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Europe in Ten Questions
Redistricting Returns With A Vengeance
Repairing the damage
Democracy and the War on â€¦
Jonathan lawson and susan Gleason
Unions Must Tap Young Workers
2001 In Music
The Fruits Of NAFTA
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Journal of 15th Year
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The Fruits Of NAFTA
Torreon, Coahuila, is a dusty city in Mexico's northeast desert. For decades, its workers labored in the Peñoles 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 Militant unions have been replaced by ones more amenable to the demands of investors from Wall Street or Tokyo. 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 2,000 women shouting “we won't be quiet anymore” and “we want a decent life.”
Further north on the border, in Ciudad Acuña, 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 Acuña, 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 nine or ten 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 1,500 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 Maquila- doras 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 three 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. 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 U.S.—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 that 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. “To win votes, Fox made the famous ‘20 commitments,' that 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 been 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 with 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 foreperson and government-affiliated union representatives wrote notes during the vote.
Only 502 workers voted, in a workforce the company says numbers over 1,400. Of those, only 4 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.”
Throughout their long effort to form an independent union, 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.
Mexican employers and the government affiliated unions charged 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 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.
Since NAFTA went into effect in January 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed under the labor side agreement. Nevertheless, no independent union has been able to negotiate a contract as a result of any NAFTA ruling. To counter rising criticism, in 2000 the Mexican government agreed that workers would be able to vote by secret ballot.
Duro was the first real test of that agreement and Abascal refused to honor it. “The Duro election strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights. The side agreement is bankrupt,” declared Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.
The wrecked election at Duro didn't stop the wave of efforts to organize independent unions, however. Workers in many other maquiladora battles this year have counted on support from U.S. unions. In Coahuila, a cross-border solidarity effort has helped to sustain SEDEPAC's living wage campaign. A number of U.S. unions have organized a loose network called Enlace, 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 1,000 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. On September 21, they won a contract—the first such agreement in a garment maquila- dora 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 U.S. 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). Herman- son has a long history of developing ties between U.S. garment workers and their colleagues in other countries, and he helped Kukdong workers publicize their case on U.S. 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. U.S. 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.
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. As in Coahuila, union organizing in the factories remained clandestine.
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. 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 that would weaken the ability of unions to represent workers and bargain, including eliminating the historical ban on strikebreaking. Mexico's guarantees of job training, health care and housing, paid by employers, would be scrapped as well.
Fox embraced the report, calling it “very much in line with what we have contemplated,” and necessary to “really enter into a process of sustainable development.”
The recommendations were so extreme that even a leading association of employers condemned them. 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.
In Mexico City, Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexico's labor lawyers, was appointed to head the local labor board by left-wing mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador. Campos Linas rejects Fox's argument that gutting worker protections will make the economy more competitive, attract greater investment, and create more jobs. “Mexico already has one of the lowest wage levels in the world,” he charges, “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. Now we've lost 400,000 jobs since January alone. Changing the labor law will not solve this problem.”
Campos Linas's first act was to promise that even if the federal government wouldn't enforce secret ballot elections, he would. In addition, he announced he would make public all the sweetheart protection contracts between the old unions and employers. There are 70-80,000 sweetheart agreements, whose existence is usually unknown to the million workers covered by them.
A battle is brewing over which direction Mexico will take. Unlike its revolution at the turn of the century, it will not be fought by farmers with guns. In large part, it will take place on the floors of the maquila plants, which have spread far beyond the border to encompass cities all over Mexico.
For 40 years, maquiladora workers have been viewed—indeed have viewed themselves—as inhabitants of the country's fringe—geographically, politically and socially. But today these workers are no longer content to live on the margin. They've become the key to Mexico's economy and finally, the independent union movement is beginning to recognize their existence and their needs. It's in their interest to do so. Real unions in Mexico won't survive at all if maquila workers remain marginal- ized. Without independent unions as a base, the country's hope for greater democracy will never be fulfilled.
“Protection contracts exist in all parts of the economy, not just on the border,” reminds de la Cueva, “and gutting the labor law is not a problem of central Mexico, nor just of workers who belong to the old unions. Everyone is affected by the same problems. They are forcing us all together, like it or not.” Z
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.