David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Cross-Border Solidarity Confronts the Free Traders
by David Bacon

TIJUANA (4/20/97) - Just before the AFL-CIO's February executive council meeting in Los Angeles, Congressman Richard Gephart took a group of international union presidents, including the steelworkers' George Becker and garment workers' Jay Mazur, to the border. It wasn't a junket to the bars, or a golf date in the desert sun. Gephart wasn't just politicking for federation support in his coming campaign for the Democratic nomination.

He was trying to convince AFL-CIO leaders to campaign against NAFTA's extension.

The border has become NAFTA's symbol. In Tijuana, where maquiladora development lays waste to entire communities, and workers who want to change terrible conditions in the factories face enormous difficulties, it's not hard to see the price of free trade.

But Tijuana isn't just a showcase for NAFTA's victims. Like other cities on the border, it is also a laboratory developing the new strategy of cross-border organizing. In an economy in which the production and capital of transnational corporations crosses borders as though they don't exist, cross-border solidarity has become crucial to the survival of unions and the preservation of millions of jobs. Some of the most progressive unions and organizers have made a deep, longterm commitment to it.

Links between labor in both countries have also become an important source of support for the growth of independent and militant unions in Mexico. Mexican workers fighting for a course of economic development which gives people a better life, instead of impoverishing them, are beginning to see some U.S. unions as potential allies.

Gephart took his delegation to the barrio of Maclovio Rojas. "This community," says Mary Tong, chair of San Diego's Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, "is an instant dose of reality for people from north of the border." And in Maclovio Rojas, they met Hortensia Hernandez Mendoza.

Last fall Hernandez and two companions spent two months behind bars in a fight over the land which sits beneath their homes. It was her second imprisonment in as many years. Both times she was released after the state government of Baja California admitted that it had no evidence she actually committed any crime.

Hernandez, her jailmates Artemio Ozuna Ozuna and Juan Regalado, and 1300 other people live on the eastern edge of Tijuana. Their homes are made of scrap lumber and materials salvaged from maquiladoras - old pallets, unfolded corrugated shipping cartons, and other castoffs. Their barrio, Maclovio Rojas, sits on a dry, flat, sandy lowland, surrounded by barren, treeless hills.

The land doesn't seem very desirable. But on the other side of the dirt road which leads from the main highway looms the warehouse of the Hyundai Corporation, one of Tijuana's largest maquiladoras. Just over the hill, standing in the doorway of one of the homes at the edge the barrio, you can see one of the Tijuana's newest industrial developments, the Florido Industrial Park.

The residents of Maclovio Rojas are convinced that Hyundai and other maquiladoras want their land. The state government has been determined to get the people to leave since 1989, when it developed the industrial park and Hyundai first built its factory.

The growth of the maquiladora industry is transforming life for the two million people who live in what used to be a small, honky-tonk tourist town decades ago. There are now 700 maquiladoras in Tijuana, in three industrial parks and 42 industrial zones. Eleven new plants started up in March of last year alone.

The devaluation of the peso and the signing of NAFTA have inspired a building boom. In the first three months of 1996, 134 new factories began production along the U.S./Mexico border, a rate of 1.5 every day. They employ 10,336 new workers, and represent a total investment of 126 million dollars, according to the Mexican Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Development. Signs advertise for workers on the gate of almost every plant.

The growth of industrial parks threatens to displace communities like Maclovio Rojas. "We're fighting to keep the 197 hectares that we currently have in our possession," Hernandez says.

Maclovio Rojas was first settled in 1988, by people who could find no other place to live in the rapidly-expanding city. The land was unoccupied, and belonged to the Federal government. Under Mexican law, people are entitled to settle on unused land, and petition the government for formal ownership.

"Tijuana was created this way," explains Eduardo Badillo, general secretary of the Border Workers Regional Support Committee (CAFOR), an organization in the city's barrios. "The government calls these settlements 'invasions,' and we call them 'possessions.' Whatever you want to call them, the law recognizes our right to settle and build homes."

When people settled Maclovio Rojas, they applied for land title with the agrarian reform administration. They built houses and organized their community.

But after Hyundai built its factory, a nearby agricultural settlement, Ejido Francisco Villa, also made application for the land. Ejidos like Francisco Villa still receive priority under land reform laws. In the past they had to farm the land themselves, but under Mexico's new economic reforms, now they can sell it.

