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La Mujer Obrera

March/April 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

La Mujer Obrera
Centro Obrero
P0 Box 3975
El Paso, TX 79923
Contact: Cindy Arnold
In 1993 La Mujer Obrera conducted a PRRAC-supported study to document the conditions of the women workers most Likely to be affected by the economic restructuring catalyzed by NAFTA. This study was prompted by the organization's concern that insufficient planning was being conducted at the local, state and national levels to address the expected devastation of Spanish-speaking workers' jobs by NAFTA.

In the intervening years since NAFTA's implementation. the dire forecasts have unfortunately come true, as NAFTA has delivered a three-way punch to local workers. One: over 10,000 jobs have been lost as dozens of companies moved to Mexico. As a result, El Paso has the highest certified job loss in the country due to NAFTA, and its unemployment has remained in double digits while the rest of the country and state are enjoying near-record low unemployment rates. Two: as displaced workers try to get new employment, they have run up against employer-imposed employment prerequisites of English fluency, GED certification and training and/or experience in new industrial fields. Very few displaced workers have found new jobs, despite the city having gained 13,000 new jobs since January 1994. Three: when displaced workers went in search of training to upgrade their skills in order to compete in the new workforce. they found that the vocational training programs also had English fluency and GED prerequisites, Furthermore, they found that the federally-funded, state-administered NAFTA retraining and economic development programs also had not developed any plan to deal with the particular needs of the workers hardest hit by NAFTA. Thus, NAFTA has resulted in the elimination of Spanish-speaking workers, particularly women, from the local economy.

To challenge this marginalization and discrimination by employers. training institutions and state and fed-eral government. La Mujer Obrera has been waging a three-year campaign to secure investment in training, employment and economic development infrastructure for Spanish-speaking NAFTA-displaced workers, From El Paso to the state capitol of Austin to Washington. DC, hundreds of displaced workers have conducted protests, hearings, press conferences, meetings, pickets and letter writing campaigns to demand that "bridges" of jobs, training and business opportunities be built to link displaced workers to the economy of the 21st century.

The final outcome of this campaign is still to be written, but our accomplishments to date have included:

· Establishment of weekly commu-nication with over 1,500 displaced workers enrolled in retraining programs;

· Development of the "Displaced Workers Community Economic Development Initiative" as a comprehensive strategic plan for creating employment, training, businesses and other economic alternatives for displaced workers;

· Building support among the US Department of Labor, the Texas Workforce Commission, the City of El Paso, the local state legislative delegation, the local Congressman, the Clinton Administration, the local business community and local training providers for the redesign and reorganization of NAFTA training and economic development programs for Spanish-speaking workers. As a result, in February 1997 the state and federal government set up a $7 million pilot project and recertified all displaced workers who entered training between February 1995 and April 1997, Last September they acknowledged that the pilot project was failing, and in December the City submitted a $71 million proposal to the Department of Labor to create the infrastructure needed to provide bilingual vocational training to Spanish-speaking NAFTA-displaced workers.

·La Mujer Obrera's recommendations regarding economic development resources for displaced workers were included in the 1999 fiscal year program and budget proposals for the Economic Development Administration and the North American Development Bank

· Advocacy for a proposal that would establish NAFTA impact zones, similar to federal Enterprise Community Zones, which receive institutional support to promote a comprehensive plan for community development. Such a proposal was supported by the Texas Senate and Comptroller's office, and by Texas representatives to the US Congress

· Built national awareness of NAFTA's impact on El Paso through national and international media coverage, including several reports aired on Univision internationally, as well as articles in the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and Albuquerque Journal, in addition to dozens of stories in the local media.

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