, and the difference between unions in Mexico and the United States. She discusses the challenges and successes of instances of immigrants forming unions in the United States, and addresses the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve any successful change regarding NAFTA and poor labor conditions. The interview further transitioned into a discussion of the steps necessary to enact change, and the difficulties with implementing change. Cravey continually mentions retroactive change is not typically successful, and that there needs to be an overall change in the mentality of large business and policy makers to consider the environmental and human right impacts of free trade proposals. The interview concludes with Cravey comparing the United States to the British Empire at its height, and the challenges it faced when its empire eventually dismantled over a lack of resources and newfound independence and sustainable vigor.



Eric Brandt: So my name is Eric Brandt and I am interviewing Ms. Altha Cravey today, and we will be talking about my project on NAFTA. Um, so just a little background, just tell me a little about your background and involvement concerning NAFTA or Latin American Affairs.
Altha Cravey: Yes, I have expertise on NAFTA and Mexico um, I wrote a dissertation on the Maquila, um, the Maquila industry at the US/Mexico border and turned that into a book called Women and Work in Mexico’s Maquilas. I just have a great interest in US. Mexico relations as well so NAFTA’s been an interest of mine for a long time, even before I was an academic.
EB: Great, so I guess in our topic today I was looking at focusing a little more on labor relations, what NAFTA’s done, and I guess when we start out, so I’ve been interested in the first side of it, the beginning of NAFTA, and I noticed that Mexico proposed NAFTA, actually originally, and I was very interested in maybe what do you believe was Mexico’s initial intentions in proposing NAFTA? Do they think that it would have created more labor jobs, or did they foresee the negative influences coming as much?
AC: Uh, I think Mexico certainly, not monolithic, but the people who were in charge of that discussion certainly thought Mexico could benefit, and they saw themselves as getting left out of the free trade agreement with Canada that came a few years before, and definitely wanted to be part of this trade block that was emerging, they didn’t want to be left out. They saw it as a way to gain investment and be part of a regional trade group.
EB: Ok, so it was essentially to kind of increase their economic output and input, ok. So in terms of the original goals, do you think, at least from the United States’ point of view, because I’m interested in the difference, where might have the United States’ goals and Mexico’s goals differed, in terms of economic growth or increasing jobs or industry.
AC: Uh, where might the two countries’ goals have differed? The big difference is for me, is that Mexico has a lot more labor, that they have a lot of people working as peasants, particularly before NAFTA. So a different kind of composition, even though as a highly and, uh highly developed in terms of actual capacity, Mexico was just like the US, they still had this enormous agricultural sector, and an enormous proportion of the population that depended on self sufficient agriculture. So, very different social situations in terms of entering into an agreement that would harmonize conditions between the two countries. So very distinct social implications that hurt many more people in Mexico. Though people in the US were hurt as well, from my perspective [chuckle].
EB: Ya, ya, I actually read a little about the union workers, how they were talking about how NAFTA had taken away all of their bargaining powers.
AC: Right, and the industrial sector that was sacrificed, people knew this going in. We’re kind of in a place that was interesting to think about because South Carolina and North Carolina have the textile and industries that were going to be the hardest hit in the US. So US negotiators saw that as a reasonable sacrifice, and apparently Mexican negotiators saw sacrificing the peasantry as reasonable as well and well-paid industrial workers, but I think they, in social terms and in environmental terms they sacrificed a lot more than US negotiators.
EB: Ya, of course, so I guess referring to the social sacrifices, the way I see it, it’s decreased labor conditions and pay, and increased immigration. Where do you see.. why do you think all of the labor conditions decreased so severely? Where have these companies maybe taken advantage of the free trade and labor offered by Mexico?