The government accepted the ejido's application. "We believe that certain state officials made a deal with the ejido and Hyundai," Hernandez says. They believe that Ejido Francisco Villa has been taken over by developers and a Mexico City lawyer, who want to get rich by selling the land for maquiladoras.

Residents refused to abandon their homes, and the conflict grew. In 1995, Hernandez was arrested for the first time. After five months in prison, she was released, but the government didn't give up. It leveled new legal charges against her and other leaders.

"But what finally caused our arrest," Ozuna says,"was our support of striking maquiladora workers."

Inside Tijuana's factories, low wages and bad working conditions provoke frequent outbursts of protest. Conflict spills over from factory to community and back. "Over 50% of the people in Maclovio Rojas are workers in different factories, and are also involved in the fights going on there," Hernandez says. "Many work at Hyundai."

According to Jaime Cota, of Tijuana's Workers' Information Center, Hyundai has been plagued by labor unrest. Workers complain of being hit by Korean foremen. The safety sensors on many machines have been disabled, and in numerous accidents people have lost fingers and hands. "Based on the numbers on workers' ID cards, it appears that in 7 years over 7600 workers have passed through a plant which only employs 1500," Cota says.

Since opening the facility, Hyundai has subcontracted out its most problem-plagued operations to nearby factories. At one of the plants, Daewon, 16 workers were fired in industrial unrest in July. At another, Laymex, 91 workers walked out of the plant in August. Together with the fired Daewon workers, they marched Hyundai's main factory, to call for a raise in pay.

They were joined by the residents of Maclovio Rojas, one of whom, Daniel Covarrubias, was a leader inside the Laymex plant. He and two others were fired after the march, and Hortensia Hernandez, Artemio Ozuna and Juan Regalado were arrested the following day.

When Hernandez and her companions walked out of prison, they owed their freedom in large part to CAFOR and the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers. Both groups helped organize a march from Tijuana to the state capital in Mexicali, where one marcher died from a heart attack, to demand the prisoners' release. They flooded the office of Governor Hector Teran Teran with protest telegrams.

To spread the campaign beyond the Tijuana/San Diego area, CAFOR and the San Diego committee received the cooperation of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. Based in San Antonio, the Coalition is an alliance of unions, community organizations and church groups along both sides of the border from California to Texas. It was formed seven years ago to change conditions for maquiladora workers, with the support of the AFL-CIO, and brings together under one umbrella many of the groups active in cross-border organizing. Winning the freedom of Hernandez, Ozuna and Regalado was a convincing demonstration that the network could quickly mobilize broad and effective pressure.

Many San Diego unions also contributed to the defense of Maclovio Rojas, including the locals of teachers and technical workers at the University of California in San Diego, the city's janitors' union, and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council. The western region of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers donated $5,000 for the construction of a workers' center in the town.

"What we do is even the odds faced by workers who get into fights with factory owners and the government," says Mary Tong. "At the same time, we're trying to educate people north of the border about the problems people face in Tijuana."

Maclovio Rojas is just the latest in a series of cross-border battles involving the San Diego committee. Its baptism of fire took place in 1993, when workers tried to form an independent, democratic union at Plasticos Bajacal, a maquiladora producing coathangers for the garment industry, owned by Carlisle Plastics of Boston. Workers in the plant soon discovered that they already belonged to a company union, Mexico Moderno, with close links to the maquiladora association.

Twelve workers were fired in the course of the independent union effort. The San Diego committee raised enough money to make up their lost wages, while they organized their workmates full-time. An election was held to decide between the two unions. Workers voted in the street in front of the plant, under the watchful eyes of company managers and representatives of the company union.

Although car caravans of union and church activists drove down from the north as observers on election day, the independent union lost. Some workers who supported it were blacklisted from Tijuana's other factories. "Especially since the Plasticos election, maquiladora workers here are afraid to organize independent unions openly," according to Tong.

The San Diego committee went on to support workers at another factory belonging to National O-Ring, whose plant was closed in 1995 when they protested that its owner had forced them to put on bikinis, and parade for his videocamera. National O-Ring workers filed a sexual harassment suit in Superior Court in Los Angeles. In an unprecedented move, the judge accepted jurisdiction and the company settled out of court.

The San Diego committee and CAFOR went on to conduct health and safety training for maquiladora workers. Instead of openly organizing unions, workers fight a semi-clandestine struggle to end toxic exposure problems on the factory floor. At the Sanyo maquiladora, one of Tijuana's largest, many of the children of the women in the plant have serious health problems, which they believe they are due to chemical exposure while they were pregnant.

