Maquila Workers Enforce the Law
by David Bacon
JUAREZ, CHIHUAHUA (9/4/01) - It's no news that the two million people who work in the thousands of factories along the US/Mexico border are paid low wages and labor in bad conditions. These conditions are locked in place by an elaborate system of strong employer associations, weak unions affiliated to Mexico's old ruling party, and a government policy which attracts foreign investment by ignoring extensive violations of workers' rights
But unrest is growing in border plants. And maquiladora workers are often anything but passive victims. In Juarez, 1200 workers at the EES plant produce medical supplies for Johnson and Johnson. When the company sought to put a lid on rising discontent, it didn't count on a militant shop steward and his supporters.Efrain Sosa, an intense, sharp-featured man, gestures and speaks using the direct manner of an "obrero" - a laborer on the line. That won him the allegiance of his fellow workers, leading them to select him as their representative after working just a few months at the plant. When he urged that they use direct and radical action at work to solve their problems, their common culture of resistance stood them in good stead against odds that often defeat other maquila workers.He told his story to David Bacon.
I've always been interested in understanding the Federal Labor Law. It guarantees our rights as workers, and I think it's a good law. The problem is that it's not easy to enforce.
For five years, I worked in a factory where there was no union - Cummins ReCom. About six hundred of us made auto parts for diesel engines, mostly electrical parts.
We had a lot of problems in this plant, and finally some of us decided that we should organize a union. For two months we had meetings, but then the company discovered what we were doing. I was fired, along with about 100 others. And when we went to the Labor Board, they did nothing to help us. They wouldn't enforce the law.
When I went to work at the EES factory three years ago, I could see right away there were big problems here too. People were fired unjustly, and they weren't given the severance pay the law requires.
We have a union in this plant, the CROC [the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants, affiliated to Mexico's former ruling party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution]. But the CROC leaders in Juarez wouldn't do anything to defend us, and wouldn't even enforce the union contract. So a group of us decided to run for office and make the union do its job. We prepared for the union election for a year, talking with more and more people about the changes we wanted. When the vote took place in March of 1999, we won by 600 to 120. I became the shop steward, my friend Carlos became the union's general secretary, and other members of our group won election to other positions.
We began to put pressure on EES to live up to the contract. Last December we even made the company begin giving us the annual canasta basica benefit, where they distribute a bonus of food to all the plant's workers.
The company wasn't used to working with a union committee that defended peoples' rights. Until we were elected they just manipulated the union and did what they wanted. So the managers were not happy with us. Finally, in June, we wrote a letter to the labor board, accusing them of violating the contract. The labor board, instead of making an investigation, just sent our letter to the company.
After they received it, I was told to report to a meeting with the human resources director, Ana Julia Nuņez. I went with Carlos, but Nuņez told me that I couldn't have anyone else in the meeting, even our union's general secretary. So Carlos agreed to sit by the door outside.
When we were alone, Nuņez told me I was fired, and tried to give me a check for 16,000 pesos in severance pay. I told here that I wouldn't accept it, and that the company had no right to fire the union representative elected by the workers. So she called the CROC office in downtown Juarez, and made an appointment for me to see my own union leaders, who were supposed to defend us. Then, our union committee was was told to go to the company office, where they were held incommunicado. Meanwhile, Nuņez went from department to department, telling everyone I'd agreed to quit, and that the company had paid me off with 50,000 pesos.
So our committee then went to the CROC office, but we found our leaders had already made a deal with the company. Luis Vidal, the head of CROC in Chihuahua, told me that "whether you accept it or not, you're out." Our committee was enraged.
So we made a plan. If the labor board and the CROC's leaders wouldn't enforce the law, then we would have to do it ourselves. The committee went back to the plant, and talked to the workers on second shift, to get them ready.
The next day, I went down to the factory at the 3.:30 shift change. At first I was really nervous, because I wasn't sure people would back me up. But when the time came, about 200 workers gathered to walk inside with me. Four of them walked on each side, and in front and behind, to hide me as we went past the gate.
When we got to the main building, the plant guards tried to stand between us and the entrance, to stop us from going in. One of them even tried to put his arms around me to physically force me to leave. But by then there were five hundred workers confronting them, and there was no way they could stop us.
We went inside, and jammed into the hallways outside the managers' offices. There were so many of us, they asked us to wait in the company meeting hall. At first Nuņez wouldn't come out. But when we told them that we'd all go down to her office to talk, she showed up right away, behind their lawyer and supervisors.
We told the lawyer that if I wasn't reinstated right away we'd go talk to the day shift workers, and that no one would go to work. Right away the lawyer agreed to put me back on the job, and that there would be no retaliation against anyone. They also agreed to remove Nuņez as human resources director.
When I went back to work the following Monday, I felt very proud of the people in the plant. We'd been able to see beyond our own individual situation, and act together to protect everyone's rights.
Since then the company treats us with more respect, and now the managers make formal agreements with us about the conditions at work. They weren't really prepared for what happened, and I don't think they believed people would respond when they fired me.
But they did.
The best thing is that workers at the factory now have a lot more confidence. They know that even if the labor board and the CROC leaders won't defend them and enforce the law, they have to power to do it themselves.
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