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Duro Bag Workers
In June 2000, 400 workers at Duro Bag Company in Rio Bravo Tamaulipas, Mexico went on strike for higher salaries, better working conditions, and the right to form their own union. Duro is a private company headquartered in Ludlow, Kentucky and owned by the Shor family, with Charles Shor as its CEO. Workers in the Rio Bravo plant put in a 48 hour week and earn less than $4.00 a day (around $40.00 a week) assembling gift bags for Duros customers, who include big corporations like Hallmark and Neiman Marcus. Duro is one of roughly 3,000 maquiladoras, or assembly for export factories, on Mexicos northern border. Although the gendered division of labor varies by industry, the majority of unskilled light assembly workers are still women, and this is true at Duro as well. Rio Bravo is a small eastern border city, between Reynosa and Matamoros, across the bridge from the Texan cities of Pharr and McAllen. The economy here is as bad as in other Mexican border towns. Jobs are sparse in the few retail outlets and in the dwindling agricultural sector. Local people say that probably a third of the men and women cross to the other side in search of work. Women find work as domestics. Men leave to work in fields as far away as Indiana, Maryland, and New York. But most people look for jobs in one of the few maquilas in town or in Reynosa. The maquilas didnt move in to Rio Bravo until the 1980s and there are still only a handful here. Valeo, where workers assemble automotive parts, is the towns largest. At Kern-Liebers, known locally as Resortes, they make springs for seatbelts. At the small Magnolia factory, they assemble bows that are then transported to a maquila in Reynosa to be sewn onto womens underwear. Euromarmol does tiles, sinks, and bathtubs. SGI workers put together cardboard advertising signs for products like Sprint, Marlboro cigarettes, and Viagra.
With a workforce of about 600, Duro is the third largest employer in the area and it has a reputation for paying the lowest salaries. According to Silvia Martinez, a former Duro worker, When you tell people in Rio Bravo that you work at Duro the response is always, Too bad. Because of the salaries and bad working conditions it is the last resort. You cant talk on the assembly lines or go to the bathroom when you need to, and now after the strike it is worse.
There is a union at Duro. For years, the company has had a protection contract with the Mexico City-based national union of the Paper, Cardboard and Cellulose Union, which is part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), still Mexicos largest official union. Since the 1940s the CTM has been a key actor in the countrys ruling bureaucracy. Especially in the maquilas in the north, the CTM has worked closely with the federal and state governments to guarantee labor peace. Generally the company buys union protection through a collective agreement that shields them against any attempt by the workers to establish an authentic collective contract.
In April 2000 the national CTM paper industry union initiated negotiations for a new collective labor agreement in Duro and the workers elected an executive committee to represent them. Inside the plant many workers had faced mistreatment, abuse, and insults from the supervisors as well as serious health problems from the glues they handled. Some people lost fingers in machinery because of fast production and little protection. In the new contract negotiations workers were asking for a wage increase from 48-63 pesos per day (around US$50.00 dollars a week) and improvements in working conditions, including safety equipment, fans or air conditioning, chairs in decent condition, fumigation of the building, and food free of insects. But the CTM national union signed the new contract without taking into consideration any of these demands.
After the company fired the newly elected executive committee, workers held a work stoppage. They demonstrated all over town denouncing the violations of their rights and asking for community support. They approached the tri-national Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras for help and generated interest from national and international media. There were immediate local results. When the company failed to honor its agreement that the fired workers would be reinstated, the second shift went on strike. Violence was unleashed when a company bus headed for three workers, one of them pregnant, and police held guns to workers heads. Workers camped outside the plant in protest. On June 19, 2000 local police armed with machine guns entered the campground and began beating workers. Over a dozen people were arrested and many others brutally beaten. In an effort to pressure public officials to release those who had been arrested, the striking workers moved their permanent demonstration to the plaza in Rio Bravos center where they remained every day for ten months.
On August 14 of that year an international group of 300 activists, union leaders, and workers held a Public Forum for Freedom of Association in Reynosa to condemn the corrupt local government. As a result, the impossible took place: the government agreed to allow the registration for the independent Workers Union of the Duro Company of Rio Bravo. The Duro Workers Union was the first independent union to be registered in the state of Tamaulipas and it was aiming to be one of the first independent unions in the history of Mexico to go to an election. In the coming months, the company, the official (CTM) union, and the government unleashed a series of repressive actions, dirty tricks, and intimidations. Workers who had taken active roles in organizing for the new contract negotiations were threatened. The house of one of the Duro Union leaders was robbed of important documents and later burned down; his dog was poisoned. Striking workers received telegrams telling them they must report to work with a proof of illness (without it they would be fired). The Duro manager circulated a list of troublemakers who should not be hired in any other plants in the area.
Getting the registration inaugurated a long series of bureaucratic hurdles. Just scheduling the election required months of persistence and protest through delays and excuses. In December 2000 Duro Union members who attended a hearing at the federal labor board in Mexico City were surprised to see members from another union, the CROC (Revolu- tionaria de Obreros y Campe- sinos), who said they were there to represent the Duro workers. The CROC has a reputation as a corrupt union that sells protection contracts. In the north they are only well known on the west coast in the Tijuana area where they used their gangster-style practices during the Han Young strike in 1997-98. Until they showed up at this hearing, they had had nothing to do with Duro.
