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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 Militant unions have been replaced by ones more amenable to the demands of investors from Wall Street or Tokyo.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 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.

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 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 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 independent union.

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 union.

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 labels.

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.

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 there."

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 surprise."

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 national convulsion.

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 labor laws.

"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.

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david bacon - labornet email david bacon
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phone: 510.549.0291 berkeley, ca 94703

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