David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Rebellion on the Border
by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (10/6/96) - When it rains on downtown San Diego or its middle-class suburbs, the asphalt streets get shiny. The runoff is swiftly channeled down the storm drains, and spills out into the Pacific.

On the hills of Tijuana, just a few miles south, rain creates a particularly sticky kind of mud called "barra." Huge clumps stick to the feet. Cars traveling down all the little dirt streets, where a million Tijuanecos live, are immobilized. When they start to move down a hill at all, even at a snail's pace, they lose traction in the mud and slowly slide into another car, or a wall, or just a hole in the road. And there they sit until everything dries out again.

When it rains, the tens of thousands of workers who pour into the maquiladoras every day begin their trip to work with a long trek through the mud to the nearest paved road for a bus, or an even longer walk all the way to the factory. Most workers don't have cars anyway.

The difference between the one side of the border and the other is the difference between poverty and wealth. As Eduardo Badillo, of the Border Region Workers' Support Committee (CAFOR), says, "a worker in Tijuana earns the same in a whole day's work that even an undocumented worker earns in an hour, just a few miles north."

Since NAFTA was signed, that difference between $5 an hour and $5 a day has inspired a building boom along the border, where 10 factories opened their doors each week during the first three months of 1996. Tijuana is like Detroit in its heyday. Signs advertise for workers on the gate of every plant, and the smell of money in the air brings a steady stream of executives from the north.

But companies aren't the only ones moving across the border. As maquiladora workers from Tijuana to Juarez have begun to fight for better conditions, they've found that they too have friends to the north.

Francisco Ortiz works at Ken-Mex, a medical products plant built in Tijuana a decade ago by Kendall International. He lives with his three sons in a small house in a neighborhood below Otay Mesa. In this border city, the factories are the lords of the earth. They occupy the high points, the tops of the mesas. The neighborhoods of the workers spill down the slopes from the industrial parks into the valley below.

The main structure of Francisco's tiny house is made of cinder blocks, but in front and behind, other rooms have been added on with whatever material came to hand. Ingenuity is the main building principle, and in this workers' barrio the factories themselves, willingly or not, supply much of the materials. The inside walls of one add-on room in his house are made of corrugated cardboard, salvaged from shipping cartons. A stack of wooden pallets towers in front of the house down the street, furnishing the lumber for its frame. Even the old car in front of a third house, now up on blocks, has the faint blue trace of a company logo on its white doors.

A visitor to the Ortiz family, coming in from the street, passes through a gate in a wooden fence, tall enough to give a little privacy in the old Mexican style. Inside is a small dirt yard. An old couch sits under a small tree in a corner, and on most days Francisco's grandmother, 83-year old Isabela, sits there. She can't see her great-grandchildren playing around her anymore, but she can hear them arguing and laughing.

An old washing machine in the yard is a luxury for most maquiladora workers. Its drain hose snakes away from it, down into a hole covered by a piece of plywood.

Inside the front door is the main room, filled with beds. A bunkbed on side, and a narrow single bed on the other, leave a small space in between. A third mattress butts up against them at the end of the room. On the fourth wall, on a tall stand, is the big television Francisco won at a company raffle. "In all the years I've bought tickets for every raffle you can imagine, that's the only thing I've ever won," he says.

Francisco shares the house with three sons, who live with him in the front room, with his uncle, his wife and children, and with his mother and grandmother. It's hard to see where the space for everyone comes from, but they manage. There's even a tiny sitting room with a couch in back. On the wall Francisco has put up the training certificates earned in the seven years he's been at the plant.

One way they share space is by working different shifts. Francisco's on during the evening, until 2 a.m. One son works days, and another other grave.

"I'm a little better off than most assemblers," he says, "because I'm not on the line anymore, and I get a 20 peso a week bonus for working an off shift. [1 dollar = 7 pesos.] Assemblers at Ken-Mex make about 23 pesos a day, and I get about 50." Wages in the maquiladoras are so low, and prices rise so fast these days, that most companies also give workers coupons for food. At Ken-Mex, the coupons are worth about 45 pesos a week.

