October 26, 2001

Border Labor War Defies Mexico's Fox Administration

By David Bacon

MONTERREY, NUEVO LEON - Torreon, Coahuila, is a dusty city in Mexico's northeast desert. For decades, its workers labored in the Peñoles smelter and the factories clustered around its mines and mills. Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas - all states along the border - were the heart of Mexico's heavy industry. Its workers were heavily-unionized, well-known for their militance.

Maquiladora children. Tijuana Children of maquiladora workers play in the street in front of their homes. The house in the rear is made of shipping pallets from the factories. The car is a castoff as well, and bears the logo of a company which operates a Tijuana factory. Photo by David Bacon.

Today most of those mills are closed In their wake, a wave of foreign-owned maquiladora assembly plants has spread out across the desert. Militant unions have been replaced by ones more amenable to the demands of investors from Wall Street or Tokyo. And the north's wages, once Mexico's pride, now hover slightly above, and sometimes even dip below, the legal minimum.

But history and tradition don't die so easily. This spring, Torreon's streets filled with women chanting and shouting demands for a return to a standard of living capable of providing something better than cardboard houses and communities without sewers, electricity and running water. The city's annual May Day parade witnessed over 2000 women shouting "we won't be quiet anymore!" and "we want a decent life!"

"In our communities, the whole family works," says Betty Robles, one of the organizers of the campaign for higher wages. "You see kids 9 or 10 years old bagging groceries in supermarkets or washing cars on the corners. The daughter of one of our activists was 13 when she went to work in the factory sewing pants and shorts."

The reason is simple. SEDEPAC, the organization Robles helped start, did a survey this spring. They found it takes 1500 pesos a week to provide food, housing and transportation for a family of four. A normal maquiladora worker, however, makes just 320-350 pesos. "We asked people, `how do you survive when there's such a huge gap?' Many told us that two and three families share a couple of rooms, pooling income to cover rent and basic needs."

The income gap seen by SEDEPAC organizers was extensively documented by the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, a religious research group, in a study cosponsored by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. CREA found that at the minimum wage, it took a maquiladora worker in Juarez almost an hour to earn enough money to buy a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice, and a worker in Tijuana an hour and a half. By comparison, a dockworker driving a container crane in the San Pedro harbor could buy the rice after 3 minutes at work. Even an undocumented worker at minimum wage only has to labor 12 minutes for it in LA..

It's a recipe for confrontation. And in fact, the anger in the streets of Coahuila is not unique. All along the border this past year, from Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico to La Paz at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, economic pressure is fueling a wave of industrial unrest sweeping through the factories. It poses the most serious challenge faced by the new Mexican administration of President Vicente Fox, who defeated the country's long-ruling Party of the Institutionalized Revolution by promising greater democracy, employment, and a rising standard of living. Instead, however, Mexico's economy has hit the skids. An economic downturn in the US - the market for most of what the maquiladoras produce - creates havoc in Mexico.

Fox promised 1.4 million new jobs. But economists estimate half a million workers have been laid off since he took office. The omnipresent signs soliciting workers on factory gates in border industrial parks have disappeared. And greater competition among workers for the available jobs is pushing wages down.

Border workers historically have tried to break that downward cycle by organizing independent unions, free of control by a government which seeks to use their low wages to attract foreign investors. Many hoped Fox would support the right to choose such unions freely, discarding the old government-affiliated labor federations. But the promise of political democracy has been as hollow as the promise of jobs. "To win votes, Fox made the famous '20 commitments,' which included union democracy," says Hector de la Cueva, who directs Mexico City's Center for Labor Research. "But he's made no effort to live up to the promise." One of the key parts of that promise was a government commitment that workers would be allowed to vote by secret ballot in union elections.

Traditionally, because voting has been public, the old official unions favored by maquiladora owners have benn able to identify supporters of the new independent ones. Following a string of incidents in which independent union supporters in Tijuana and Mexico City were threatened, fired and even beaten for their choices, Mexico promised to allow voting by secret ballot instead.

That commitment was put to the test this spring at the Duro Bag plant in Rio Bravo, just across the river from Texas. And instead of creating an example of a new era of respect for workers rights, Duro became the poster child for their abuse.

On the morning of Friday, March 2, voting began inside the factory, where workers labor around the clock cutting and gluing chichi paper bags for the U.S. gift market. On the ballot were two unions - the independent Union of Duro Bag Workers organized over the last year, and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC). a union affiliated to Mexico's former ruling party.

The stage was set the day before, when observers outside the plant watched as automatic weapons were unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. Then, the following morning, workers from the swing and grave shifts were prevented from going home as their shifts ended. Instead, they were held behind doors blocked with metal sheets and the huge rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line. A few observers from the independent union reported that they could hear cries of "Let us out!" until company managers began playing music at deafening volume on the plant speaker system.

Then, observers reported, workers from the arriving day shift were taken in small groups into the room where voting was taking place. They were escorted by CROC organizers, who handed them blue slips of paper on which the union's local number was printed. At the voting table, representatives of Mexico's national labor board asked each voter to declare aloud her or his choice. Both company foremen and government-affiliated union representatives wrote notes as the voting took place.

Only 502 workers voted, in a workforce the company says numbers over 1400. And of them, only four workers openly declared their support for the independent union, while 498 voted for the CROC. "While the Duro election is clearly a tragic defeat for the workers and their efforts to win better wages and conditions," said Robin Alexander, director of international relations for the U.S.-based United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent union, "I hope the violations here were so blatant that they'll serve as a wake-up call."

