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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Trade unions, inequality, and democracy in the US and Mexico


Unions have been hailed as defenders of democracy and equality, and damned aspreservers of privilege and corruption. The global spread of neoliberalism has intensified this debate world-wide, but nowhere has it reached a higher pitch than in the United States and Mexico. In these two neighboring North American countries, one rich and one middle-income, economic liberals have battered unions over the last three decades, and unions have fought a largely defensive battle. This article surveys unions’ activities in recent decades to examinelinks between unions, democracy, and equality. The central argument is that it is essential to disaggregate the labor movement in order to make sense of these links. Both sides of the debatehave merit with reference to particular currents within the labor movement of each country.Moreover, even within particular currents, the relationship between unions, democracy, and equality is mixed and complex. Finally, the massive labor migration between the two countriesturns out to play a particular role in this set of linkages in the USA.The article begins with a brief review of relevant literature on the role of unions. A compressed summary of the historical background and main current trends in democracy and inequality in the two countries follows. The heart of the article treats the varied categories of unions in the two countries, and their relationships with democracy and inequality. Concluding remarks close the article.

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