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UCLA Labor Center visits Mexico City for binational worker center exchange

By Emily Jo Wharry | June 26, 2023

On May 31, staff members from the UCLA Labor Center joined by their colleagues at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) and UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) traveled to Mexico City for a two-day convening focused on advancing cross-border collaborations that promote labor organizing, policy advocacy and academic research.

Hosted by the Solidarity Center, AFL-CIO’s Mexico City office, the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization that partners directly with workers and their unions, the event took place in downtown Mexico City at the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. UCLA staff met with faculty and students from the Observatory of Labor Policies and Practices based at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), the Permanent Seminar on Labor Studies based at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Autonomous University of Querétaro (UAQ), as well as union leaders from throughout Mexico.

The event comes on the heels of last summer’s historic launch of Centro Laboral UAQ, a new labor center based at the Autonomous University of Queretaro and the first of three labor centers modeled after the UCLA Labor Center in Los Angeles that will soon open at Mexican universities. 

The new centers will bring together workers, scholars, students, unions, civic leaders and the public to improve work conditions, raise workplace standards and strengthen the rights of migrant workers — especially those who are women, youth, Indigenous people and people of African descent. 

To showcase strategies for using accessible labor research to support workers’ campaigns and policy initiatives, UCLA staff members facilitated an interactive data gallery walk, where attendees learned about the center’s research justice methodology and past collaborations with community partners. 

“It was powerful to be in the same room with faculty, with students, but also with union leaders from Mexico — the energy and disposition was so positive,” said Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a project director at the UCLA Labor Center and director at the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies who has led the international collaboration since 2015. “I was proud to see our staff in action.”

UCLA Labor Center project director Janna Shadduck-Hernandez and research director Saba Waheed spoke on a joint panel with Mexico-based partners about their use of bilingual videos and podcasts to elevate the voices of workers through diverse media platforms.

On another collaborative panel, UCLA Dream Resource Center director Ju Hong and deputy director George Chacon, UCLA Labor Center director Kent Wong, UCLA Center for Advancing Racial Equity (CARE) at Work public program analyst Semi Cole, and UCLA LOSH director Kevin Riley shared insights and best practices on student leadership development.

“This was one of many exchanges that I anticipate in the coming months and years. It was so helpful to, as a team, get a collective assessment of the power and potential of building cross-border solidarity,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “This event set the foundation for what promises to be an exciting journey of future collaborations with our partners in Mexico.”

This binational collaboration also follows the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and an unprecedented labor reform in Mexico. Among other highlights, the USMCA outlined a boost in auto manufacturing, environmental protections and, notably for labor rights advocates, greater labor law enforcement for workers through an interagency committee that will have the ability to conduct inspections and levy penalties on goods produced in factories that violate worker rights. The new Mexican worker centers are set to play a critical role in ensuring new worker protections are fulfilled.

As a part of the Labor Center’s visit to the region, La Jornada, one of Mexico’s most widely-distributed daily newspapers, published two interviews of Labor Center staff members, “Migrantes y sindicatos hicieron de LA el bastión progresista de EU” and “Migrantes, los protagonistas de un nuevo mundo trasnacional.” 

Wong and Rivera-Salgado discussed how Latino migrant workers and unions in Los Angeles revitalized California’s labor movement and transformed the city into the progressive bastion of the U.S.

Rivera-Salgado discussed the need to reconceptualize the role of Mexican migrant workers as actors with strong ties to both the communities they reside within in the U.S. and their communities of origin in Mexico. He explained that because of these strong binational connections, they are critical players in the economic and political processes of a more integrated North American region.

“We need to address the issue of educating a new generation of workers and managers with a deep understanding that the connections between Mexico and the U.S. will only get deeper, and both our economic and political futures are tied together,” he said.