Workers at Duro had a long history of agitating for better wages and conditions, which led to their effort to form an independent union. According to Eliud Almaguer, a fired rank-and-file leader, many people lost fingers in machinery because of fast production and little protection. Duro's vice-president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day (about six dollars). A gallon of milk in a local supermarket costs 25 pesos - almost half a day's work.

The Duro Bag Manufacturing Corporation, based in Ludlow, Kentucky, also operates seven U.S. plants, and belongs to the family of CEO Charles Shor. For years, it's had a protection contract with a Mexican local of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union, part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The CTM has been a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since the 1940s. With a protection contract, the company paid CTM union leaders to guarantee labor peace.

Throughout their long saga, Duro workers had help from the north, organized by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, based in San Antonio, Texas - a group of unions, churches and community organizations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Help also came from Mexico's new independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City. Last summer they pressured the governor of Tamaulipas state, where the plant is located, into granting the independent union legal status.

Border employers watching the Duro fight felt threatened. Duro is just one of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, employing over 1.2 million Mexican workers, according to the National Association of Maquila-doras. If more of these workers ran their own unions, negotiated their own contracts, and raised wages, it would be very costly to the foreign owners. As a result, the Mexican employers' association, COPARMEX (the equivalent of the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers) took charge of Duro's legal battle. COPARMEX's former chief Abascal is now Fox's Labor Secretary.

Abascal denied requests for a secret ballot, and the federal labor board, under his control, ran the election in Rio Bravo. That decision violated an agreement which supposedly guaranteed secret ballot voting, negotiated between his predecessor, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. The agreement grew out of two celebrated cases filed under the NAFTA labor side-agreement — at the Han Young plant in Tijuana, and the ITAPSA plant in Mexico City.

Since NAFTA went into effect in January, 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed under the labor side-agreement. Almost all have charged that Mexico does not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the right to form unions of their choice, and to strike effectively when they do. A few have been filed against the U.S., charging a similar unwillingness to enforce workers' rights.

No remedies have ever been imposed which would have required rehiring a single fired worker, nor has a single independent union been able to negotiate a contract as a result of any NAFTA ruling. In Tijuana last year, independent unionists in its most publicized case - the strike at the Han Young factory - were even beaten and expelled from a meeting convened by the government to discuss their case. (LA Weekly, June 28, 2000). Nevertheless, the Mexican government promised that in future elections workers would be able to vote by secret ballot.

Duro was the first real test of that agreement. Despite protests from the U.S. Labor Department, Abascal refused to honor it. "The Duro election strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights. The sideagree-ment is bankrupt," declared Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

"It shows that for both the U.S. and Mexican governments, when the chips are down, their interest in promoting investment and free trade clearly outweighs any commitments they make about labor rights," Alexander added. "Workers in the U.S. can't expect they'll be able to maintain decent standards here if a company like Duro can go across the river and violate the rights of workers in the interest of paying low wages."

May Day parade. Women workers from the National O-Ring maquiladora demonstrate for women’s rights during the May Day parade in Tijuana. Their factory was closed, and the women laid off and blacklisted, after they filed charges of sexual harassment against their employer in courts in Tijuana and Los Angeles. Photo by David Bacon.

Before the May Day march, SEDEPAC activists began setting up grassroots committees inside a number of factories, including the huge garment sweatshops run by Sara Lee. Many of those committees are clandestine, since open activity often leads to termination. According to Robles, Sara Lee fired over 1000 workers last year, many of whom had been injured on the job, when they made an effort to form an independent union.

Inside the plants, women activists are called "promotoras," because they promote organization among their fellow workers. The promotoras go to workshops for training in identifying health and safety hazards, and in what's called "identidad," or self-identity. "Many of the women are migrants from indigenous communities far away, and feel torn from the cultural roots which give them a feeling of self-respect," Robles explains.

"They get very depressed, so we talk a lot about self-worth, to raise their expectations for better treatment and respect at work, and to get them to demand their rights." Women in the committees in turn are linked to organizations in the poor communities around the plants, which fight for elemental services like sewers, water lines, paved streets and electricity.

If attracting and holding onto foreign investment is the key consideration determining the Fox government's national labor policy, that war will get even hotter. Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, shows every sign of catering more to investors than minimum wage maquila workers. In May, the World Bank released a series of recommendations to the new Mexican administration, "An Integral Agenda of Development for the New Era." Its theme was greater "flexibility," a word now feared by border workers, who translate it as layoffs, fewer benefits, and downward pressure on salaries.

Not all political parties agree with the World Bank, however, and some seek to enforce existing rights rather than eliminate them. In Mexico City, where the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution has been in power for six years, the new mayor, Manuel Lopez Obrador, appointed the dean of Mexico's labor lawyers as the head of the local labor board for the capitol region. For decades, those appointees have been government bureaucrats or employer representatives. But Jesus Campos Linas marked his appointment by writing a letter to the city's workers, in which he promised to make public all the sweetheart protection contracts between the old unions and employers. And he promised to ensure workers could vote by secret ballot, without violence or intimidation.

Two separate and very different ideas about workers rights are becoming evident in Mexico, and the controversy over protection contracts and the secret ballot is just its most visible symbol. The differences are much deeper, over whose priorities will prevail - those of workers or those of investors with a stake in the free-trade based economy.

A battle is brewing — over which direction Mexico will take. Unlike its revolution at the turn of the century, it will not be fought mainly by farmers with guns. In large part, it will take place on the floors of the maquila plants. And since maquiladora production has spread far beyond the border, to encompass cities all over Mexico, it will be a national convulsion. In August, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras met in Mon-terrey to discuss this new reality. "We can no long afford to be just a border-based organization," de la Cueva warned. "We have to be ready to assist workers in all parts of Mexico."

Return to the Frontpage