AC: Well two years before NAFTA was signed, NAFTA kind of locked things in that were already happening, two years before it was signed they changed the constitution so that the Ejido lands could be purchased and sold and so that commodified land that was protected from capitalism market and so I think, rather than changing things dramatically, NAFTA really locked things in so that any investor in Mexico would know that there was a stable investment climate. But the kind of [inaudible] for peasantry, had already happened a couple years before that, and labor conditions had already begun to be eroded through the Maquila that I mentioned before. The labor conditions at the US/ Mexico border, and the whole Maquila model of… changing the rules of the game... attracted so much money that that became a kind of distinct development model from an ISI [Import Substitution Industrialization], import-substitution model that created the Mexican miracle in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, a very distinct development model. They went to something that was 180 degrees different, with the Maquila model in a different distinct part of the country, and it was so successful in bringing in capitalist development and money and creating jobs, but the, but jobs with a lower, I would say, a much lower quality of life and no, mostly absent union protections. That also had already happened, but NAFTA locked that into place.
EB: And, what do you think forced that change? Was it the global environment all-changing toward industry? Or why was Mexico so interested in bringing in these Maquilas?
AC: A lot of things happened in 1964 when the Maquila program began. One thing that happened in the US was that we ended the Bracero program in 1960. We deported a lot of Mexicans and refused to bring in a lot of Mexicans that were coming in seasonally. So there is a long history of migration flows you have to understand to understand the kind of agreements that go on. But that’s part of it. So, I think the US and Mexico were both afraid that those braceros who were almost entirely men, who were now at the northern edge of Mexico, that there would be political problems, especially in the 60s with the lot black and brown power movements and all this. So the Maquila was part of an idea to tap down political protest and put people to work. But it was also a logical idea that um... that we in the US we changed the value added, the um, we changed… I can look it up… we changed the rules of production, or we weren’t going to change tariffs on anything allowing factories in Detroit and such to move to Mexico or wherever or Puerto Rico or Taiwan around that same time. Mexico saw that as a great opportunity to bring those factories from Detroit and not let them to go Singapore, Taiwan and Puerto Rico. So that was all happening in the 60s as an early wave of globalization that um… doesn’t matter what that rule was but uh… of course energy costs were higher in Detroit, if you could pack up your factory and move it to Nogales or Tijuana, you could save energy costs. The Maquila magazines in the 60s were claiming that you could pack up your factory. You could hire your management company and save $25,000 per person by bringing your factory to Mexico. A highly educated workforce who was very attractive to the model and of course it grew in the 60s and 70s but it really took off in the 80s and 90s. As I said was locked in by these larger agreements of NAFTA.
EB: Ya, so I guess you kind of hit on it, but it seems very attractive for the companies to move down. They save money, create jobs in Mexico, so I guess where does the problem come in, how does this really hurt the labor. From the outside perspective, it seems they are creating jobs, why would we prevent that?
AC: It was very successful at creating jobs, ironically with the Maquila, the jobs went to women, and especially at the outset was about 80-90% females so they could pay much less. Unions and companies were hostile, the whole set up was hostile to unions, unions had been very strong in the central part of Mexico. So it created a model, of development, of growth, that improved the GDP created jobs, but drastically undercut the position of workers, destabilized gender relationships in good and bad ways, destabilized generational relationships because children were going to work to support parents, and created all sorts of environmental damage.
EB: So, I guess maybe, we can get into this later, but what could be a solution because Mexico would like to bring jobs in and yet to do that its really difficult because these large industries come in, so I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, but how could it be adapted? How could NAFTA be changed to bring jobs in, yes bring the industries in, but also provide fair pay and provide fair conditions? Is it even possible?
AC: I think it is but you have to turn it around. You have to start out with the dignity and fairness of workers in mind, and that means workers have to have a voice of some sort. Unions aren’t perfect but that’s one way to think about it. Unions allow, of course historically in Mexico they were part of the corporate model, so they aren’t the same kind of unions we have here or they have in Europe but they are much more hierarchically tied into the government itself. They aren’t perfect. But I think if you want that, you have to start with that at the outset, with a respect for human life and human dignity, and human voice in some kind of union type of arrangement. And also you have to have respect for the environment too. And with NAFTA both of those things were tacked on too after the fact because of protest, but with weak enforcement, as we’ve seen documented in the 20 years of NAFTA.
