December 21, 2001

Agua Prieta's Comité Fronterizo de Obreras

by Greg Bloom

Facing the economic uncertainty of an ever-changing, global economy and resistance from existing unions and companies, it's not easy for a group like Agua Prieta's Comité Fronterizo de Obreras to advance toward its goals of better unions, wages and protections for Mexican workers. Originally founded along the Tamaulipas border, the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Women Workers' Border Committee, CFO) has been active in Agua Prieta, Sonora for four years. However, because of the problems that people in Agua Prieta are faced with, it has been impossible for the CFO to move quickly toward replacing unions that it calls "junk."

According to Lisa Ortega and Pola Pantoja, the two full-time CFO workers in Agua Prieta (located just across the border from Douglas, Arizona), maquiladora workers are afraid to organize and act. Sitting in their small, one-room office, Pantoja says that workers don't yet believe that they can organize themselves to get better wages and working conditions. Other workers fear being fired while fighting for something they may not win, she states.

Agua Prieta's Labor Climate

According to Pantoja and Ortega, workers in Agua Prieta are afraid to risk their jobs or being blacklisted for fighting for independent unions even when the economy is good. However, with the US and Mexico in recession, it's even harder to get people active as Agua Prieta maquiladoras close down. From a high of 36 maquiladoras in 2000, Agua Prieta has 32 today. Total maquiladora employment in the city has fallen from a high of 7,200 workers in the year 2000 to 5,600 workers today, according to the Mexican statistical institute, INEGI.

The precedent that the Fox administration set with the Duro maquiladora in Río Bravo, Tamaulipas also did nothing to encourage Sonora workers, says the CFO. In that case, some workers at the Duro bag manufacturing facility tried to throw out the CTM union and establish an independent union. Instead, the workers say that they were intimidated by the CTM and CROC unions and the Duro company itself. Later on, the CTM stepped out of the election and the CROC won. Many of the Duro workers are angry that the Fox administration did nothing to help protect them from the unions that they see as corrupt relics from the PRI's decades of rule.

Meetings to learn Mexican labor law

Besides Ortega and Pantoja, the CFO also has four part-time workers and together they hold approximately 60 meetings per week with local workers to teach them about their labor rights. Most of the meetings are one-on-one sessions held at workers' homes since they can find little time to go to and from meetings after a long day spent working. At the meetings, the worker and the CFO representative discuss one or more aspects of Mexican labor law. The day's theme is often based on readings from pamphlets and booklets that the CFO gives out. The meetings are short on days when women have lots of housework or shopping to do and go as long as 90 minutes on other days.

An example of one of the comic-book style, labor-law booklets is "Conozco mis derechos en el trabajo, pero ¿cuales son mis obligaciones?" ("I know my rights at work, but what are my obligations?"). On page 3 it shows a woman being told by a man in a suit that she will not be paid until the next day and then only if she works overtime. The woman is worried that her electricity will be cut off or that she will be thrown out of her rented home. However, in a box to the side, appears Article 25 of the Mexican labor law which states that workers should have, in writing, their salary and the day and place they are to be paid. Other parts of the booklet go on to list other aspects of the worker-employee relationship that should be described in written form.

Aid to workers and their families

Until such time that the CFO and Agua Prieta workers feel that they can begin to make demands for better wages and working conditions, the CFO will continue with its educational program and its "comunidades de base" (base communities) program. Ortega says that under this program, the CFO helps people with whatever they need. Typically this has meant building relationships through resolving bureaucratic problems related to pensions, healthcare, housing and transportation.

In one case, for over six years, a worker was paying for a house that he had never received. The CFO helped him to receive his home. In another case, a man got his first disability check—ten years after his debilitating injury. Other people need documents submitted in the state capital of Hermosillo so the CFO puts through calls to relatives or religious groups that can help move along health insurance or retirement-related paperwork.

Through this kind of assistance, and its efforts at education, the CFO hopes to better the lot of workers in Agua Prieta. Other moves for the CFO include an expansion to Nogales, Sonora in the near future where the CFO will continue its work in the state's biggest border city.

Greg Bloom is editor of "Frontera NorteSur" an on-line news magazine covering the US-Mexico border: FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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