ON THE BORDER
Today the US/Mexico border is the subject of intense political controversy. Most of the fireworks focus 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 here 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, David Bacon interviewed Julia Quiñones, coordinator of the Border Committee of Women Workers, the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, with offices in Piedras Negras, Mexico.
David: In Spanish, the name of the border committee uses the word “obreras,” which means women workers. Why is the name of the committee in the feminine?
Julia: 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 needs particularly of the 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 experience. We look for a greater level of participation by women, inside their unions and at all levels of leadership.
David: What does the Comité do?
Julia: 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 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.
David: What are the effects of free trade and NAFTA, as you see them in your section of the border?
Julia: Maquiladoras began to arrive in our region over 40 years ago. With the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement 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.
David: What about the plants that have remained on the border? Have salaries gone up in the years that NAFTA has been in effect? The Mexican government promised when NAFTA was negotiated, that free trade would produce more jobs, and that those jobs would pay more. Mexico would become a first world country, according to then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Julia: The workers on the border think that was all a big lie. The problem of unemployment wasn’t resolved at all. Salaries have not gotten better; in fact, they’re completely insufficient for anybody to live on. Workers continue to live in extreme poverty, and at the same time, 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.
David: What is an average maquiladora factory wage? What will that wage actually buy in the supermarket?
Julia: The average salary for a maquiladora worker is US $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.
David: In a Mexican supermarket on the border, how much does a gallon of milk cost?
Julia: 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 American 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 US $4.50 – twice as expensive. The salaries simply are not enough to permit a family to survive. 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 head of the family working, other members have to supplement their income by selling things like beauty products. Often people cross the border to sell their blood.
David: That really means that somebody has to work almost half a day just to buy a gallon of milk?
Julia: Approximately, yes.
David: So what does it look like in the neighborhoods where workers live, what are the conditions in which people live?
Julia: It really is a shock, even to workers who come up from the interior, from the Mexican 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. Those houses are in slightly better condition. 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. They have to live in areas unsafe to raise their families.
David: What about basic services, like sewers, like running water, like electricity in those neighborhoods? Are the municipal authorities providing those services?
Julia: In some of the neighborhoods there are such services. For example, in the houses built by INFONAVIT, the government does provide electricity. The problem there is that the bills are very high. A monthly electricity bill might get up to 450 pesos, or US $45, and a water bill 150 pesos per month, or US $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.
David: That must be pretty dangerous, if you bring in electrical power on wires hooked up illegally to the poles, and you’re living in houses made of cardboard and shipping pallets. Fire must be a big danger too.
Julia: It is very dangerous, but it’s also very common. Many times when you go into people’s houses, you can see the wires run along the ground, where kids are walking and playing around them.
David: Julia, are there unions in the factories?
Julia: 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 actually prohibited and there is not a single one.
David: The Border Committee has been very active helping workers at the Alcoa Fujikura plant in Piedras Negras, not only to improve their conditions, but also to form an independent union. What happened to them?
Julia: At Alcoa in Piedras Negras, at first workers organized a rank-and-file movement to reform the union from within. There was a “charro” union there, a union that belonged to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). It was not responsive to workers, so they tried to take it over. They wanted to take control of their own collective bargaining, in order to improve their salaries and their benefits. They saw that the CTM leaders were partial to the company, and not representing them. 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. In fact, 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.
David: What happened to the workers involved in that effort?
Julia: Some of the leaders were fired, but others continued the organizing work. 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.
What they went through is a logical evolution, and you can see it develop in many factories. First workers begin to make changes in their individual lives and in their individual conflicts. They begin to organize and act together along the same assembly line, and then at a plant-wide level. Ultimately because they want more say and control, they try to find a union structure that represents them.
David: The story you’re telling here is very similar to many others. Workers can’t get their independent unions recognized, and get fired as a result of their efforts. I’m sure you could name a lot of different plants where the same thing has happened. At Sony, in Nuevo Laredo, people were actually 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 Co. 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? Was the NAFTA labor side agreement useful to workers? Could they use it to stop the kind of violations you’re describing at Alcoa Fujikura?
Julia: No. The labor side agreement supposedly protects the principle of freedom of association, the issue here. But it’s obvious that this labor side agreement hasn’t forced anybody to take responsibility. 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.
David: If that’s the case, 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?
Julia: 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.
David: What about support from unions on the other side of the border? I know that CFO has relationships with U.S. unions. Do they help guarantee labor rights on the border?
Julia: 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 own organizing style and our own work. Right now, what’s most important to us is developing a greater level of commitment to Mexican workers among U.S. unions.
David: What about the Mexican labor movement? Is it going to become more effective and responsive to border workers?
Julia: I think so. When workers take control of their lives, they can make great changes. That’s our hope. Ultimately we want an independent labor movement in the maquiladoras. Genuine unionism is the best hope for our families and our future. And 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. All these organizations are looking for ways to support maquiladora workers more effectively. We also have an agreement with the National Union of Workers, Mexico’s large, new progressive labor federation. It’s vital for Mexican workers to form a common front, and work together to revitalize our labor movement.
David: There are a number of other maquiladora worker organizing projects along the border in different cities. There is one in Tijuana, CITTAC, and another one in Torreón, Enlace or Sedepac. The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras includes many of these. Do you foresee any efforts to try and bring these groups together, to create an umbrella under which maquiladora workers can organize in different cities all along the border?
Julia: All of these organizations have the same objective. They’re looking for social justice, justice for workers. We find different ways to work, but we are seeking the same goals, the same justice. This process has its ups and downs. We win sometimes, we lose other times. The challenge we all face is to be consistent, so that when workers organize there is a movement to help them. Sometimes when there’s a bunch of firings, the organization falls apart. The hard thing is to build organizations that can survive these blows.
David: What can an ordinary worker in the US do to be part of this?
Julia: The first thing workers can do is organize themselves and fight for their own jobs where they are. This is the first step towards building international solidarity. For the companies, there are simply 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.
PEACE & JUSTICE
WORKPLACE | STRIKES | PORTRAITS | FARMWORKERS | UNIONS | STUDENTS
Special Project: TRANSNATIONAL WORKING COMMUNITIES
HOME | NEWS | STORIES | PHOTOGRAPHS | LINKS
photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999
website by DigIt Designs © 1999