"The wage I make isn't enough to support my family," Francisco complains bitterly. Even putting together his income with that of his two sons, it doesn't cover clothes or shoes. "It's just enough to eat, nothing more. We can barely afford to buy milk, and we only eat meat once or twice a month. Every day we have to walk about 40 minutes to work and 40 minutes home. When we can afford the bus, it cuts the time to 20 minutes."

The neighborhood where Francisco lives is home to many of Ken-Mex's 600 workers. Most are young, between 15 and 30 years old. Some don't last long in the plant. Alfredo Tapia, for instance, a 20-year old native of Puebla, a state in southern Mexico, worked at Ken-Mex for only three months before landing a better job an another maquiladora. "I was making 25 pesos a day, and even though I'm single, I couldn't live on it," he says. "In addition, when the company got a big order, they would begin yelling at us on the line, to make us work faster. I got tired of it, and I left."

For older maquiladora workers, it's not so easy to find another job. Maria Ibarra, who lives in the same neighborhood, works at the Maxell factory, also on Otay Mesa, assembling tape cassettes and computer floppy disks.

It's difficult for her to think about her own future, she says. "I just make a little bit, and I've been there a long time. I'm too old to think about changing jobs to work somewhere else. When a person gets to be older, they have to take care of their job. Once you get to be a certain age, they don't want you anymore."

The same feeling of insecurity haunts Francisco. "When I get old," he thinks, "I'll just have the miserable amount we get from social security. When my kids have their own life, I don't know what I'll do or who will support me. Maybe I'll have to sell gum or flowers in the streets, like the children and old people."

Like Francisco, Maria gave her children to the factories. Her eldest started working at Ken-Mex when he was 15. "He's been working there since he was small. He couldn't continue going to school because we couldn't get by on what I was earning. He had to go to work."

When she remembers that time, her breath gets short and her voice breaks. "One feels very bad, because we wanted something so different for them, that they were going to study and become something in life. But then the economy failed, and they were forced to go to work, just two more of many others."

But even with two sons working now, the Ibarras bring home about 410 pesos a week. A gallon of milk costs 17.50 pesos, half a day's work for her. A kilo of beans costs 9 pesos - two hours. "You have to buy what you can afford, the cheapest things," she explains. "I have to get everything on special."

When Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo devalued the peso as his first act in office, in January 1995, prices for groceries and basic services started to climb steeply for maquiladora workers. Milk, for instance, went from 7 pesos to 15 in 1995 alone. A chicken went from 4 pesos to 10.

But the same process which made groceries more expensive made the labor of Ken-Mex workers cheaper for the company. Victor Diaz, the plant's manager, called the devaluation sad for the workers. "But it favored the maquiladoras," he explained. "Costs of operating here became much less." Kendall's profits, earned from paying pesos to workers in Mexico and selling disposable medical supplies for dollars in the U.S., went up when the dollar value of the peso was cut in half. Diaz says that after devaluation, the cost of wages at Ken-Mex, in U.S. dollars, was the equivalent to what it was in 1985.

Kendall International, famous for Curad bandages and Curity medical supplies, merged into the giant Tyco conglomerate in 1994. It constitutes almost all of the disposable and specialty products division of the new company. Today that division accounts for over half of Tyco profits - $261 million out of $514 million in 1995. The Tijuana plant accounts for about 15 percent of Kendall's employees. It makes bandages, bags of saline solution, gloves and supplies for operating rooms.

Business is booming in Ken-Mex, and the plant's volume has gone up 50 percent. Tyco, which closed 3 of Kendall's 21 plants at the time of the merger, is closing another in the next year. Its work is moving to Ken-Mex, where the workforce is projected to grow to 1000 employees. Diaz says that the plant still concentrates on labor-intensive production, but he calls it an integrated plant, doing all the operations for each of its products. The parent company is investing in new technology for the factory.

