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Give 'em the Boot!

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December 1, 2005

Give 'em the Boot!

Zapatistas and solidarity activists are taking 'non-sweat' apparel to a new level.

by Chris Arsenault

All profits from the boots go back to the Zapatista community. photo: Students Taking Action in Chiapas
It's been almost twelve years since the Zapatistas of southern Mexico said ya basta ("enough") to neo-liberalism and initiated a struggle for "a world where many worlds fit."

Today, the Zapatistas are creating a variety of participatory economic institutions to meet community needs: women's artisan co-ops, amber producers' co-ops, fair-trade coffee cooperatives and a non-sweatshop boot co-operative.

On a sunny July day, myself and a delegation of foreign solidarity activists tramped the muddy hills around Oventic Caracole, in the Los Altos region, to visit the First of January Boot Co-op. Rafael Hedez, a leading activist with the co-op, and several other compañeros welcomed us with cokes and bowls of snow-tire-tough beef soup stewed on an open fire.

Inside the workshop (basically a barn with corrugated iron roof, one of the higher-end buildings in a region of thatched farm cuts), a dozen or so men were busy cutting leather, tracing patterns, and heating branding irons. Large blue flames erupted as glue was melted to attach the soles.

After showing us around, Hedez proudly explained the ownership structure of the workshop to us. "We have no owner. Here we are all equals," he said.

"When something is needed, or when problems arise - all jobs have problems - then we have a meeting or a general discussion. If we want to do something without consulting the rest, we can't do that. We must present the job on behalf of everyone," said Hedez.

The co-op began on Jan 1, 1998, when two activists traveled from Chiapas to Mexico City to spend six months learning the trade. The independent workshop that trained Hedez and others has since shut down, due to a huge influx of low-cost footwear from China - but the First of January Co-op survives.

Its first priority is to provide high-quality, low-cost footwear for the surrounding communities. "We sell to the indigenous for 150-220 pesos (approx 25 USD), just enough to recuperate the cost of the materials," said one co-op member. "Here in San Andres there are shoes for 100 pesos, but they will only last for a season."

With significant national and international interest in zapatismo (a fluid political movement that strives to create change without seizing power), the cooperative decided they could use sales to non-indigenous supporters to help finance the development of the workshop. "We sell high boots to foreigners for 350 pesos and medium for 300. This is the price for those who are in solidarity with us, who," stresses Hedez, "are also Zapatistas."

Before ending his presentation, Hedez stressed the democratic essence of the organization. "This is the factory for everyone. We are all the owners. We are the coordinators who manage the workshop."

Democratic values notwithstanding, the factory has many practical problems: the machinery is very outdated, significantly reducing productivity, and component parts that can't be made on site, such as soles and laces, must be bought from a middle-person in San Cristobal de Las Casas at inflated prices.

Enter the Black Star Boot Collective - a Canadian youth-run organization dedicated to finding international markets for Zapatista boots and, more importantly, raising money to improve the workshop. They sell boots over the Internet and facilitate workshops to raise awareness about alternative models of production and social organization. "We try to organize ourselves along the same principals as the First of January Co-op," said Amanda Smith, an anthropology student in Halifax and a member of the Black Star Boot Cooperative.

"Organizing co-operatively," admits Smith, "is certainly trying. None of us have experience working with boots. It's a little disorganized, frustrating and often inefficient, but the project came directly from the Zapatistas, and at this point, it seems like the most useful thing we can be doing."

"It's less about selling boots than it is about the example we are trying to set: economic interaction based on international solidarity and workers producing quality goods without bosses," Smith added.

Since the uproar against sweatshop abuses in the early 1990s, major textile corporations have spent millions on public relations to showcase "good corporate citizenship" - as if such a concept were possible.

Some positive examples of non-sweat apparel production have sprung up in the last couple years: Sweat X was paying high wages to US workers (until it shut down), and American Apparel, who just recently opened a store in Toronto, pays workers in Los Angeles decent wages to produce un-branded high quality t-shirts and other clothing.

Commendable as these examples may be, their praxis is fundamentally flawed. They seek a half-hearted return to the post-war "New Deal," naively hoping decent paying nine-to-five factory jobs can thrive again in the era of neo-liberalism. And although workers have more say over their lives at the American Apparel factory than in a Nike or Adidas outsourcing operation, the non-sweat factories still operate within a centrally planned hierarchy.

In a sense, the Zapatistas - basically an agrarian movement - have leap-frogged the entire wage system with their forays into industry. Co-op members receive no salary for their labour; all profits are invested back into entire community, mostly to pay for public services, specifically health promotion.

"We have a difficult situation," admits Hedez, who is married with several children. "We sustain ourselves through what little we can grow in our milpas (fields). We have two days a week for working in the fields. We also buy various things, but very little."

At first glance, working roughly 40 hours a week as a volunteer seems over-zealous, if not downright exploitative. But factory activists have realized they can't pull themselves out of poverty individually, one by one. Key pillars of zapatismo like health, education, and work with dignity demand collective action, cooperation and mutual aide.

The First of January Boot Workshop is not a perfect model of economic democracy. The component parts for the boots - soles, laces, etc. - are bought from coyotes (middlemen) in San Cristobal de las Casas, and are presumably imported from sweatshops in China.

And, in the Chiapas highlands, the "glory" of worker-self-management exists alongside deplorable poverty that the Mexican government characterizes as "acute marginalization." Many of the workshop activists can't afford proper shoes for their own children.

Poverty is ubiquitous in Chiapas (and indeed, in much of the world), stifling opportunities for alternative economic arrangements - for however clearly you articulate your vision of a participatory economy, you can't make something from nothing. The workshop wants to expand production, but it's unlikely they'll get a bank loan for new capital; a 1994 memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican army to "eliminate the Zapatistas" demonstrates how global capital deals with those who seek alternatives.

Still, the workshop's production is based on a key principle of zapatismo: "Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves."

"Those of us with the privilege of a Canadian passport, who are 'also Zapatistas' by Rafael's definition, have a responsibility to help build participatory structures in re-developing areas," said Black Star organizer Dennis Hale. And not just because we're nice guilty liberals, but because we need them more than they need us."

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