EB: Yes, I wish we could convince these CEO’s to have more concern but of course we know it is difficult to change entire industry perspectives.
AC: And there have certainly been a lot of interested efforts with that regard and fair trade and all kinds of interesting experiments but they end off being kind of reformist and the CEOS even think about keeping two books to present one face to the public and one face to their accountants. Ya.
EB: Um, do you think public pressure, well in the turn of the century Americans per se have more of a liberal human rights perspective going forward—Do you think that would help influence companies to have a more human rights activist mind going forward, or are they indifferent to public pressures?
AC: I think you’re right in identifying another important aspect. It can be totally dominated by corporate press, but free press is helpful. So um, and that in turn will ensure that human dignity is respected and individuals are respected whether they are workers or peasants or indigenous farmers or... and environments will be respected as well
EB: Yes I also think that is a huge problem, the environment. I think I read something about the pork industry moving down to Mexico and they just destroy the environment. So I’m not sure how we go about attacking that, is that more regulation to force them to respect the environment? Is there a way to keep these industries from going into Mexico and taking advantage of a lack of regulation?
AC: Only if we start with that at the very onset. And there is a NC connection there with Smithfield foods and Veracruz and the outbreak of the disease that some have traced from Smithfield foods to Veracruz. So I think yes, we have to start with a different; with those basics if we want to end up there and not just have a kind of reformist approach.
EB: Um, you mentioned labor unions, do you know if labor unions in Mexico have any power or how the union system in Mexico is organized at all cause I’m not familiar with—
AC: —Historically it has had a lot of power. So during the years of the Mexican miracle, uh when their growth rates were so high in the 40s 50s and 60s they literally had, they were one, sort of like one branch of the government. Another branch was the peasantry and rural, so that was pretty much undercut with the shift to neoliberal capitalist approach, the export oriented approach that started with the Maquila. So now they are pretty weak, but there are interesting kinds of cross-border efforts that should be part of our solution and part of something we are looking at. Because investments flow easily across the border so we have to create ways in which workers can talk to each other, and back each other up.
EB: So even segueing off of that, when immigrants come to the United States, do you know if there is any way for them to join a union? I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult perhaps for an immigrant society to form a union. Also keeping in mind many workers are often-times illegal, I don’t know if there are any methods for them to unionize or form and fight for better rights within the US.
AC: Ya, really good question, all these are good questions.. [laughter] But a historian who used to work here wrote a book called Maya of Morganton. He is a labor historian and he investigated this question in the poultry industry. Some Guatemalans who came up to Florida had such a sense of collective solidarity that when one of them had a problem and walked out, they all walked out, so he studied that action and much more about their connections and reasons for being there. But apparently, [it was an even more] unusual action as most of them weren’t documented. But apparently once you make that challenge, you are legally protected during the court process trying to get a union. They weren’t successful getting a union, but were certainly successful at backing each other up. So there have been, I think there are a lot of emerging examples like that. FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee has successfully organized the… uh… the Mount Olive Pickle company, they had consumer boycott for a long time where they would boycott the pickles, and after a period of years Mt. Olive decided to give in and go with the cross border union effort and respect and improve their conditions slightly so people would buy more pickles. They also did it with Campbell Soup, I think in Ohio, so there are lots of interesting examples emerging, that the group, one of the groups that’s quite interesting is in Immokalee Florida. The coalition of Immokalee workers.
EB: You mentioned that.
AC: They are very active and anyway, they are a group to keep an eye on, but I think there are a lot of interesting experiments like that actually. In spite of the fact they are very vulnerable. In the US, in North Carolina, we have children undocumented harvesting tobacco because the new deal labor laws do not apply to agricultural workers which was a racist law then, but stays on the books because large white farms in the south argue that they wouldn’t have the workers in the 40s if agricultural workers were protected by the New Deal… So we exempted child labor for those practices.
