JUST SOUTH OF TEXAS, DEMOCRACY FACES ITS HARDEST TEST
By David Bacon
RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS (8/15/00) - 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 thrown a spotlight on 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 walked 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," Moreno 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
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
Hopes for greater democracy, effective unions and higher wages on
the border conflict with Fox's pro-business orientation. "But he will have
to respond to peoples' expectations. He will not be able to maintain the
old system. What sense does it make," the union leader 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 refered 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 Treviņo 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 on fear -- the people who have benefitted from this
system are losing control," she declares.
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