by Greg Bloom
Duro Bag Manufacturing Company has been in Mexico for thirty years and has had a maquiladora in Río Bravo, Tamaulipas, a city between Reynosa and Matamoros, for twelve to thirteen years according to Bill Forstrom, vice president of manufacturing. Speaking with Forstrom about the Duro assembly plant in Río Bravo it is clear that he takes pride in the plant for which he is responsible.
Forstrom states that Duro always negotiates wages that are higher than area's average even though the Río Bravo plant does not require a high-school diploma or highly skilled workers. Workers are always provided with appropriate safety gear such as ventilation and steel-toed boots just like employees at its northern Kentucky location, Forstrom says. Furthermore, all Río Bravo equipment has the same safety guards as at Duro's Kentucky plant and any safety changes in Kentucky are always made in Río Bravo.
The Río Bravo plant is safe too, Forstrom contends, saying that it registers less accidents than the company's US average and that it has a better-than-average safety record when compared to US paper-products plants. Forstrom says that the cafeteria in Río Bravo is good, that it has the same government classification as a tourist restaurant, and that he has eaten there hundreds of times. The plant is not air conditioned he admits but neither is Duro's Brownsville facility, located just across the river, which shares Río Bravo's hot, humid temperatures. Instead, both plants he says make extensive use of fans to cool work areas.
"Río Bravo is not a sweatshop," Forstrom states, "we are not hiding it from anyone. We have invited journalists to go through, and eat in the cafeteria and I invite you to come and visit as well."
A different opinion of the maquiladora
Forstrom's opinion of the plant differs greatly from that of Victoria Pacheco's. Pacheco began producing paper bags at the Duro maquiladora at the age of 17 (see endnote #1). She stopped working for a while and then returned to the plant at age 18 and remained there for ten years. To earn extra money she would work overtime some days from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 10 p.m., Monday through Friday, and would often work on weekends as well. Her take home pay was never more than US$80 per week, she says.
When asked about pay For-strom said that workers earn about US$6.85 per day in basic salary (62.35 pesos per day) but also receive a 5 peso food coupon (approximately US $0.60) and an attendance bonus that add up to a daily pay total of 74 pesos per day (US $8.14). In addition to their free meals the workers can also count on transportation on Duro busses that pick them up and take them home at the ends of their shifts. Almost all people at the plant except the newest arrivals also receive a daily-production bonus of about 30 pesos per day (US $3.25) that increases their weekly take home pay by nearly 50%.
"Nos pisoteaban," Pacheco says, "They walked all over us. I didn't know my rights." Pacheco states that one day she had to work with a 40-degree Celsius (104-degree Fahrenheit) fever as her supervisor would not allow her to leave because two other workers had already gone home sick that day. Pacheco says that workers were not provided with work boots when she was at the company and that she saw her fellow employees lose fingers in machines. There was often a strong odor in the plant from the glues and solvents that were used there but Pacheco says that workers were never provided with safety equipment or even basic masks.
Located in a city with many 100+ degree days and high humidity, Pacheco complained that the maquiladora was not air conditioned. Twelve wo-men only had one inadequate fan at the front of their line that did not reach those in back, Pacheco said, and the women would rotate positions so that they could all take turns cooling off as they worked.
Even the little things were inadequate at the plant Pacheco stated, "Our bathrooms were often flooded and dirty. The cafeteria was extremely bad, pésima."
June 2000 strike
Because of what she saw as poor plant conditions and low wages Pacheco began to agree with others in the plant that they should form an independent union composed solely of Duro workers. To them it was obvious that their CTM-related union (Confederación de Trabajadores de México) would never get them the conditions and wages that they so badly needed. In June, 2000 factory workers went on strike in support of the independent union and on June 12 Pacheco and other workers were fired from their positions at Duro.
Forstrom remembers the strike and says that it was illegal as three-days advanced notice was not given. Strikers blocked the entrance to the plant and some were arrested. He estimates that about 80 people took part in the strike and knows that some of them later came back to work. About 60 or 70 workers did not return after three days and, as per Mexican law, the company sent out letters to inform them that their absence was understood as "a quit." Forstrom says that so far one-half of these workers have "settled" with Duro which means that they have accepted the pay-out of their retirement benefits from the company.
After losing her job Pacheco still sought to seek change for remaining workers so she and others formed a group that supports Duro workers in their quest to obtain an independent union. To this end the group spent much of last year and the first months of 2001 seeking to obtain an election that would allow Duro workers to vote for the union of their choice. Initially the election was blocked but after a few months government permission for a vote was finally received.
"How was I so brave?"
It was in the two weeks prior to the election that the situation in Río Bravo grew scary, according to Pacheco. About ten days before the election Pacheco and other volunteers went out in a van with a loud speaker mounted on it and were asking people to back them in the election. After a while they noticed they were being followed by unknown men in a car. The men wanted them to turn off the speaker but they refused to do so. The chase went on for some time and at one point the car crashed into the van and its twelve occupants, Pacheco said.
Afraid to go back to their homes because they did not want the men to know where they lived, the union supporters drove around the city for four hours until the pursuit stopped. Their fear for their families was justified by their belief that the home of one of the former workers involved in organizing the independent union had burned down under mysterious circumstances a few months earlier.
Later in the week Pacheco said that a woman from the group was chased to her house and after that no member of the group wanted to take a bus back to his or her neighborhood. So, for ten days, the union supporters lived in a hotel and did not have any contact with their families. This was particularly hard for Pacheco as she has two young children one of whom is under one-year old.
Pacheco said that perhaps one of the hardest things she had to witness was when a group of men drove up to the plant and began unloading weapons from the trunk of a red car. This action occurred in clear view of workers and activists and Pacheco believes that it was just another way of intimidating the supporters of the independent union.
