Mexican Workers Blacklisted in Plants Along the Border
by David Bacon
JUAREZ (5/16/93) - When Alma Molina tried to organize with other workers at a Juarez maquiladora to raise their wages, she was fired. When she got another job working for General Electric, she lost it eight days later and discovered she was blacklisted. Then, when Molina tried to come to the U.S. to describe her experiences, she was denied a visa by the U.S. consulate in Juarez.
Molina is part of a new reality for Mexican workers trying to organize unions at the border plants, and for U.S. unions which have begun reaching across that border to help them. Firings, blacklists and visa denials are old problems which unions have faced since the 1930s and before. But they are old problems in a new era of free trade and massive relocation of production across international borders. This new era is forcing unions and workers in Mexico and the U.S. to cooperate in new ways, more closely than ever before.
Molina, a 27-year old mother, was employed by Clarostat S.A., a large U.S.-owned plant making parts for the Allen-Bradley Corp. in Milwaukee. After working there for over a year, she and other workers began organizing to raise their wages. Clarostat paid Molina 107,000 pesos/week - about 86¢/hour. One of the workers tipped off the company, however. On March 2, Molina was called in by the personnel director, who told her that Clarostat's owners "will not stand for a union here." Molina was fired, and Clarostat's other workers were told the factory would close if they tried to organize.
Bernardino Echeverria, an organizer in Juarez for the Authentic Workers Front (FAT), a militant Mexican union which has been helping Molina, says that the U.S. owners of maquiladoras "consider organizing a union a crime." According to Echeverria, as many as 10 to 15 workers are fired in Juarez every day for seeking raises and other improvements. "Most of these efforts are spontaneous, caused by the low wages or bonuses withheld from workers," he explains. Maquiladora wages are so low that most companies pay a food bonus in addition to wages, and condition payment on workers' attendance. The FAT, Echeverria says, tries to convert struggles over wages into efforts to organize unions, as workers did at Clarostat, "but the companies try to cut them off at the roots."
After her firing, Molina found another job at Electrocomponentes S.A., a plant belonging to General Electric, employing 1500 workers. GE paid her 92,000 pesos/week, or 74¢/hour, with another 10,000 pesos/week for food. Twenty three people were hired on the same day as Molina. "The company hires so many people, they can't check everyone thoroughly," she says.
After working for eight days, she was called into the office of personnel director Roberto Sanchez. "He told me that he had a blacklist of people the companies won't hire because they're robbers or drug addicts," Molina remembers. "I could see the list in his hands. He asked me why I was on it, and I told him probably because I was fired at Clarostat. He said I couldn't continue working for Electrocomponentes.
"He knew why I was on the list. He was afraid that workers at Electrocomponentes would also try to get better benefits, and he wanted to make sure they have no leaders."
GE spokesperson Bruce Bunch in New Jersey denied that the company ever used a blacklist. Although he and other GE officials in Juarez and the U.S. refused to discuss Molina's case, Bunch called her firing "a factoid," and alleged that "this issue is being raised as a smokescreen for opposition to the free trade agreement."
Echeverria, however, states that the existence of the blacklist has been common knowledge for many years. The list is revised and circulated among maquiladoras in Juarez on a weekly basis by the Maquiladora Associacion Civil.
Although anti-union firings and blacklists are illegal under Mexican law, "the law says one thing, but the practice is another," according to FAT President Benedicto Martinez. "In practice there is no respect for the law." Martinez accuses the Mexican government of not enforcing the law "because our government's policy is to attract foreign investment by maintaining conditions which the companies want, like low wages, few regulations and no unions."
Mexico's governing party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) is deeply divided between technocrats grouped around Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and those they call "the dinosaurs," or the traditional local party leaders who often come out of the government-controlled unions. In some border towns, like Reynosa, "the dinosaurs" are still in control of the party apparatus, and some maquiladoras are unionized as a consequence.
In Juarez, however, the local government is run by technocrats. The city is home to more maquiladoras than any other in Mexico, and there are hardly any unions. Juarez' industrial growth has made El Paso, the city's twin on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, the seventh most polluted metropolitan area in the U.S. Between 1988 and 1992, 163 Juarez children were born with anencephaly - without brains - an extremely rare disorder. Although city authorities blame the occurrences on their mothers' malnutrition or drug use, workers and union activists like Echeverria believe that toxic chemicals used in the plants are at fault.
The efforts made by FAT to organize maquiladora workers over issues of wages, bonuses and toxic contamination are receiving support by U.S. unions. Two years ago FAT reached agreement on a strategic alliance with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). The UE and FAT face common employers, like General Electric, which has a master contract with UE in the U.S.
David Johnson, a UE international representative based in Los Angeles, defines the two goals of the alliance as cooperation on organizing campaigns on both sides of the border, and opposition to the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After Molina's firing, the UE helped to organize protest demonstrations at the GE office in Boston and at the Allen-Bradley plant in Milwaukee. A coalition of unions, called Jobs with Justice, cooperated in the actions. Jobs with Justice invited Molina to the U.S., but the U.S. consulate in Juarez refused to issue her a visa. She was told that she might become a public charge.
Johnson, who has been assigned to aid organizing efforts on the border, says the use of a blacklist is commonplace. "What's surprising in Molina's case," he says, "is the blatant way they showed it to her. The companies on the border are confident they can get away with anything because the Mexican government wants foreign investment."
Johnson says that the UE is sensitive to the accusation that past international relationships of U.S. unions were marked by "racism and chauvinism towards workers in other countries." In contrast, the UE has no voice in the positions or internal policies of FAT. "Our relationship is based on mutual respect and self-determination," he explains. "What happens in Mexico is determined by Mexicans." Although both unions share an opposition to NAFTA, Johnson says that the UE also has relations with unions in Mexico who support it. "The key to our relationship with FAT is its desire and ability to mount organizing campaigns, and its support for real and democratic unionism."
Martinez responds that FAT identifies with the UE because "we both share a struggle for the same objectives. Each union respects the autonomy of the other. Solidarity is very important to us because the desperation of workers in Mexico is pushing them to organize. It a product of the crisis we're living in, and we have a responsibility to help them. We will be much stronger if we can face these companies together, on both sides of the border."
FAT has relations with other unions in the U.S. as well. Martinez recently toured California as a speaker on the Free Trade Caravan, organized and sponsored by the Teamsters Union. The caravan travelled to union meetings and gatherings of workers throughout the state, explaining the conditions of Mexican workers. Martinez found that "some workers were concerned mostly about the possible loss of their own jobs. But when I talked about the situation of workers like Alma Molina, U.S. unionists were very concerned about the violations of human rights and organizing rights in Mexico. It became a double concern."
What counts in these new relationships will be the ability and willingness of U.S. unions to act when Mexican workers come under attack. "In the short range," Johnson says, "we have to organize actions to protect the right to organize in Mexico, as we've tried to do in Alma Molina's case, and bring to the public eye the activities of U.S. corporations. We can go to plant gates, and raise money and resources from our own members. But in the long range, we have to cooperate on the larger issues. When we negotiate contracts, we have to do it in cooperation. We have to fight against NAFTA, and for policies which create a decent life for workers on both sides of the border."
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