"Although labor costs here may be a little higher than in, say, the Philippines, transportation costs less, and because the plant is so close to the U.S., the company has better control over production," Diaz says.

Making Mexico attractive to foreign investors like Tyco and Kendall is now the policy of both the Mexican and U.S. governments. There are over 1000 plants like Ken-Mex along the border, employing over 900,000 employees. In the first three months of 1996, 134 new factories began production, a rate of 1.5 every day. They employed 10,336 new workers, and represented a total investment of 126 million dollars, according to the Mexican Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Development.

In Tijuana alone, 11 new plants started up just in the month of March.

When the maquiladora program began in 1964, plants like Ken-Mex were heavily restricted. From the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 through the early 1970s, the Mexican government tried to keep the U.S. out. It encouraged economic development by Mexican producers, producing products for sale in Mexico. Foreign investment was strictly limited.

But under pressure from an accumulating foreign debt, the government began to change that policy. Government businesses were sold to private investors. U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories anywhere in Mexico, without having to have Mexican partners. Prices on basic goods were decontrolled, and government subsidies on food and services for workers and the poor were cut back or ended altogether.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was part of that process, designed to make it easier than ever for foreign companies to move money and goods across the border at the speed of a phone call. But relying on foreign investment didn't produce a stable economy. Panicked U.S. speculators began selling off Mexican government bonds at the end of 1994, when, instead of producing growth and prosperity, NAFTA led to an armed uprising in Chiapas and growing poverty. The government devalued the peso, trying to prevent a flood of money back to the north.

President Clinton lent the bankers a hand, and found over $20 billion to pump into Mexico to try to save U.S. investments. The price for his loan was oil. In the economic reforms of the last few years, the petrochemical plants around the national oil company, Pemex, have been privatized. The U.S. condition for the bailout loan was to use the income from the sale of oil itself as the loan guarantee. Many Mexicans expect the other shoe to drop this year, with an announcement that the government is selling Pemex to private (probably U.S.) investors.

There was no similar effort to try to help ordinary Mexican workers, who paid for the crisis with their standard of living. The stream of workers from Tijuana across the border not only continues, but grows in the wake of the Mexican economic crisis.

Meanwhile, politicians compete in making anti-immigrant proposals to win votes in an election year. The 10-foot iron wall separating Tijuana from San Ysidro has spread east along the border. It is a potent symbol of the U.S. government's attitude towards poor Mexicans. A wave of new Border Patrol agents denies hungry people the same free passage which NAFTA extends to money and goods.

Yet in the midst of growing poverty and official indifference, Ortiz and his coworkers have found people to help them, in both Mexico and the U.S. They are part of a growing movement to win better economic conditions for workers along the border, and enforcement of their rights.

Maquiladora workers have not accepted their economic conditions passively. At Maxell, Maria Ibarra and her coworkers not long ago organized an effort to get the company to supply busses to take them to work. A group of workers got together, and went to the plant management, to ask for them. "And to show the company they weren't just by themselves, we put it all in writing, and everyone signed it," she remembers. "It really lifted our spirits because even though getting a bus is not a lot, it's something. And we save enough at home to buy another container of water or a kilo of tortillas."

Despite their success, however, workers still fear retaliation for this kind of collective action. "Everything has to be done undercover," she says, "because we fear that we'll be discovered and fired. We can't do these things openly."

Maxcell workers have reason to be afraid. It's common knowledge that the maquiladora association maintains a blacklist of workers who participate in job actions to try to win better conditions. But a wave of activity is growing along the border nonetheless.

In 1993, workers workers began trying to form an independent, democratic union at the Plasticos Bajacal factory, a maquiladora producing coathangers for the garment industry for Carlisle Plastics of Boston. These workers discovered, however, they already belonged to a company union. Eventually, they forced the government to hold an election, to decide between the two unions. Voting took place in the street in front of the plant, under the watchful eyes of company managers and representatives of the company union, and the independent union lost. Some workers who supported it were blacklisted from Tijuana's other factories.