Indeed, the climate of fear produced during these ten days was so hard for Pacheco that she now finds herself wondering, "How did we do this? How was I so brave?" People would ask her how she could do such dangerous work when she has children and she responded to them by saying that it was for them and their future that she was taking such risk.
Forstrom disputes the notion that weapons were brought into the plant saying that he did not see any. He also said that Duro only hired eight extra, unarmed guards at the time of the election and they were only located outside the plant. Forstrom said that Duro was prepared to work with whichever union was victorious in the election and viewed the tearing down of election posters and other problems as the work of competing unions.
The union electionVictoria's account
When Pacheco and six other members of the independent union support group along with three of their lawyers entered the Duro plant at 5 a.m. on Friday, March 2, 2001 to begin their observation of the voting, Pacheco states that more than 200 men from the soon-to-be victorious CROC (Confedera-ción Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, Revolutionary Confederation of Laborers and Farmworkers) union were already in the plant. Pacheco described the men as thugs or "golpeadores" (a "golpe" is a blow or punch in Spanish) because of her group's previous encounter with the men and because workers inside the plant had complained for days before the election that they were frequently shoved or bumped into by the men.
Upon entering the plant Pacheco was immediately concerned for the second-shift workers who were to vote in the election. She said that they had arrived at work at 3 p.m. on Thursday, March 1. By the time she arrived these workers had been in the plant 14 hours, many of them without eating and most of them without sleeping. Some were beginning to faint, she said. The workers' relatives also began to worry about where their family members were and some went to the plant to look for them. One woman had a sick son outside but could not get out to him, Pacheco stated.
When workers were finally lined up to begin voting, Pacheco estimates that there was one "golpeador" in line for every three workers. Located in front of her were eight men and she was occasionally bumped into by them. At one point the independent union's three lawyers were all moved out of sight under the pretext that there were problems outside. Pacheco believes that this lack of legal representation is a reason to hold a new, fair election in the plant.
After all the votes had been counted there were 497 votes for the CROC union and just 4 for the independent union. Pacheco said that some workers told her they did not even know for whom they were voting. They simply voted with the little slips of paper that had been given to them by the "golpeadores." According to Pacheco the papers did not mention the CROC but read something like, "Sindicato papel y cartón" (Paper and Cardboard Union). Other workers told her that they just wanted to vote and get home and by that point did not care who would win the election.
The union electionDuro's account
Because of the presence of so many people in front of the plantmedia, independent union supporters and othersForstrom said that he brought in food and blankets so as to be able to offer the workers a place to spend the night so that they would not have to go through the crowd of people outside. The workers' reply to his offer? "They did not want to stay all night," he said. Forstrom stated that the workers instead went home after their shifts and began returning between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. in small groups before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. voting.
At 8:00 a.m. workers began lining up to vote and traffic direction was done by Duro not be the CROC, Forstrom said. Forstrom also stated that he saw no bullying and that there was "not one shout, not one harsh word." The climate inside the plant was peaceful although voting did not actually start until 10:45 due to unintended delays.
Forstrom says that a worker told him that she was glad the voting was done publicly and that individual votes were recorded with people's name because otherwise she feared that the voting box could have been switched with another one. The catch-22 implicit here was not lost on Forstrom who said that both forms of voting can be criticized by the loser in an election: people criticize public voting for its shortcomings but people would also criticize a secret ballot by saying that votes had been changed. "Workers wouldn't trust a secret ballot," he said.
To have a private vote take place, under Mexican election law, all unions represented in the election must agree to have private voting. In this case the independent union wanted workers to be able to vote in private but the CROC wanted the vote to be public. While not directly involved in the election, Forstrom believes that it should have come off fairly given the presence of people from the local Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje (Arbitration Board) and the Mexican Department of Labor.
Trying to explain the uneven vote results, Forstrom believes that Duro workers voted for the CROC because they no longer wanted to be associated with the CTM union or its break-away independent union which had resulted in so many months of difficulties and inconveniences for workers. Forstrom also said that a corporate campaign waged by independent union supporters almost caused Duro's largest buyer to cancel its contract. Had this happened Forstrom admits that Duro would have had to have closed its plant and moved it elsewhere. Forstrom says that Duro's workers wanted to keep their jobs and for this reason they may have also turned against the independent union.
Toward the future
Victoria Pacheco says that in the months ahead the group committed to the formation of an independent union at the Duro maquiladora will try to get the Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje to give them a new, fair election based on the demands of individuals involved with the voting. In Mexico Juntas resolve many labor issues at the local level. Pacheco believes that new elections must be granted because of the disappearance of the group's lawyers, the detention of workers in the factory and the presence of weapons there.
As to her own future after the resolution of the Duro situation, Pacheco is not sure what will happen. Pacheco believes that she has already been blacklisted in the Río Bravo maquiladoras. When she recently went with her brother-in-law to look for a job he was passed into the plant to be hired but she was not allowed to enter, she said. In an area where most employment is in the maquiladoras it is possible that Pacheco's striving to make a better future for her children may have resulted in a difficult near-future for her family.
Bill Forstrom of Duro says that last year was the maquiladora's worst ever in terms of productivity and profitability. Now he says that production is high again, Duro's owners are satisfied with the situation and relations are back to normal with Duro's customers. Forstrom also stated that workers have stopped worrying about the union situation, "They're back into their soccer teams and sports now."
Endnotes: #1. By request, the name and aspects of "Victoria Pacheco's" identity have been changed because he/she fears reprisals by unions and/or area companies.
Bloom is editor of Frontera NorteSur an On-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border To see our site or subscribe for free to our daily news service go to: http://frontera.nmsu.edu. FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico Email address: email@example.com.