International Solidarity Experiences
One of the most powerful ways to grasp how neoliberal globalization disproportionately burdens working people across the world is to visit a working-class community in another country. A few of the organizations that participated in this project have experience organizing international labor exchange opportunities for their membership with precisely this goal in mind. In two cases, these were collaborations among three distinct organizations that came together to create opportunities for their members to recognize connections among African American and immigrant experiences of disenfranchisement and low-wage work. Among the convenings and exchanges that took place, they each organized a delegation of U.S.-born workers who visited workers in Mexico.
In the case of the partnership between Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), Local 150 in North Carolina, the cross-border organizing efforts of the UE and FLOC facilitated the opportunity. In this international exchange, BWFJ members visited to a poor, mountain village in Mexico to visit the family of a Latino worker who had been badly injured on the job in the U.S. Gordon and Lenhardt’s 2007 account asserts, “The trip made clear the similarities in the African American and Latino immigrant experiences and helped to illuminate for the BWFJ workers the reasons immigrants search for work in the United States. As Ajamu Dillahunt explained, ‘That connection for workers who had grown up in the fields of North Carolina and in extreme poverty was important. Talk about an aha moment!’”
The South by Southwest Experiment was a multi-year inter-organizational collaboration between Southern Echo in Mississippi, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in New Mexico, and the Southwest Workers Union (SWU) in Texas. Beginning around 2005, it involved a series of regional convenings that brought each group’s membership into dialogue. A highlight for the Mississippi participants was a trip to visit a manufacturing plant just across the U.S.-Mexico border. Themselves former factory workers who had lost their jobs when this very company left Mississippi in search of lower-cost production, the delegation was gripped to see first-hand the dismal working and living conditions their Mexican counterparts faced. The trip resulted in a profound and deeply personal understanding of the logics, mechanics, and effects of unregulated capitalism on a global scale.
In the third case, STITCH, an organization that builds leadership capacity of women workers in Latin America and the United States, organizes delegations of U.S.-based union women to Guatemala. Through visits to Guatemalan industries (textile, banana) and meetings with women union leaders, the trips are designed to educate and inspire participants and to build ties of solidarity between working women in the United States and Central America.
Such opportunities for experiential learning are rare, as they require considerable resources, take a lot of planning, and typically only present themselves as opportunities when the organizers have cross-border or other international connections. There are other groups that organize similar opportunities for individuals, often for a fee (see, for example, the United Universalist Service Committee’s JustWorks and Global Exchange’s Reality Tours).
Finally, the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN) facilitated cross-border solidarity using a technique that did not require travel. In 1997, TIRN initiated a scrapbook exchange that connected female factory workers in Tennessee with their counterparts in Juárez, Mexico. They also interviewed workers in both Tennessee and Mexico to create a dialogue through video letters.