EB: So that’s very interesting, that makes sense at least moving forward. Unions are a way to fight and improve conditions. Um, I guess if I was to play devil’s advocate I would say if the unions come in and start to fight for better wages and conditions, what would prevent a company from moving to Southeast Asia perhaps?
AC: That would be fine. That’s the world we live in right now, that capital can move and labor can move but not as easily.
EB: Which I would say makes it more difficult.
AC: It does but, that’s exactly where we are, we have created the conditions where its very easy for capital to move and increasingly difficult for labor to move and to assert the right to a healthy workplace. So that’s really why we need labor unions that can speak to each other and work across borders. So if they do move to Southeast Asia or an employer moves, there is at least communication to say ‘expect or consider this, this is the chemical they use...’
EB: I was wondering if there was a way to create a committee to maybe manage these labor unions across borders, that helped communicate between labor Mexican unions and cross border to American unions as well. But then again I don’t know the logistics behind creating one or if that would be possible.
AC: As long as you had enforcement mechanisms and wasn’t just pieces of paper like labor and environmental agreements.
EB: They don’t hold as much weight as we would hope.
AC: Right but you think that’s the approach that has to go forward if we want humane working conditions in our own country or in Mexico. We have to start with that, not end with that or tack it on.
EB: I don’t mean to transition subjects so rapidly but, do you think that many of the workers perhaps from Mexico that come to the United States don’t know English perhaps as well as they could, do you think that hurts them in terms of fighting for their own rights, and negotiation?
AC: Definitely it does, and it plays into all sorts of hierarchies within social networks that someone may speak a little better English than someone else, and make them look bad on the job and make themselves look good. There are a lot of language skills, created a lot of tensions and difficulties. I don’t think I got the question you posed, I got distracted but uh..
EB: [laughter] That’s ok. I guess, so when workers come to the US as well, I’m not exactly sure how the process works, so I know for instance NAFTA has promoted free trade, which shifts many industries into Mexico, so why has there been the opposite, where many Mexican laborers are coming to the US instead of industries going into Mexico?
AC: The industries that went to Mexico were not efficient, and were never going to be, not for all the workers that were dislocated or lost their livelihoods. That was just never possible even though it was argued. The other part of the answer, the main part in my view was that rural Mexico basically emptied out, that it was impossible to, there was kind of social reproduction squeeze in that tortillas got much more expensive at the same time corn from your small plot was bringing in a much lower price, and so pretty much you might leave someone at home, and pick out certain people in you family or household to go earn money in Raleigh, NC. Those remittances would keep the family and community alive. Now the whole development model in Mexico has, depends on, those remittances. If you look globally, I think it’s second, the Philippines is first in terms of relying on remittances, so there is kind of an approach of exporting migrants that you know keeps families afloat, and also the GDP intact.
EB: Ya actually that is something really interesting we saw when we were in Mexico in small towns. We saw many of the males had left and left towns of basically women and children as the men were working in Texas in construction, sending back remittances. It was an interesting dynamic.
AC: Did you talk about the hometown associations, where there’s hundreds of hometown associates between Mexico? They started out as kind of an informal thing and there are hundreds that might link a town in New Jersey to a town in Puebla for an example to send back remittances, but for collective purposes. For example the one in Puebla, Alex Rivera did a film about it, where they sent back some stuff for a clinic and sent an ambulance and built a ball park all for making money in NJ, and through these collective works, but there’s hundreds of them that link towns and then the Mexican government got involved and said if you do it through the government we’ll match each dollar with a dollar from federal government and from your state, so they have been able to do a lot more. So I’m just saying that they’re aware that they depend on these remittances and that they want to channel them to public works. If you look at the hometown associations they can’t quite be as explicit about it, it makes the US government mad. But everybody in Mexico knows they obviously need those remittances.
