David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Border Bosses Go All Out to Stop Strike at Han Young
by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (5/30/98) -- As dawn broke over the hills of Tijuana on May 22, dozens of rough-clad workers began gathering in a narrow road facing an old industrial building, high on one of the city's mesas. An undercurrent of tension and anticipation filled the dusty street in front of the Han Young factory, as they awaited the beginning of the first legal strike by an independent maquiladora union in the history of the U.S./Mexican border.

From inside the plant, the would-be strikers could hear the sounds of machinery operated by a workforce of three dozen laborers, hired by the company over the previous two weeks. As eight o'clock approached, the hour at which their workshift would normally have started, Han Young's regular workers filed into the factory, not to turn their machines on, but to turn them off.

Once inside, shouting matches broke out. Around the welding machines in the plant's dim, cavernous interior, the regular workers confronted the new hires and the company's human relations director, Magdaleno Reyes. They demanded that everyone comply with Mexican labor law and leave. In a legal strike in Mexico, the company may not try to continue operations. All personnel must leave the premises, and the doors must be locked.

Reyes refused to order the new workers to get out, or to go himself. Instead, he got into a shoving match, and, according to the workers, hit some of them. Reyes later refused to be interviewed.

Finally, the regular workers left. Once outside in the street, they strung the traditional red-and-black strike banners across the entrances. As the day wore on, the new hires trickled out of the factory, complaining that production wasn't really possible without the skilled labor of the strikers. By evening, the plant was dark and deserted.

Since then, Han Young strikers have lived in the street outside the factory, day and night, parking their vehicles in front of its huge corrugated-iron doors. No one has entered.

In the ten days since it started, the city's entire political establishment has mobilized to declare the strike illegal and discredit the strikers. Workers have been forced into two successive elections within a week, and the city's local Conciliation and Arbitration Board took out a full-page ad in "El Mexicano," Tijuana's largest newspaper, saying the strike was "non-existent" in Mexican legal terms. In a speech before the Baja California chapter of the employers association COPARMEX, the state's Director of Labor and Social Services, Eleazar Verastegui, warned it was "provoked by foreign unions" who want to discourage investment in Mexico. Only a last-minute court decision prevented the strike from being legally suppressed.

North of the border, U.S. Congressional Minority Whip David Bonior declared that "Han Young management, the Tijuana labor board and the Mexican government are engaged in a systematic effort to deny Han Young workers their right to an independent union through harassment, intimidation and fraud." Bonior called on Vice-President Al Gore to communicate U.S. concern to the Mexican government. U.S. Labor Department spokesperson Bob Zachariasiewicz said the department was "monitoring developents very closely."

Last fall, Bonior won Democratic votes in Congress against the Clinton administration proposal for fast track authority to expand NAFTA, by using the Han Young conflict as an example of the failure of the agreement's failure to protect workers' rights in Mexico. Fast track was defeated, but is likely to resurface after the November election. Bonior is calling Han Young a test case with "long-term implications for U.S. trade policy."

The strike marks the culmination of a year-long effort by Han Young workers to organize an independent union, and win bargaining rights from their employer. Han Young is a contract plant, whose 100 employees weld truck chassis for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing complex in Tijuana. According to plant manager Pablo Kang, "we pay higher wages than any other maquiladora in Tijuana."

Nevertheless, workers complain the plant has a high industrial accident rate, and that they can't live on its wages. They asked the company to negotiate improvements.

Striker Miguel Angel Solorzano, who earns 64 pesos (about $8) daily, says he has to spend 28 pesos just on breakfast and lunch. "I have a physically exhausting job," he explains, "and I'm always tired because I just can't afford to eat enough." He readily rolls up his sleeves to show poorly-healed fractures in his right forearm, the result of an industrial accident. "They only gave me 10 days off when it happened," he recalls bitterly, "and then I was forced to come back to work, even though I couldn't even close my fist. My arm still hurts,"

Solorzano was among a dozen supporters of the independent union fired by Reyes earlier this spring. He's filed legal motions to return to his job.

When workers demanded that the company recognize their independent union last June, Han Young's owner, Young Lee, informed them that the plant already had a contract with another union closely allied to Tijuana's political establishment, the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants.

The type of agreement Han Young signed is commonly called a protection contract. Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexican labor lawyers, says thousands of such contracts in Mexico are arrangements of mutual convenience between government-affiliated unions, the government itself, and foreign investors owning factories in the country. "The government basically uses these labor federations to get votes during elections," Campos says. "Companies make hefty regular payments to union leaders under these contracts, and in return get labor peace."

Last summer, Han Young workers formally petitioned Tijuana's labor board for the right to form their own union, and joined one of Mexico's national independent unions, the Union of Workers in the Metal, Steel, Iron and Connected Industries (STIMAHCS).

In October, they forced the labor board to hold an election in which they could choose between STIMAHCS and the government-affiliated union. That election was marked by accusations that the company brought in voters ineligible to cast ballots. STIMAHCS won nevertheless. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Administrative Office, charged with hearing complaints under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, concluded in April that the Mexican government had permitted gross irregularities.

When the labor board refused to recognize the election results, further work stoppages and a hunger strike forced a second election in December, also won by STIMAHCS. Additional pressure from workers, and public outcry in the U.S. and Mexico, subsequently forced the board to grant recognition and bargaining rights to the independent union.

On March 22, STIMAHCS told the company it intended to exercise its right to conduct a legal strike when the old contract expired in 60 days, if negotiations weren't fruitful.

