BORDER LABOR WAR DEFIES MEXICO'S FOX ADMINISTRATION
By David Bacon
MONTERREY, NUEVO LEON (10/21/01) - Torreon, Coahuila, is a dusty
city in Mexico's northeast desert. For decades, its workers labored in the
Peņoles 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.
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 Militant unions have been replaced by ones more amenable to the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!"
Further north on the border, in Ciudad Acuņa, the power of the
factory owners is palpable and feared. Here women marched with bags over
their heads to hide their identity, presumably protecting themselves from
firings and reataliations. But both in Torreon and Acuņa, to the
embarrassment of city officials and leaders of the conservative,
government-affiliated unions, people along the parade routes heard the
chants, cheered, and even joined in.
"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
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
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.
Two years ago, the workers in the Duro plant decided to try to
negotiate better terms for that contract. They elected more militant union
leaders, including Almaguer, who was then fired in October, 1999. In April
of 2000, a further 150 workers were terminated. The CTM signed a new
agreement with Duro, at the same low wages, and with none of the increased
safety demands the workers sought. They began organizing an independent
union in response.
The CTM, which had grown increasingly unpopular, finally withdrew
from the process the morning of the election, and was replaced by the CROC.
When the election finally took place, none of the fired workers were
allowed into the plant to vote. Many workers didn't even know the name of
the union they were told to vote for.
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.
U.S. support was particularly controversial, leading to charges by
Mexican employers and the government-affiliated unions that U.S. unions
were trying to chase the company's work back into its U.S. plants. Rick de
la Cruz, a vice-president of Local 6-314 of the U.S. Paper, Atomic,
Chemical and Energy Workers (which represents three Duro plants in the
U.S.), visited Mexico with fellow unionists from his Texas plant to support
the independent union. He said charges were ridiculous. "If that work
leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the U.S. - it's going somewhere
workers have even fewer rights," he responded. "'We just think everyone
should have human rights, and not just in Mexico - in the U.S. too."
Duro's V.P. Forstrom admits that the company only keeps automated
operations remain north of the border, while its labor intensive operations
are concentrated in Rio Bravo. "We're in Mexico to take advantage of
inexpensive labor," he says. And in reaction to a protest outside Duro's
Kentucky headquarters just prior to the election, company managers refused
to allow the president of the PACE local at its Ludlow plant, Dave Klontz,
to travel to Rio Bravo as an observer.
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 Maquiladoras. 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
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 sideagreement 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."
To make matters even worse, the Tamaulipas labor board this fall
recognized two CROC officials, Juan Lopez Carera, a resident of the state
of Mexico, and Jesus Isidro Moreno, who is actually the CROC national
secretary general, as the new executive committee of the Duro independent
union. The two then wrote a letter back to the board recognizing the
legitimacy of the CROC's election victory, and rejecting the challenge
previously filed by the independent union. Meanwhile, most of the fired
workers have been unable to get hired at any other maquiladora in the area,
and charge that Duro has circulated a blacklist. Some have become so
desperate because of lack of work and food that they have been feeding
their children quelite, a wild grass that grows in the countryside.
Neither the wrecked election at Duro nor the beatings in Tijuana
have stopped the wave of efforts to organize independent unions, however.
And workers in many other maquiladora battles this year have also counted
on support from US unions. In Coahuila, a cross-border solidarity effort
has helped to sustain SEDEPAC's living wage campaign. Local unions in
California and Oregon have organized a loose network called Enlace (which
in Spanish means "links.), and have sent organizers to help. They include
Los Angeles' big hotel union Local 11, as well as the janitors' Service
Employees Local 1877, and units of the Longshore and Warehouse Union.
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.
This spring workers at another maquiladora - Kukdong - in the
central Mexican town of Atlixco, Puebla, also organized an independent
union. And on September 21, they won a contract -- the first such
agreement in a garment maquiladora in a decade. The new collective
agreement was signed by the company, which changed its name to Mex Mode,
and the independent union, now known as SITEMEX. Of the 450 workers
currently employed at the factory, 399 signed the application for the
After protesting broken promises of wage raises, bad food in the
company cafeteria, and the firing of a group of supervisors, workers
occupied the Kukdong plant for three days in January. They were beaten and
evicted by local police. But Kukdong workers were able to use the power of
the growing anti-sweatshop movement in the US. They contacted the Mexico
City office of the AFL-CIO, whose representative, Jeff Hermanson, was
formerly the organizing director for the International Ladies Garment
Workers Union (now the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile
Employees, UNITE). Hermanson has a long history of developing ties between
US garment workers and their colleagues in other countries, and he helped
Kukdong workers publicize their case on US campuses. United Students
Against Sweatshops took up their cause, and mounted picketlines at
universities around the country to publicize the fact that Nike and Reebok
sportswear was being sewn in the plant.
