August 18, 2000

Just South of Texas, Democracy Faces Its Hardest Test

By David Bacon

RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS — Mexico's new national government of Vicente Fox hasn't taken office yet, but already it confronts its thorniest political problem. This challenge comes not from the country's former governing party, the PRI, which lost control of the presidency for the first time in 71 years. Instead, a group of maquiladora workers in Tamaulipas have spotlighted a growing crisis affecting over a million workers — the right to form independent unions, and thereby raise wages, in two thousand foreign-owned factories, the maquiladoras.

On June 11, hundreds of mostly-women workers walk-ed out of the Duro S.A. plant in Rio Bravo, just across the Rio Grande River from Pharr, Texas. In the Duro factory, 700 people make gift bags sold under contract to Hallmark and other large U.S. gift retailers. Duro Bag Manufacturing, a private company headed by Charles Shor and based in Ludlow, Kentucky, also owns three U.S. factories.

Wages in the Rio Bravo plant average 320 pesos a week (about $35), according to Consuelo Moreno, one of the workers. But Duro employees didn't strike for a raise — they stopped work to force the company to recognize the independent union they had formed themselves.

Most of Mexico's border workers actually belong to unions, but not ones they control. Instead, factory managers sign agreements, called protection contracts, in which they make sizeable payments to representatives from labor organizations affiliated with the PRI. In return, they operate without fear of labor disruption. Duro has a protection contract with the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union.

That union is part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (the CTM), a pillar of PRI support for decades.

"In the past, the company was always able to buy off our union leaders. Always." More-no exclaims. "Yet my daughter had to drop out of school this year, because we didn't have the money to enable her to continue her studies, and what my husband and I make just doesn't cover our bills. We can only change things if we have a union the company can't control. With the committee we have now, made up of people from the plant, the company can't buy us off."

The old protection system began to break down at Duro last fall when workers in the plant elected a new leader, Eliud Almaguer. Almaguer and a committee chosen by the workers presented the company with a list of basic improvements they expected in a new contract, including a wage increase from 320 to 420 pesos a week. When Almaguer and the committee wouldn't back off, national officials of the old union signed a new agreement meeting none of their demands, and expelled him. The company then fired him.

That convinced Duro employees to form an independent organization. For two months they chased Tamaulipas' governor, Tomas Yarrington, around the state, holding up banners demanding "libertad sindical" [the right to belong to the union of their own choosing] when he opened clinics or appeared in public. Middle-aged women, often with their children beside them, confronted police outside the plant, and camped out in Rio Bravo's main plaza. They told Yarrington they wouldn't move until the state labor board granted their union legal recognition.

Duro's human relations manager, Alejandro de la Rosa, didn't return phone calls, but told Rio Bravo's local newspaper, El Bravo, that "the workers are protesting things that aren't our responsibility. Almaguer says he's a dissident leader, but he was actually removed some time ago."

Spontaneous strikes in the maquiladoras are not uncommon, and other workers have also tried to win recognition for independent unions. But the upheaval at Duro comes as big shifts are taking place, not only in Mexican electoral politics, but also in its labor movement. Just three years ago, a number of large Mexican unions left the old government-sponsored Labor Congress and created a new federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT).

That federation is a growing presence on the border. UNT General Secretary Francisco Hernandez Juarez met with Yarrington, and obtained what he believed was a commitment to give the new union legal status.

When Yarrington reneged, the UNT organized a public protest rally bringing hundreds of advocates of independent unionism to Reynosa, a border city near Rio Bravo. The Tamaulipas labor board hurriedly granted the union its recognition.

Hernandez Juarez believes that workers will organize more independent unions, especially if Duro workers win a better contract with higher wages. That, he predicts, will create a crisis for Fox.

Fox's party, the National Action Party, is pro-business and wants to encourage foreign investment. In states like Baja, California, where it has been in power for a decade, the party has discouraged independent unions. Workers at Tijuana's Han Young factory have been engaged in a three-year struggle similar to that at Duro. The PAN state government ignored Federal court orders protecting the independent October 6 union, and suppressed a legal strike at the plant. On June 10, strikers were even beaten by members of another PRI-controlled union at a government-sponsored meeting to discuss labor rights.

"On July 2 [the day of when Fox was elected], millions of people voted for change," Hernandez Juarez says. "They voted for democracy, not for a continuation of the system of protection contracts. They voted for union freedom."

"(Fox) will have to respond to peoples' expectations. What sense does it make," Her-nandez Juarez asks, "that for the first time in history, workers could elect a president who's not from the PRI, and yet they can't elect the general secretary of their own union?"

Border employers clearly feel the threat, as do those PRI-affiliated union leaders who stand to lose their protected status. They accuse Duro workers of being pawns manipulated by U.S. unions, and by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, an organization of Mexican, U.S. and Canadian activists who support independent union efforts.

After the turmoil began at Duro, El Bravo referred to Coalition director Marta Ojeda as a professional agitator, and accused Almaguer of being paid to organize the work stoppage. Tamaulipas CTM leader Leocadio Mendoza Reyes accused Ojeda of mounting a "dirty war" against the CTM, to "destabilize" the maquiladoras and scare companies into relocating jobs to the U.S. Cesar Trevino Saenz, president of the maquiladora employers association, Canacintra, alleged that a campaign was being directed from Texas to undermine maquiladora development.

Ojeda, a Mexican citizen, led a movement in 1994 to democratize a CTM union at Ciudad Laredo's huge Sony plant, before becoming director of the Coalition for Justice. She agrees that union members and activists in the U.S. and Canada support the Duro workers, but says that support is based on the idea of international solidarity, not self-interest. "The attacks on us come from fear — the people who have benefited from this system are losing control," she declares.

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