By David Bacon
Today the US/Mexico border is the subject of intense political controversy. Most of the fireworks focus on the idea that more enforcement can keep people from crossing it. Lost in this hysteria is the reality that the border is a huge place, where millions of people live and work. Not only that, but here free trade policies hold down living standards and prevent union and community organizing. That, in turn, produces pressure on people to seek a better standard of living elsewhere.
To explore the real conditions for border workers, David Bacon interviewed Julia Quiñones, coordinator of the Border Committee of Women Workers, the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, with offices in Piedras Negras, Mexico.
David: In Spanish, the name of the border committee uses the word “obreras,” which means women workers. Why is the name of the committee in the feminine?
Julia: The Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) is an organization of rank and file women, led by women and men who work in the maquiladoras. The organization was born out of the needs particularly of the young women who work in the factories. In the beginning the industry was especially interested in employing women, and even though this situation has changed over time, we continue to maintain a focus on their experience. We look for a greater level of participation by women, inside their unions and at all levels of leadership.
David: What does the Comité do?
Julia: The CFO is working in three Mexican states Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua. Our purpose is to educate and organize workers around their labor rights. We try to engage workers in learning and talking about the impact of free trade, and focus on violence against women. We have a program to build economic self-sufficiency and we’ve created our own maquiladora, making products and giving employment to women.
David: What are the effects of free trade and NAFTA, as you see them in your section of the border?
Julia: Maquiladoras began to arrive in our region over 40 years ago. With the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement 11 years ago, the working conditions in the maquiladoras got much worse. Even those plants, which over the years had achieved better benefits and wages, began to move south into the interior of Mexico, where the salaries were much lower and the conditions worse.
David: What about the plants that have remained on the border? Have salaries gone up in the years that NAFTA has been in effect? The Mexican government promised when NAFTA was negotiated, that free trade would produce more jobs, and that those jobs would pay more. Mexico would become a first world country, according to then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Julia: The workers on the border think that was all a big lie. The problem of unemployment wasn’t resolved at all. Salaries have not gotten better; in fact, they’re completely insufficient for anybody to live on. Workers continue to live in extreme poverty, and at the same time, many people still arrive in the border region looking for work. The cities are overloaded, and don’t provide basic services or infrastructure. Look at Ciudad Acuña. It’s a disgrace. There are large transnationals, such as Alcoa and Delphi, operating there, yet workers have to build their houses out of cardboard, or materials taken from the factories.
David: What is an average maquiladora factory wage? What will that wage actually buy in the supermarket?
Julia: The average salary for a maquiladora worker is US $45 a week. This allows workers to buy pasta, beans, rice, potatoes, maybe oil - just the basic things to eat. They can’t buy cereals. They buy milk on rare occasions, if there are children. No meat.
David: Julia, are there unions in the factories?
Julia: On the border you have to understand there are many different situations. In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, for example, the most common arrangements are known as protection contracts. These are union contracts that the workers don’t know anything about, but which protect the company instead. In Tamaulipas or Coahuila, most of the maquiladoras have unions, but these are called “charro” unions, because they are unresponsive and corrupt and don’t support the workers. In Ciudad Acuña, unions are actually prohibited and there is not a single one.
David: The Border Committee has been very active helping workers at the Alcoa Fujikura plant in Piedras Negras, not only to improve their conditions, but also to form an independent union. What happened to them?
Julia: At Alcoa in Piedras Negras, at first workers organized a rank-and-file movement to reform the union from within. There was a “charro” union there, a union that belonged to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). It was not responsive to workers, so they tried to take it over. They wanted to take control of their own collective bargaining, in order to improve their salaries and their benefits. They saw that the CTM leaders were partial to the company, and not representing them. These workers won election to leadership positions on the plant level, but then found that everything they tried to do was undone by higher leaders of the union, who made secret agreements with the company.
So they formed an independent union, and left the old one. Under Mexican law, they had to get their union registered by the government. They filed the paperwork with the local Conciliation and Arbitration Board, but the agency denied the registration. This case is still not resolved. In fact, after appealing within the Mexican legal system, they filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, accusing the Mexican government of failing to guarantee its citizens the right of freedom of association.
David: What happened to the workers involved in that effort?
Julia: Some of the leaders were fired, but others continued the organizing work. That’s really the key to maintaining a movement with an organized rank-and-file base. When the company fires some leaders, other leaders emerge and keep going. Today there are hundreds of workers involved in this movement.
What they went through is a logical evolution, and you can see it develop in many factories. First workers begin to make changes in their individual lives and in their individual conflicts. They begin to organize and act together along the same assembly line, and then at a plant-wide level. Ultimately because they want more say and control, they try to find a union structure that represents them.
David: The story you’re telling here is very similar to many others. Workers can’t get their independent unions recognized, and get fired as a result of their efforts. I’m sure you could name a lot of different plants where the same thing has happened. At Sony, in Nuevo Laredo, people were actually beaten up in front of the factory. But NAFTA had a labor side agreement that was supposed to guarantee labor rights in Mexico, so that this wouldn’t take place. What about it? Was the NAFTA labor side agreement useful to workers? Could they use it to stop the kind of violations you’re describing at Alcoa Fujikura?
Julia: No. The labor side agreement supposedly protects the principle of freedom of association, the issue here. But it’s obvious that this labor side agreement hasn’t forced anybody to take responsibility. Complaints are filed, and after a long process, the only thing that comes is a recommendation which never translates into actual enforcement.
David: What about support from unions on the other side of the border? I know that CFO has relationships with U.S. unions. Do they help guarantee labor rights on the border?
Julia: We’ve been creating alliances with some U.S. labor unions because we’re working for the same companies, and we need to connect our struggles across the border.
David: There are a number of other maquiladora worker organizing projects along the border in different cities. There is one in Tijuana, CITTAC, and another one in Torreón, Enlace or Sedepac. The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras includes many of these. Do you foresee any efforts to try and bring these groups together, to create an umbrella under which maqui-ladora workers can organize in different cities all along the border?
Julia: All of these organizations have the same objective. They’re looking for social justice, justice for workers. We find different ways to work, but we are seeking the same goals, the same justice. This process has its ups and downs. We win sometimes, we lose other times. The challenge we all face is to be consistent, so that when workers organize there is a movement to help them. Sometimes when there’s a bunch of firings, the organization falls apart. The hard thing is to build organizations that can survive these blows.
David: What can an ordinary worker in the US do to be part of this?
Julia: The first thing workers can do is organize themselves and fight for their own jobs where they are. This is the first step towards building international solidarity. For the companies, there are simply no borders anymore, or barriers to the movement of capital.
The main office for the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) is in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Their website, www.cfomaquiladoras.org. has materials in Spanish and English.
To contact David Bacon, or for more information, visit his website at: http://dbacon.igc.org