After attending training meetings, workers brought a booklet to the plant, called "Is your job making you sick?" They surveyed their jobs to identify dangers, and left a copy of the survey anonymously on the desk of the plant manager. He called a meeting, and asked the names of the people responsible. No one ratted. The manager backed down, and eventually a ventilation system was installed.

CAFOR also organizes community residents in the neighborhoods around the factories, where they face dangers as serious as those in the plants. In Chilpancingo, a small barrio below Otay Mesa next to the U.S. border. six children were born in 1993 without brains, a condition called anencephaly. In 1994, 13 children were born with the same awful defect. Fearing that bad publicity might drive away foreign investment, in 1995 local political boss began threatening CAFOR activists, keeping them from making a new count.

On the mesa above Chilpancingo sits a closed battery-recycling plant. Tong says that lead and heavy metal deposits have been measured in the soil there at concentrations 40,000 times over safe levels.

"We of course blame the companies for this," Badillo says, "but we don't hold them alone responsible. Our own government shares the responsibility, because it doesn't insist that the factories abide by existing laws. Companies don't come to this side of the border to eat enchiladas, but to find cheap labor."

Centers for maquiladora workers like CAFOR are springing up in other border cities as well. In Ciudad Juarez, the largest concentration of maquiladoras on the border, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, a three-union alliance opened the Center for Labor Studies, CETLAC, in September.

CETLAC is a project of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the only union federation in Mexico which opposed NAFTA, in alliance with two U.S. unions, the Teamsters and the United Electrical Workers. The CETLAC center, located in a workers' neighborhood, has already documented extensive discrimination in hiring against pregnant women at three factories in Juarez belonging to FAVESA, a subsidiary of Lear Industries. The plants supply car seats to General Motors.

"When I was being hired, after the interview, they asked me when I would have my next period," one worker explained. "They said I couldn't actually start work until I had my period. I was still three weeks away, so I had to wait. On the first day of my period, I came back. The nurse was there, and she said, let's see it, show me the sanitary napkin. They accepted me that same day."

CETLAC director Guillermina Solis charges that the companies don't want to hire pregnant women, and even fire women when they become pregnant, in order to avoid government-mandated maternity benefits. Her allegations are supported by the Womens Rights Project of Human Rights Watch. Its detailed report last October documented extensive sexual discrimination in maquiladoras. "We are troubled," explained Dorothy Thomas, the project's director, "that U.S. and other corporations openly practice sex discrimination, and that the Mexican government allows this discrimination to flourish unchecked."

The CETLAC center is an outgrowth of joint campaigns the three unions have waged to organize workers at factories in Juarez and Chihuahua. Both U.S. unions contribute money to FAT, which is used to organize workers in factories belonging to U.S. companies.

David Johnson, a UE organizer who coordinates relations with the Mexican union, says that "the key to our relation-ship with FAT is its desire and ability to mount organizing campaigns, and its sup-port for real and democratic unionism. But what happens in Mexico is determined by Mexicans, not us." FAT's president, Benedicto Martinez, responds that "solidarity is very important because the desperation of workers in Mexico is pushing them to organize. We will be much stronger if we can face these compa-nies together, on both sides of the border."

In 1994 the UE and FAT gained enough support among workers at a General Electric plant in Juarez to file a petition for a union election. A number of union supporters were fired after they appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and demonstrations were organized in GE's U.S. plants to protest. According to Johnson, the company used the firings, and threats to close the Juarez plant and blacklist workers, to frighten people before the election. The union lost the vote.

That same year FAT also cooperated with the Teamsters Union in an effort to organize a union at Honeywell's big plant in Chihuahua. Dozens of workers were fired there as well, and no election was ever held.

Together, the UE, the Teamsters and the FAT filed the first complaint under NAFTA's labor side agreement. The Clinton administration wrote the agreement to buy votes for the treaty's passage, claiming it would establish a structure for enforcing workers' rights in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. But not a single complaint has been remedied.

In the GE ad Honeywell case, a hearing was held by the National Administrative Office in the Labor Department. The NAO recommended no action on the charges.

The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras also tried to make the labor side agreement work. It brought a complaint before the NAO in 1995, together with the International Labor Rights Fund, the American Friends Service Committee, and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers. Drafted with the help of the AFL-CIO's field organizer on the border, Ed Feigen, it was filed on behalf of workers at Sony Corporation's maquiladora in Nuevo Laredo, south of Texas.

