Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Christopher r. Martin
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
Eleanor J. Bader
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Hunger On The Border
T oday the U.S./Mexico border is the subject of intense political controversy. Most of the fireworks focuses, however, on the idea that more enforcement can keep people from crossing it. Lost in this hysteria is the reality that the border is a huge place, where millions of people live and work. Not only that, but free trade policies hold down living standards and prevent union and community organizing. That, in turn, produces pressure on people to seek a better standard of living elsewhere. To explore the real conditions for border workers, I interviewed Julia Quiñones, coordinator of the Border Committee of Women Workers, the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, with offices in Piedras Negras, Mexico.
BACON: In Spanish, the name of the border committee uses the word “obreras,” which means women workers. Why?
QUIÑONES: The Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) is an organization of rank and file women, led by women and men who work in the maquiladoras. The organization was born out of the particular needs of young women who work in the factories. In the beginning the industry was especially interested in employing women and, even though this situation has changed over time, we continue to maintain a focus on their experiences. We look for a greater level of participation by women inside their unions and at all levels of leadership.
What does the Comité do?
The CFO is working in three Mexican states—Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua. Our purpose is to educate and organize workers around their labor rights. We try to engage workers in learning and talking about the impact of free trade and we focus on violence against women. We have a program to build economic self-sufficiency and we’ve created our own maquiladora, making products and giving employment to women.
What are the effects of free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in your section of the border?
Maquiladoras arrived in our region over 40 years ago. With the advent of NAFTA 11 years ago, the working conditions in the maquiladoras got much worse. Even those plants, which over the years had achieved better benefits and wages, began to move south into the interior of Mexico where the salaries were much lower and the conditions worse.
What about the plants that have remained on the border? Have salaries gone up in the years that NAFTA has been in effect?
The problem of unemployment wasn’t resolved at all. Salaries have not gotten better. They’re completely insufficient for anybody to live on. Workers continue to live in extreme poverty and many people still arrive in the border region looking for work. The cities are overloaded and don’t provide basic services or infrastructure. Look at Ciudad Acuña. It’s a disgrace. There are large transnationals, such as Alcoa and Delphi, operating there, yet workers have to build their houses out of cardboard or materials taken from the factories.
What is an average maquiladora factory wage?
The average salary for a maquiladora worker is $45 a week. This
allows workers to buy pasta, beans, rice, potatoes, maybe oil—just
the basic things to eat. They can’t buy cereals. They buy milk
on rare occasions if there are children. No meat.
In a Mexican supermarket on the border, how much does milk cost?
There is a mistaken idea that just because we live in Mexico all the products we buy are cheaper. In reality the basic food we buy is more expensive on the Mexican side. If you go over to the U.S. side, a gallon of milk will cost about $2.50, or 27 Mexican pesos. On our side of the border, in Piedras Negras, it would be 45 pesos or about $4.50—twice as expensive. It’s always the case that in any family two or three people have to work to provide for basic necessities. If there’s just one family member working, other members have to supplement this income by selling things like beauty products. Often people cross the border to sell their blood.
What are the conditions in the neighborhoods where workers live?
It really is a shock, even to workers who come up from the countryside because they are used to living in houses that are bigger, that have patios, that have space. When they arrive, they see there are very few options for workers here. Perhaps the lucky ones can acquire a house through the Mexican housing program, INFONAVIT. But if they do so they’re really in debt to the Mexican government for the rest of their lives. Otherwise, workers are forced to build their own houses out of whatever materials they can find, in places that are completely inappropriate—along the sides of cliffs or in areas prone to flooding, like stream beds.
What about basic services, like sewers, running water and electricity? Are the municipal authorities providing those services?
In some of the neighborhoods there are such services. For example, in houses built by INFONAVIT, the government provides electricity. The problem there is that the bills are very high. A monthly electricity bill might get up to 450 pesos, or $45, and a water bill 150 pesos per month, or $15. And the water is not drinkable. In other neighborhoods, where people squat and build their houses the best they can, the government doesn’t provide services. People are reduced often to robbing power from electrical lines. When you go into people’s houses, you can see the wires running along the ground where kids are walking and playing.
Are there unions in the factories?