In response to exposes of terrible working conditions in Nike
contract plants in Indonesia and southeast Asia, the company developed a
code of conduct, which, at least on paper, calls for respect for labor
rights. US protests focused on the violation of those self-imposed
standards, and the pressure forced Nike to send inspectors to Kukdong to
take a look. That led eventually to the recognition of the independent
And garment workers in one of the most remote corners of Mexico, on
the tip of the Baja California peninsula, also told CJM delegates of the
firings they'd in their efforts to organize an independent union. In 1998,
Leonel Cota, a PRD candidate, was elected governor of Baja California Sur.
Because he therefore controlled the state labor board, workers at the
California Connections and Pung Kook factories won legal status for their
independent union in 1999.
Nevertheless, eight days after that decision, every worker named as
a union officer on the legal documents was fired. "We've been fighting for
the right to negotiate ever since," said union president Raquel Espinoza.
"At first Cota supported us, but now the companies say they'll close the
factories if we win bargaining rights. That threat really scares him,
especially in the current economic crisis."
As in Coahuila, union organizing in the factories remained
clandestine as a result. The closure threat acquired a new reality when
the area's third major maquiladora employer, the Baja West garment factory,
announced abruptly it was going out of business on September 11. The
company still owed workers two weeks of wages when they were terminated.
Delegations called on the governor, who found some subsidies to enable
workers to pay immediate bills. But the threat to bad economic conditions
was also frightening to many who still had jobs in the other plants.
Baja West produces clothes for the Los Angeles market under several
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
The bank recommended rewriting Mexico's Constitution and Federal Labor Law,
eliminating protections in place since the 1920s. Those include giving up
requirements that companies pay severance pay when they lay off workers,
that they negotiate over the closure of factories, that they give workers
permanent status after 90 days and that they limit part time work and abide
by the 40-hour week. The bank recommended other changes which would
weaken the ability of unions to represent workers and bargain, including
eliminating the historical ban on strikebreaking. And Mexico's guarantees
of job training, health care and housing, paid by employers, would be
scrapped as well.
The recommendations were so extreme that even a leading association
of employers condemned it. Claudio X. Gonzales, head of the Managerial
Coordinating Council, called the report "over the top," noting the bank
didn't dare to make such proposals in developed countries. "Why are they
then being recommended for the emerging countries?" he asked.
But Fox embraced the report., calling it "very much in line with
what we have contemplated," and necessaary to "really enter into a process
of sustainable development."
Not all political parties agree, 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.
On September 15, a new website will hit the internet, containing a
list of all the protection contracts in Mexico City. Campos Linas
estimates there are 70-80,000 such agreements, whose existence is usually
unknown to the over 1 million workers they cover. The main function of the
agreements is to keep independent unions out, and ensure that workers don't
organize themselves to stop production or demand higher wages.
To avoid crooked elections like the one at Duro, Campos Linas has
ordered all union voting to take place at the labor board office itself.
"I was a lawyer for the workers at ITAPSA before taking my present
position," he says, "and I won't permit the abuses that workers suffered
So far, the PRI-affiliated unions haven't protested much, "but
that's because they don't really believe we'll carry out these changes.
They think this is business as usual - that we'll just talk about changing
things, while on the ground nothing happens. They're in for a big
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.
"I don't oppose reforms in general, such as those guaranteeing
people the freedom to choose their own unions," Campos Linas explains.
"But the changes proposed by the bank would be a gigantic step backwards
for workers, who would lose the stability and rights the present law gives
them. They're only proposing to take things away, not to give workers
anything. They don't understand that it took a revolution, in whch a
million people died, to get our constitution and labor law. Our problem
isn't that we need a new law - it's to enforce the one we have. That's
what will make Mexican workers confident about their political system."
Campos Linas rejects the argument raised by Fox and his allies for
gutting legal protections - that it will make the economy more competitive,
attract greater investment, and create more jobs. "No labor law reform
will accomplish this," he charges. "Mexico already has one of the lowest
wage levels in the world, yet there's still this cry for more flexibility.
The minimum wage in Mexico City is 40.35 pesos a day - no one can live on
this. And now we've lost 400,000 jobs since January alone. Changing the
labor law will not solve this problem."
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
In August, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras met in
Monterrey 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."
And because maquiladora workers have become a key part of the
country's economy, the independent union movement is slowly recognizing the
need to devote resourcces to helping them. For 40 years, these workers have
been viewed, and indeed have viewed themselves, as living on the country's
fringe - geographically, politically and socially.
But independent unions in Mexico won't survive if maquila workers
remain marginalized. And increasingly, workers in the border plants are
affected by the same problems suffered by the rest of the country's workers.
This spring the UNT signed a strategic alliance with the Coalition,
pledging a greater commitment to organize in the maquiladoras. On its
part, the Coalition agreed to do more to resist free-trade reforms like the
continued privatization of the economy, and the restructuring of Mexican
"If the country's electrical generating system is privatized, for
instance," reminds de la Cueva, "all workers will pay the price, including
those in the maquiladoras. Protection contracts exist in all parts of the
economy, not just on the border. And labor law reform iis not a problem
of central Mexico, nor just of workers who belong to the old unions.
Everyone is affected by the same problems, and they are forcing us all
together, like it or not."
It's no wonder that the labor upsurge on the border feels like the
rumbling of a not-too-distant and not-so-dormant volcano.
- 30 -
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