Shortly after our article on the NAFTA Mexican trucking program ran, I received a stern warning from the communications team at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I was informed by their media coordinator during a phone call that the article had basically foreclosed any possibilities of future interviews with the Teamsters. He told me that the phone call was to give us advanced notice of an official response to our story, and in the meantime, we were encouraged to reconsider the headline â€“ the main part of the story to which they objected.
They were very concerned, they said, that the word " â€˜Racismâ€™ " in the title of the article unfairly implied that the opposition to the trucking program was, well, racist. This despite our tactful flanking of the term in quotation marks, and the fact that it was drawn from a quoted source in the body of our story.
It wasnâ€™t that we were unaware it could be viewed as a risky headline. But at TNS, we pride ourselves on being provocative when we have the appropriate backing from research and reporting. And the idea of retracting a headline based on no editorial or ethical reason, other than the offense taken by a source, would be irresponsible to ourselves and our readers.
But aside from that, what I found most interesting about this hullabaloo was the Teamsters fixation on the allegations of racism â€“ which come in the article through the critique of labor historian and former dissident Teamster Dan La Botz. The Teamsters spokesperson told me their distress centered primarily on the "perception" that the unionâ€™s arguments were influenced by racial bias rather than concern for safety. He also said, as the Teamsters have done throughout this campaign, that the union views the Mexican workers as victims of exploitation, thereby couching the argument for exclusion in a context of sympathy.
Yet neither the phone call from the Teamsters nor James P. Hoffaâ€™s letter to us has broached some of the more-nuanced charges raised by critics of the mainstream opposition to the Mexican trucking program. What about the idea that US organized labor could do more to form grassroots, independent alliances with Mexican workers to prevent protectionism from overshadowing international solidarity? Or that the US government should do more to help bring countries into compliance with safety and labor standards when trade is contingent upon it? Even at their most defensive, the Teamsters remain squarely within the bounds of their longstanding rhetoric on "unsafe Mexican trucks."
And putting aside the controversies surrounding "free trade," wouldnâ€™t the auto-safety community support journalism that broadens the debate beyond the selected Mexican carriers in this program (no doubt intended to promote the NAFTA provision) to the broader issue of all trucks in the United States? Isnâ€™t this particularly relevant as NAFTA ushers in a more integrated highway system throughout the continent? Surely the safety records of the US trucking fleet, which still dominates the countryâ€™s roads, would also be a concern for any organization worried about driver safety?
In the end, we touched on all these questions in the article â€“ even if we admittedly couldnâ€™t cover all bases in this complex mix of political issues. And we did so by talking to people who have not testified before Senate subcommittees, or put out press releases, or sent their own "investigative reporters" to stoke public scrutiny of foreign workers. To the best of our ability, we sought out sources for their perspectives, not their agendas. And we hope thatâ€™s the reason our readership continues to seek us out as well, whatever challenges we incite along the way.