On April 12, 1994, Sony fired 18 workers who tried to run for office against entrenched officials of the plant union, a branch of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers. After the firings, workers sat in at the plant gate. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them. The workers' slate lost the election. Its supporters then organized an independent union, and tried, unsuccessfully, to register it with the government.

The NAO held a hearing on the Sony case, and issued a report criticizing the company and the government. Then-U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich met with then-Mexican Labor Minister Santiago Oņate, but agreed only to study the problem of registering new unions in Mexico. When Sony workers went back to make a second attempt to register, the Mexican labor board again refused. Jerome Levinson, lead attorney in the case, called Reich and Oņate's agreement "cynical in the extreme."

Martha Ojeda, the leader of the workers in the Sony plant since the factory opened in 1979, was forced to flee to Texas in 1994, threatened with imprisonment for organizing the protests. Last May Ojeda became the first Mexican director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

A complaint under the NAFTA labor side-agreement was also filed in Mexico against the U.S. by the Mexican telephone workers union. In 1994, Sprint Corporation fired over 200 Latino telemarketers in San Francisco, and shut down their workplace, a week before they were to vote for the Communications Workers of America in a union representation election. Again, Reich and Oņate met, and a hearing was held on the problem of workers fired during organizing drives. As before, no government action resulted.

Cooperation, however, is growing between the U.S. and Mexican telephone workers unions. In November the CWA filed a new NAO complaint over union-busting at the Sonora factory of Taiwan-owned Maxi-Switch. The plant makes computer keyboards and controllers for Nintendos and Game Boys. During a Mexican telephone union drive, a company supervisor beat the newly-elected head of the workers' union, 18-year old Alicia Perez-Garcia. The company fired a number of activists, and signed a sweetheart contract with a government-affiliated union.

CWA didn't just file an NAO complaint. Union members at a Maxi-Switch warehouse in Arizona, which packages the goods from Sonora, visited the plant to show support and pressure Maxi-Switch management. The pressure finally paid off. On April 16, two days before a scheduled hearing on the complaint, Maxi-Switch recognized the independent workers' union.

Despite numerous efforts to make it work, however, NAFTA's labor side agreement has no teeth to force government action and no jurisdiction over employers. Jerome Levinson, a law professor and trustee of the International Labor Rights Fund, calls the agreement fatally flawed. Mexican workers "were betrayed," he believes, by an agreement "which was supposed to guaranteee their rights would be assured."

"The problem," says Eric Meyers of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, "is that this path of economic development, of which NAFTA is a part, and which emphasizes trade liberalization and foreign investment at any cost, is basically incompatible with the protection of workers' rights."

While NAFTA complaints have been unproductive, the strategy of forming workers' centers like CAFOR and CETLAC with cross-border support has a better record of accomplishment.

Another one was set up last fall in Matamoros by the Border Women Workers Committee and the Coalition, which exposed health and safety dangers at Alcoa Fujikura Ltd. in Ciudad Acuņa. The maquiladora employs 13,250 workers making automobile wire harnesses.

Workers travelled to the annual Alcoa stockholders meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they described their exposure to toxic gasses. Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill at first insisted that "you can eat off the floors of these plants." But after a subsequent investigation, the company agreed that a series of gas poisonings had gone unreported in 1994, and fired Alcoa Fujikura's president, Robert Barton.

"There is a tremendous power when maquiladora workers, labor groups and religious shareholders stand together to hold companies accountable," concludes Rev. David Schilling, program director of New York's Interfaith Committee for Corporate Responsibility, which coordinates shareholder actions.

The odds facing maquiladora workers and cross-border activists are improving as well because of changes in both the Mexican and U.S. labor movements. Except for FAT, Mexican unions, especially on the border, have been defenders of the government's pro-investment policies. But the common front between government, unions and employers is beginning to fracture. The Mexican telephone workers and the FAT are part of a new grouping of Mexican unions, the Forum for National Unionism. They propose to democratize Mexican unions, and to organize a fight against the declining living standards of Mexican workers.

On the U.S. side, labor's cold war defense of U.S. foreign policy and corporate interests, and hostility to immigrants, did not create a legacy of good relations betwen U.S. and Mexican unions. Today, however, a new leadership in the AFL-CIO has begun to remove the old cold-war barriers. Organizer Ed Feigen believes that the AFL-CIO "not only can't stand in the way of these new initiatives, but it doesn't want to. The door is open now. Our problem these days is making things happen fast enough."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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