On the border you have to understand there are many different situations. In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, for example, the most common arrangements are known as protection contracts. These are union contracts that the workers don’t know anything about, but which protect the company instead. In Tamaulipas or Coahuila most of the maquiladoras have unions, but these are called “charro” unions because they are unresponsive and corrupt and don’t support the workers. In Ciudad Acuña, unions are prohibited.
The Border Committee was very active helping workers at the Alcoa Fujikura plant in Piedras Negras to improve their conditions and form an independent union. What happened to them?
At Alcoa in Piedras Negras there was a “charro” union there that belonged to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). It was not responsive to workers so they tried to take control of their own collective bargaining in order to improve their salaries and their benefits. These workers won election to leadership positions on the plant level, but then found that everything they tried to do was undone by higher leaders of the union who made secret agreements with the company.
So they formed an independent union and left the old one. Under Mexican law, they had to get their union registered by the government. They filed the paperwork with the local Conciliation and Arbitration Board, but the agency denied the registration. This case is still not resolved. After appealing within the Mexican legal system, they filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, accusing the Mexican government of failing to guarantee its citizens the right of freedom of association.
What happened to the workers involved in that effort?
Some of the leaders were fired, but others continued organizing. That’s really the key to maintaining a movement with an organized rank-and-file base. When the company fires some leaders, other leaders emerge and keep going. Today there are hundreds of workers involved in this movement.
The story you’re telling is very similar to many others. At Sony, in Nuevo Laredo, people were beaten up in front of the factory. It happened at Custom and Auto Trim at the Han Young plant in Tijuana, and at the Duro Bag Company in Rio Bravo. But NAFTA had a labor side agreement that was supposed to guarantee labor rights in Mexico so that this wouldn’t take place. What about it?
The labor side agreement supposedly protects the principle of freedom of association. But complaints are filed and after a long process, the only thing that comes is a recommendation, which never translates into actual enforcement. It’s not an effective guarantee of anyone’s rights.
Is there any form of labor protection that can be incorporated into agreements like NAFTA that would guarantee workers rights? Or do you think that workers have to guarantee their labor rights in some other way?
I think both are possible. NAFTA could be renegotiated to include effective and obligatory measures to enforce workers’ rights. Holding transnational corporations accountable for complying with the law would be helpful to workers. At the same time, even if you have such protections as part of trade agreements, organizing workers at the grassroots level, forming workers’ organizations, is vital. Otherwise, we can’t enforce any rights recognized by those agreements.
What about support from unions on the other side of the border?
We’ve been creating alliances with some U.S. labor unions because we’re working for the same companies and we need to connect our struggles across the border. At the same time, we want these relationships to respect the autonomy of our organizing style and work. Right now, what’s most important to us is developing a greater level of commitment to Mexican workers among U.S. unions.
What about the Mexican labor movement? Is it going to become more effective and responsive to border workers?
I think so. Ultimately we want an independent labor movement in the maquiladoras. Genuine unionism is the best hope for our families and our future. We’ve been able to build important alliances with other unions and movements within Mexico. We share common objectives with unions like the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), and with the independent union called Alcoa Puebla. This union was formed at the Alcoa factory in Puebla, with the help of the independent union at the Volkswagen plant there. Some groups of miners are part of this network also. We also have an agreement with the National Union of Workers, Mexico’s large, new progressive labor federation.
What can workers in the U.S. do to be part of this?
The first thing workers can do is organize and fight for their own jobs where they are. This is the first step towards building international solidarity. For the companies, there are no borders anymore or barriers to the movement of capital. We need to take a lesson from their mentality and build the same borderless solidarity and support for one another. If workers in the U.S. understand that Mexican workers face huge economic difficulties when they try to organize themselves, they can contribute economic support. Mexican organizations don’t have the same capacity as organizations in the United States.
Supporting Mexican workers in the United States is important too. The effort of Mexican and other immigrant workers to legalize their status is connected to our rights as workers in Mexico. If workers in the U.S. can’t exercise fully their rights, it brings everybody down. Ultimately, the economic level of everybody has to come up. Corporations are very good at looking around the world to see where conditions are the worst and move to that place. If we can help each other come up, they won’t be able to do that.
David Bacon is a long-time activist and a freelance writer and photographer.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.