Han Young refused to bargain, claiming that another government-affiliated union had claimed jurisdiction over the plant. Human relations director Reyes has long ties to that union, a branch of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers. According to Enrique Hernandez, who represents the independent union, Reyes used those connections to hire a wave of new workers prior to the strike.

Once the conflict started, Reyes and the powerful political allies of the CTM in Tijuana began moves to get the strike declared illegal, arguing that it wasn't supported by a majority of Han Young workers. On May 27, the labor board conducted an election, outside the factory. It used its normal procedure in which workers declare their votes out loud, in front of company, union and government representatives. Fifty two workers voted to continue the strike, and 64 voted against it -- a total of 118 votes cast.

Hernandez and STIMAHCS attorney Jose Peņaflor, however, alleged that 48 of those who had voted against the strike were ineligible because they were hired after the union gave its strike notice, or had never worked at the company at all. "They were even recruiting voters at the flea market the day before the election," Hernandez charges, adding that there were never 118 workers at the factory.

The labor board never required the company to produce a list of eligible voters prior to the strike, and refused to invalidate the election. "STIMAHCS' has to provide proof that those workers it challenged weren't eligible to vote," asserted labor board head Jesus Cosio. Although a list of workers employed by Han Young on March 22 would be easily available from the records of the Mexican Social Security Institute, he said he was unwilling to ask for it. "Anyone who presents themselves to vote will be allowed to do so," he declared.

The board also ruled the strike was "non-existent" because the strike flags were put up 15 minutes too early. It then took out a full-page advertisement in Tijuana's leading newspaper to announce its decision.

On Friday, March 29, the board held a second election in front of the plant, in which the government-affiliated CTM sought to take over the independent union's bargaining rights.

At nine a.m., two dozen black-uniformed members of Tijuana's tactical squad, the "Special Forces," were deployed in front of the factory. Reyes then marched at the head of dozens of men wearing CTM caps, up street to the factory doors.

Before voting started, Hernandez again demanded that the board require the company to produce a list of eligible voters. Cosio turned the request aside. The strikers then filed up to the table under the watchful eyes of the police, Han Young management, and CTM officials, to cast their votes. After they voted and returned to their side of the police lines, a tiny group of four women stepped out of their ranks.

Although they had never worked in the plant before, and in fact had joined the independent union at another factory, they presented themselves at the table to vote. The CTM supporters whistled and made rude remarks about them, but they refused to leave the voting tables. "Since you're permitting anyone to vote, these women demand the same right you've accorded to others," Hernandez announced.

Board personnel were at first non-plussed and insisted the women go away. Finally officials agreed they could vote as well.

Then the CTM supporters voted. One voter was an 18-year old youth who gave his name as Josue. The day before admitted in an interview that he had only been hired on May 15. "Reyes told us to say that we had started work before February 12 [the cutoff date for eligibility] if we were asked," he stated.

The final total was 74-65 in favor of the independent union. Since no one was asked to provide proof of their employment status, it is unclear what the results would be if only the votes of eligible employees were counted. Interviewed following the voting, Cosio stated that "we ran this election correctly, and we don't intend to change the way we do it."

The irregularities, however, proved to be too much for Judge Maria Lourdes Villagomez Guillon of the Federal fifth district court. Hours after the voting concluded, Villagomez suspended all of the board's actions against the strike and the independent union, and set a June 18th date to hear evidence on the issues. Meanwhile, the strike continues.

"If we win, there are workers in hundred of maquiladoras who will try to form their own unions, so they can get better wages and conditions," Hernandez says. "That challenges government policy, which relies on maintaining low wages as an attraction for foreign investment. So the government, its affiliated unions and the employers' association have all allied themselves against us."

That description was given credibililty by the appearance of Jose Mandujano as the CTM attorney during the second election. Mandujano is a key player in the city's economic structure. He was formerly the attorney for the maquiladora owners' association, and then served as head of the local labor board for some years.

The local board includes management and labor representatives, in addition to government officials, and at least one member has an apparent conflict of interest. The labor representative, elected at a convention of Baja California's government-affiliated unions, is Fernando Murrieta Llaguno, a past official of the CTM cinematographers' union. "I'm independent," Murrieta says. "I'm not afraid to rule against the CTM if it's doing something wrong." He admits, however, that a problem of protection contracts does exist within the labor movement.

Although the state labor secretary Verastegui accused U.S. unions of being behind the Han Young conflict, no U.S. union representatives were present at either election. No representative from the U.S. consulate appeared either.

Nevertheless, according to Han Young plant manager Pablo Kang, who says the company lost $40,000 during the strike's first week, "this conflict is being used by U.S. unions and political parties in Mexico who don't want us here. They [the independent union] aren't sincere."

Han Young workers have received support from the San Diego Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, and during a hunger strike by 4 independent union members in December, supporters leafleted at over 25 Hyundai car dealerships in the U.S. and Canada every Saturday. Support Committee Executive Director Mary Tong has been told by the Mexican Government Ministry that she will be deported if she tries to attend any activity involving the Han Young workers in Mexico.

"The government accuses us of weakening our country," says strike leader Miguel Angel Sanchez. "But they're protecting foreign investors who are here exploiting us and violating our laws, when they should be protecting us and enforcing the law. If it's ok for the companies to cross the border to do this, I think it's not only right for workers to support each other across the same border, it's necessary."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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