Although their effort was defeated, it marked the first joint effort between Tijuana workers and the San Diego-based Committee to Support Maquiladora Workers. Bringing together U.S. union and community activists, the committee collected enough money to make up the lost wages of twelve fired workers, while they organized their workmates full-time in the months before the election.

"Especially since the Plasticos election, maquiladora workers in Tijuana are afraid to organize independent unions openly," according to Mary Tong, who heads the committee. "They know they'll be fired immediately, and blacklisted."

The committee went on to support workers at another factory belonging to National O-Ring, whose plant was closed after they filed sexual harassment charges against its owner. When National O-Ring workers lost their jobs, they did something new, however. They filed suit in Superior Court in Los Angeles, alleging that they had been sexually harassed, and punished after they protested. In an unprecedented move, the judge accepted jurisdiction, and National O-Ring settled out of court.

Today, the San Diego committee cooperates with CAFOR to conduct health and safety training for maquiladora workers. Instead of openly organizing a union, they hope that workers can conduct a semi-clandestine struggle to end some of the worst problems of exposure to toxic chemicals on the factory floors. The organizations hold meetings in communities in the factory zones. Health and safety experts come down from California, to explain ways of recognizing health hazards, and the kinds of changes workers should demand from the companies.

To some degree, it is succeeding. 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 attribute to exposure to chemicals while they were pregnant.

After attending the training meetings, one of the workers brought a booklet to work, called "Is your job making you sick?" Together, she and her workmates surveyed the plant to identify possible sources of toxic exposure. They left a copy of the booklet and their survey anonymously on the desk of the plant manager. He called a meeting, and asked the names of the people responsible. No one ratted. Then he said there wasn't enough money to build a ventilation system, as the survey demanded. One worker spoke up, and suggested writing a letter to the parent company in Japan. The manager hastily backed down, and eventually a ventilation system was installed.

CAFOR also organizes community residents in the neighborhoods around the factories, some of whom are in as serious danger as workers in the plants themselves. Their focus has been Chilpancingo, below Otay Mesa. In 1993, six children were born in this small barrio without brains, a condition called anencephaly. In 1994, 13 children were born with the same awful defect. Last year, the local political boss began threatening CAFOR activists, keeping them from making a new count for 1995.

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 for these conditions, because it doesn't insist that the factories abide by the laws and regulations which already exist. We have a saying - these companies don't come to this side of the border to eat tacos and enchiladas, but to find cheap labor."

The relationship between the San Diego committee and CAFOR is part of a wave of activity which has brought together organizations on both sides of the border in other areas as well. That activity gained important support from U.S. unions and churches, during the debate over NAFTA. Since the passage of the treaty, they have sought to use its labor side agreement to file complaints about the violations of workers' rights in Mexico. But so far the U.S. government has refused to act.

Three years ago, one Mexican union, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), formed a strategic alliance with two U.S. unions, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Teamsters. Both U.S. unions contribute money to FAT, which is used to organize workers in maquiladoras belonging to U.S. companies.

In 1994 the UE and FAT gained enough support among workers at an 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 UE organizer David 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.

Last 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 two complaints under NAFTA's labor side agreement. This agreement was a product of the NAFTA debate, written in response to the exposure of the violations of workers rights in Mexico, especially in the maquiladoras. The Clinton administration and advocates of the treaty claimed it would establish a structure for enforcing those rights.

A hearing was held by the National Administrative Office in the Labor Department, set up by the treaty to receive complaints. But the NAO recommended no action on the charges in the GE and Honeywell cases.

