April 6, 2001

Workers and Unions on the Tamaulipas Border

By Greg Bloom

Alma was employed in a Reynosa maquiladora for three years soldering electronic components with lead-based material until she fell sick with lung disease and could no longer continue working. It took her three months to recover during which time she received no compensation for what she considered to be a work-related ailment. When she went back to her union to get a new job she was placed at a different company—again in soldering. Believing that she would die from continued exposure to the fumes that resulted from her work she made the difficult decision to permanently quit the maquiladoras.

Since leaving life in the assembly plants Alma has learned that she should have been protected by Mexico's work-place, environmental-safety laws. But she was not. The first maquiladora in which she was employed had only insufficient ventilation—small fans in front of the workers that were supposed to pull fumes away from them. The second maquiladora that she went to was no better, she believed.

Alma's husband has a very good maquiladora job, paying the equivalent of about US$10 a day, but she says that he also faces health threats on the job as well. In the plant where he works people have had the skin torn off of their hands by the unguarded chains on a fabric-loading machine.

Alma mentions other accidents she has heard of and talking with people in her neighborhood it's apparent that everyone knows lots of maqui-ladora, work-related accident stories. Of course all of this makes one wonder, what are the unions doing for their workers in terms of plant safety, wages and other issues?


Unions in Reynosa and Matamoros, Tamaulipas

Tamaulipas has the strongest unions on the US-Mexico border according to Cirila Quintero Ramírez, a labor researcher at the Matamoros office of the Colegio de la Frontera del Norte (Colef). In Matamoros and Reynosa, cities across from Brownsville and McAllen, TX respectively, unionization is nearly 100%. All the construction trades are unionized as are restaurant employees like servers and cooks. Quintero said that when McDonald's came to Tama-ulipas even it had to have a unionized work force.

An even more impressive aspect of union strength in these cities is that workers in Matamoros and Reynosa do not go to companies to obtain jobs. Rather they must go to the unions and get put on a list to later be placed at a job by the unions, according to Quintero. Women go on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get on the lists. Men go on Mondays and Wednesdays. Quintero says that because workers must often wait for a month or two to gain employment there is very low turnover in Matamoros and Reynosa maquiladoras. While in some border cities workers take and leave jobs at will causing annual turn-over rates as high as 100% or 150% or more in some plants, in Matamoros and Reynosa the annual turn-over rate can be in the single digits at many companies.

While the unions in these cities could use their strong position to further worker safety and salaries it appears that they do not do so. Workers interviewed for this story mentioned repeatedly that they often fear advocating for better safety conditions and compensation because they believe that the unions can retaliate by black listing them from the hiring lists. A few workers even stated their position is so weak in the plants, despite belonging to a union, that they face company disciplinary action if they go to a hospital for a work-place injury before receiving permission from the plant doctor. The workers state that this is because companies do not report injuries that are treated in the plant infirmary. Only injuries that are reported outside of the plants, in hospitals, are included in the official accident reports, they say.

Workers also state that their unions are in collusion with government and management to not raise wages above certain limits. Indeed, in Matamoros, in the last round of wage negotiations between the Maquiladora Industry Workers' Union (Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales de la Industria Maqui-ladora, SJOIIM) and city maquiladoras, the SJOIIM began by stating that they would ask for a 30% raise for workers. Later, the government asked that raises be limited to 12.75% at the same time that the city maquiladora association said that it would not give raises of more than 12%. When the contracts were finally signed, after a few days of rolling strikes and retaliatory corporate shut downs, the final raise was between 12 and 13%.

These examples of health and wage issues are just a few of the reasons why Matamoros and Reynosa workers believe that their unions are set against them obtaining better conditions for themselves. Verónica Quiroz, a former Reynosa maquiladora employee and organizer with the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Border Women Workers Committee, CFO), says that in Reynosa, Río Bravo and Matamoros, workers not only have to fight their companies for the things they want but also have to consider how to take on their very own unions. Quiroz and other maquiladora workers agree that it is easier to organize workers and get results in Mexican border cities where unions are nonexistent or tend to be weaker.


The case of labor and the Duro maquiladora in Río Bravo

Over the past year workers at the Duro Bag Bag Manufacturing maquiladora in Río Bravo, Tamaulipas tried to establish an independent union in their plant—and were met with open hostility. Worker organizers were fired from the company and one organizer's house was burned down. In the final days before the election the corporate and union campaign against the workers grew so intense that what had appeared to be almost unanimous support for the independent union translated into 497 votes for the Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos (Revolutionary Confederation of Laborers and Farmworkers, CROC) and just 4 votes for the independent union, according to the March 3, 2001 McAllen Monitor.

According to the CFO and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), workers at the Río Bravo plant were forced to vote in front of the CROC and management after being told that they would be fired if they voted for the independent union. Also according to CJM sources workers were told that Duro would shut down its operation and move to another city if the independent union was voted in at the plant. When considering these threats and allegations that workers were harassed in other ways, the final outcome of the vote is not surprising.

One part of the campaign to help the Duro workers was a request that people write letters to President Vicente Fox and other government officials asking that a safe and secret vote be allowed in the plant. Since the vote was later held inside the plant in front of CROC and Duro officials many people were left wondering why President Fox, a man who ran for election on a pro-democracy campaign, did not try to support voting freedoms in a union election.

Colef-researcher Quintero and maquiladoras workers believe that President Fox puts economic stability before worker rights and freedoms because he fears independent unions breaking out along the border and fears workers making too many demands on maquiladora owners. Fox's economic and social plans depend greatly on continued and expanding economic growth in the country and a scary border-labor scene could negatively impact investment in the region and country, they say. Finally, Quintero said that Fox wants to keep the Con-federación de Trabajadores de México (CTM) happy so that he can enjoy as much CTM support as possible in the Congress when he finally decides to make changes that will affect the CFE (Federal Electrical Commission) and Pemex unions.


Forces for change

Given that workers must fight against both maquiladora owners and official unions to make gains in the work place, Verónica Quiroz says that change must begin by bringing together workers and having them talk about what they want to change in their work place. Next, workers can discuss how to arrive at their new goals. Groups like the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras can help this process by bringing together workers in the neighborhoods where they live and by educating workers about their rights under existing federal employment laws.

One recent victory for Reynosa workers took place in a Delphi plant. According to CFO organizer María Elena García, employees on one shift were dissatisfied with the representative that their union had given them and began to work toward replacing him. The union did not want to lose any power in the plant so it tried to schedule an election for a shift representative when many of the workers would be unable to attend, García said. The workers then responded by refusing to attend that election and later scheduled an election when it was convenient for them. In the end they were able to elect their own plank of representatives.

In the future it will be basic, worker-guided, plant-based work like this that will create gains for workers, according to García and Quiroz. No one else is going to help them get ahead they say, certainly not the unions and definitely not the companies. If workers want to protect themselves from lead-based fumes and hand-chewing chains and want to earn wages that allow them to feed, clothe, house and educate their families then they will have to advance on their own, they believe.

Greg Bloom is editor of Frontera NorteSur, an on-line news service of the US-Mexico border

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