Eventually the election was set for March 2, 2001. The CROC was included on the ballot along with the CTM and the Duro Workers Union, but on the day of the election the CTM withdrew. Clearly they had no worries about the CROC coming in. Why? According to Martha Ojeda, executive director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Formerly, the CTM with its ties to the PRI was the official union in control. The CROC was simply another charro union. Now they are entering the scene and using practices that exceed the corruption of the CTM. Historically the state of Tamaulipas was the kingdom of the CTM and Tijuana was the CROCs territory. According to Ojeda, in 1998 at Han Young the CROC asked the CTM to enter the election as the third party that would divide the vote, but even so, the independent union, the Frente Autentico de los Trabajadores (FAT), won. Under the PAN government, she adds, I think we are beginning to see the new face of neo-liberal unionism in Mexico, it looks like the CROC is a new player, and its gangster-style tactics are becoming acceptable.
The week before the Duro election, a team of hired gangsters descended on Rio Bravo. They pursued the striking Duro Union workers who were trying to distribute leaflets during the shift changes, threatening them and chasing them across the fields. They followed union supporters in trucks and maintained radio contact with the police. They removed posters from public spaces within hours after they were put up. Local police collaborated with the thugs, arresting the organizers and refusing to accept their complaints of violence and intimidation. In the days before the election, intimidation inside the plant intensified. Management told workers that if they voted for the independent union they would be fired. They told them if this union won the plant would close. Management also announced that a wage increase would show up in pay envelopes the morning of the election plus an additional 10 percent raise for higher seniority workers if they did not vote for the independent union.
The day of the election organizers from the Duro Union arrived before dawn to greet the departing second shift and the arriving first shift. But the second shift workers never appeared. Throughout the day family members came looking for daughters and wives who had never returned from their nights work. A worker from the first shift later said, When I showed up for work on Friday all the workers from the second and third shift were still there.... Our fellow workers told us that they played loud music all night and nobody was working. I saw many of my (female) co-workers, most from the second shift, who were feeling bad, and they just gave them a cotton ball with alcohol to smell.
The six workers and three lawyers from the Duro Workers Union who were allowed inside the plant to observe the election reported massive fraud and intimidation. There was no secret ballot. The CROCs hired thugs lined the halls and escorted workers through a gauntlet to speak their vote in front of a table of managers. Some were given a piece of paper with a number on it and told to submit this as their vote. The observers reported they could hear people shouting, Let us go, before blasting music was turned on that would play throughout the election. The doors were blocked with metal sheeting, the windows papered over. Observers were kept in cubicles so they could not communicate with one another and their objections to fraudulent voting were ignored. Results were announced late in the day; 502 workers were qualified to vote. Many of them arrived outside the plant in the morning, but were not allowed to enter. Nonetheless, the company reported 498 voted for the CROC and four for the Duro Workers Union. Throughout the spring of 2001 some of the fired Duro workers filed claims and negotiated settlements with the company. Others traveled to Mexico City to protest the fraudulent election in hearings with the federal labor board that were continually re-scheduled. Finally in July the labor board ruled in favor of the CROC as the official winner of the election, despite protests and counter evidence from the Duro workers. The workers appealed this decision. As long as the appeal process was underway, no union could hold the contract. So in the face of this roadblock, the CROC resorted to hijacking the Duro Workers Union.
Quite by accident, the workers lawyers uncovered a document supposedly signed by the new Secretary General of the Independent Union of Duro Workers stating that the resolution of the election was correct and that the election had been normal with no irregularities. It also appeared that on May 8, 2001 the Secretary General of the Tamaulipas state labor board had accepted and registered the application for a new group to be recognized as the executive committee of the Independent Union of Duro Workers. In other words, with the complicity of the governments labor board, the CROC stole the registration. With papers on file that effectively handed over their union to the CROC, the Duro workers appeal of the fraudulent election would have to be thrown out. In fact, the new executive committee asked that this appeal be dismissed.
The fired Duro workers are still navigating a maze of legal obstacles to get their severance pay and back salary. If their experience has taught them to be cynical about what legal channels can accomplish, it has also opened avenues some never imagined. For the committed core group are no longer workers, they have become organizers. We are not losers, we are winners, one worker exclaimed immediately after the election results were announced; we won because we won our dignity.
But they also won much more. Over the past year they formed an organization, DUROO (Democracia, Unidad, Respeto a la Organizacion Obrera/Democracy, Unity, Respect for the Organization of Workers). They are building a Workers Center. They are collaborating with other groups along the border, having learned that their struggle is not isolated. Some women who had never spoken up before have gathered the coraje to speak out not only for their cause but for all maquila workers.
In December 2000 a group of striking Duro workers intercepted Vicente Fox during his tour of Tamaulipas and asked for his support. He took their phone number and said he would be in touch. They are still waiting for his call.
On March 19, 2001 the Duro workers traveled to Mexico City to meet with the Zapatistas. This historic encounter between maquiladora workers from the north and the campesinos from the south who rose up the same day NAFTA was initiated acknowledged that in Mexico organized struggle against neo-liberalism is moving on many levels. Over the past two years the Duro organizers have developed long and short-term goals. They now strategize their fights with local officials and the company within a broader, international movement for social justice. They have begun the process of bringing the hijacking of their union registration to international attention by filing a complaint under the NAFTA side agreements (the North American Agreements on Labor Cooperation) with the National Administrative Office in Washington, DC on the issue of freedom of association.
The Duro workers know an international complaint may not win them any material compensation. But they have decided it is a risk worth taking anyway. It could offer a platform for bringing the other 24 cases filed under NAFTAs side agreements into public view and add another specific example of labor rights violations to arguments against the Free Trade Area of the Americas now being secretly negotiated. Current drafts of the FTAA do not even mention workers rights and have no binding provisions on labor standards. The negotiations include no study group on labor issues. The Duro workers struggle, like the other cases already filed under NAFTA, offers proof of free trades high human price, proof that NAFTAs extension throughout the hemisphere must be blocked. Entering the Duro workers case into the debates can help shine the light of public attention on the roll back of workers rights and the new gangster-style tactics against workers that are already paving the way for the FTAA in Mexico.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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