EB: Ya and those are all obviously very helpful. So, I guess it seems like a fairly positive effect of the transition of workers. Where do you think the balance is in terms of NAFTA has obviously done very poorly in terms of creating labor conditions and pay, but is it almost worth it for to create these job opportunities so that they can then send back these remittances? I don’t know what the trade off would be.
AC: It’s.. I think it’s almost worth it from a US viewpoint because it’s so hard to make the suffering visible, a lot of it’s hidden to us. The pain and suffering of divided families, of injured workers and shortened lifespans, death on the border, rape on the border. Just the pain and suffering is so remote for us that it almost begins to look worth it. But if you are in touch with those experiences, of what the human cost is, it really doesn’t look worth it, to me. But it’s an interesting question because, because I think, yes, public is coming around to the idea that we need immigration reform, but congress had not come around to that. Partly because of these contradictions that in the last 20 years, of and partly through NAFTA, that immigration has expanded so much that they, immigrants themselves have become, what’s the word for that… they have become the kind of target, we blame them for all of our woes. Of course they are not responsible for our woes they are just trying to make a living. So.. what was the question? Sorry I got distracted again [laughter]
EB: I guess asking about the balance between the positive sides of NAFTA and the negative sides, and almost how to reconcile between the two. Also where, maybe if I had to ask the tough question, is NAFTA worth it? And if tomorrow we could just eliminate it, where do we? For instance if it was brought to the table again, do you believe it should be renewed and continued, or should it be eliminated?
AC: Well I think you need to start thinking a little more historically here, maybe overstepping my interview a little, but I think it would be helpful to say NAFTA was a particular moment, the US saw NAFTA as a way to create the kind of logic they needed at the Gaft negotiations, and they wanted to show the US so it helped to push that free trade model forward to the global level, and then they could spin out CAFTA and they could push for the free trade agreements with Columbia and South Korea and on and on. So it’s much, it’s really a historical global moment, NAFTA is. We cant certainly go back and know what might have happened if we hadn’t signed it.
EB: Is it a moment that you think has passed that we should now change?
AC: Oh yes! I think, I think, I think well in Latin America, well the free trade model we are moving beyond that in Latin America. The US is not ready to move beyond that but there are a lot of experiments happening in Latin America and the Caribbean that recognize those costs because those environment and social costs are much more clear to environmental politicians and you know, ordinary people, then they are to us politicians. So they are starting to create, I think, experiments that we can learn from that move us into the future. But understanding the history that we have seen and you know what the costs of the free trade model are. I’m not sure what they will be but I think we can learn form some of the things that are happening in Latin America.
EB: Ya, so looking into the future the way I foresee at least, the next step would be to create industry and business in Central America and Mexico that is not reliant on exporting goods back to the United States or somewhere else. Now I don’t know what that would take but if perhaps we could go to metropolitan Mexico and create industry that was self sustainable and they could see in Mexico, for me that is the next step to create product and sell back to Mexico. Maybe the lack there could be the infrastructure or just the capital to create this. But maybe that is the next step, I don’t know how.. this isn’t much of a question, just a comment, but I don’t know how that looks going forward, if creating industry that is self sustainable in these communities in Mexico and into South America is the answer. But I don’t know how to go about doing that. Maybe you could tell me how you feel about this, but we have NAFTA so far in terms of Mexico. Perhaps we eliminate now the industries that are already in Mexico, I doubt they would close their factories now, maybe they would be forced to sell within Mexico.