A third complaint was brought before the NAO in 1995 by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), the American Friends Service Committee, and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers. 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 had tried to run for office in the plant union, a branch of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). After the firings, workers stopped work. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them and forced them to return to their jobs. The workers' slate lost the election. Its supporters then organized an independent union in the plant, 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. It recommended that U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich meet with then-Mexican Labor Minister Santiago Oņate. After they met, however, both officials agreed only to study the problem of registering new unions in Mexico. And when Sony workers went back to make a second attempt to register their union, the Mexican labor board again refused.

A complaint was also filed in Mexico against the U.S. by the Mexican telephone workers union. It alleged that 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 scheduled union representation election. Again, Reich and Oņate agreed to meet to discuss the case. A hearing was held in San Francisco on the problems of workers fired during organizing drives, but again, no government action resulted.

Few of the activists along the border were surprised at the failure of the NAFTA labor side agreement to protect workers' rights. Most of them had campaigned against the agreement to begin with, asserting that the labor protections were essentially a fig leaf.

But direct confrontation with the companies has not proven successful either. Among cross-border activists, the sense is growing that a change in tactics is in order. And the tiny CAFOR office, whose two rooms hardly have room for more than a desk and a chair, is part of a new idea for organizing in the neighborhoods with dirt streets and the rip-and-run factories.

Workers' centers like CAFOR, which organize maquiladora workers on a neighborhood basis, have been organized now in Juarez, where it's a product of the UE-Teamster-FAT alliance, and in Nuevo Laredo, where it has the support of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

Martha Ojeda, who was a leader of the workers' movement at Sony, is now the head of the Coalition. She says that the intention of the centers is to raise union consciousness generally among maquiladora workers, who often have no positive experience of unions.

In Juarez, Guillermina Solis, a labor attorney, explains that the new CETLAC center will offer simple, basic programs to encourage the participation of workers. It will help teach community organizing, to help workers get basic urban services in their neighborhoods, like electricity and street paving.

"Workers need to gain confidence, and we need to win their trust," she says. "This is an intermediate step, to help build a base of consciousness that we need before we can directly challenge the companies."

These workers' centers puts pressure as well on Mexican unions. And their once-solid wall of support for the government is beginning to fracture.

On the border, aside from FAT, Mexican unions have been defenders of management and foreign investment, as the union did at Plasticos. But prices have skyrocketed since NAFTA took effect, while the 94-year old head of the Labor Congress, Fidel Velazquez, has refused to organize any protest. For two years straight, he's called off the traditional May Day march, fearing that they would become massive demonstrations against government austerity policies.

Despite his threats, however, twenty-two unions organized a massive march in Mexico City last May Day, which brought out over half a million workers. Some unions, like the Mexico City bus drivers' union, have defied government reforms and privatization programs, despite the imprisonment of their officers.

In Tijuana, while local unions boycotted their own holiday, angry maquiladora workers took to the streets anyway. Despite fear of firings and the blacklist, workers poured out of plants belonging to companies like Sanyo, KFC Electric, Nypro, Ken-Mex and Zettler, and formed a 1000-strong march from the outskirts to downtown.

The company unions were nowhere to be seen. Their absence was hotly condemned by Blas Manriquez, a labor leader of the generation of the 1930s, and a patriarch of the political opposition. While hundreds of workers blocking an intersection in the middle of the business district fell quiet, Manriquez, in a strong voice belying his aging figure, accused the government and the official unions of "conspiring together to sell Tijuana's workers to foreign companies, and selling us at hunger-level wages to boot."

Tijuana maquiladora workers like Ortiz may eventually find a union movement more willing to defend them against their economic desperation. But if they don't, they may organize their own movement themselves.

Jose Delgado, an activist in the local organization of the opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, hopes that "a new labor movement will arise here, which will be more intelligent and more innovative. Already, people are building independent organizations along the border, making allies with neighborhood groups, with farmers and teachers, and with people on the other side [in the U.S.] Neither of our governments has an answer to the demands of our people. We will find the answer for ourselves."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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