AC: Ya I think the geography of all those questions is pertinent. Who has the power to shape the conditions? And in particular countries, in particular neighborhoods, in this global environment that we’ve created that we have right now? A different model would be to look at say, in southern Mexico the Zapatistas, you know creating their own autonomy and creating self sufficiency within their space other models would… so what you were just describing seems like what Mexico did in the 40s with import substitution industrialization. I mean they, they had oil, they nationalized the oil, and created powerful industries. Where am I going with this? Let me think for a second. From here, we definitely don’t want to go back to that but I think we can learn from that and some of the East Asian development. The East Asian tigers for example, at the very moment when Mexico was turning to this free trade export model, they were sort of combining ISI with some of the export, and some of the connections to globalization. So I think to further experiment, my own view, is that different experiments will emerge in different places but the capitalist environment that we have, the global capitalist environment is not going to disappear overnight. We aren’t going to wish it away, so I think it’s more productive to look at particular experiments and places where people are trying things out and figuring out whether they want to slow migration down. Where you visited, whether they want to assert this right to stay home or assert the right to migrate for some people, the right to stay home. Whether they want to build a self-sufficient model in their neighborhood or in their state or region, or where they want some kind of mixed model and what their values are in that place. My own view is there is going to be a lot of experimentation in the near future. Another point I would make is, we haven’t talked about the, the kind of geopolitical role that the US has as kind of a leader, and I think, I think we have got to come to terms with the fact that we don’t have that same position. The US does not have that same position. We have had this global influence, but we can’t maintain the empire that we have been running. And somehow we, in our next steps in this country, we have to figure out how to gracefully take that empire apart while respecting humans and respecting the environment. That is going to require a lot of smart people in different fields. But if we don’t figure out how to gracefully take that apart, it’ll come apart is some unfortunate way.
EB: Ya, I guess as like a final question, do you see projects like NAFTA expanding into, I know, you mentioned in Central Mexico and South America, do you foresee NAFTA or similar projects with the us expanding throughout South America? Or do you think—
AC: I think that’s over. In South America there has been this effort of neo-extractivism going back to the colonial model of bringing in mining companies, powerful mining companies from Canada and powerful companies form the mining, and powerful agricultural interests and agribusiness interests, and they are taking advantage of the weakest people and so there is this tremendous push back from indigenous groups, from working people, from environmentalists, and awareness that if they don’t push back, that that neo-extractivism is the next, the next kind of imperialism that [phone ringing] privatization in oil and gas privatization. I think most, well, I think in Latin America, sorry for that phone, I think they are more aware that, that this moment of deepening capitalism through this neoliberal model, that the US is still pushing, that it is over in Latin America, and that they are going to figure out different kinds of experiments. They have also suffered not just the deepening of capitalist relations, but they have suffered just unspeakable violence related to the cartels and drug cartels that have something to do with these capitalist flows. I think there is something new emerging, but I don’t know what it is.
EB: It’s tough to predict, we can have this conversation in 10 years again.. but thank you, I guess, is there anything else you would like to add before we end?
AC: Oh, well I just appreciate this opportunity. When I was talking just then about the empire I should probably elaborate and say that 100 years ago, a little more than that, when the British Empire was at its height, I think they faced some of these same questions. They pushed free trade in the way that the US pushed NAFTA, and pushed free trade and the Washington consensus. We were, the US was able to push those things when we were powerful, but Great Britain learned how to back away from some of that and learned that they couldn’t keep their colonies forever.
EB: I mean ya, even on that vein, it’s very interesting you said that because how that ended was in multiple wars across the world fighting for independence, now I don’t know if that can be applied to the same extent, but maybe if we take it too far it can lead to similar type revolutions, maybe on a small scale. It would be very interesting to see, because there was a relatively large collapse with the British Empire.
AC: Right and we’ve seen these resource wars in the Middle East so I think that is a good point. That certainty if we get a lot of smart people together in the US to decide we don’t want to produce wars or to participate in these ongoing wars, and endless wars, especially preemptive wars and all the rest. We have to think hard about what the near future is and how we get there and have it create a humane near future. But it’s really been a pleasure talking with you.
EB: So if it’s ok with you I’ll use this interview, I just need you to sign one more thing saying that’s ok. This is just essentially releasing this so I can put it in the records.