David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Maquiladora Workers Could Tip Mexico's Next Election
by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (1/31/99) -- Border cities like Tijuana, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros are becoming the industrial powerhouses of North America. The economic effect of their growth on all three NAFTA countries -- Mexico, the U.S. and Canada -- is undeniable. But in Mexican national politics, the border area has remained a backwater.

That is about to change dramatically, at least in one section of the two-thousand-mile long frontier.

A wave of workers floods into the streets when the shift changes in Tijuana factories, as two hundred thousand people go to and from their jobs. Most of them are internal migrants inside Mexico, having come north looking for work from other states further south. They still maintain their official residency in their home towns.

On the border, their migrant status disenfranchises them. Mexican residency requirements dictate that people can only vote in state and local elections in the locality in which they officially reside.

Consequently, the political structure in Mexico's northernmost states -- Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon -- is elected by a fraction of the people who actually live in them.

All the border governments pursue the same economic policy -- using low industrial wages as an attraction for foreign investment. If workers aren't happy about it, their opinion doesn't count for much.

Last June's municipal election in Tijuana, however, saw the first effort by a political party to seriously campaign for the votes of maquiladora workers. That effort had its roots in a strike by workers at the Han Young factory -- the first legal strike by an independent union in the history of the border plants.

Last June, when the strike was two weeks old, the Tijuana police tore down the strike flags strung across the factory doors, and allowed the company to bring in strikebreakers. The police told strikers they could no longer picket or congregate in the street outside.

So the strikers took their picketlines into the rest of the city. In the weeks leading up to Tijuana's June 28 municipal election, they staged a series of daily marches through the huge working-class barrios which surround the maquiladoras. They not only appealed for support for their strike, but called on voters to reject the city's ruling National Action Party (PAN), accusing it of siding with factory owners against workers.

For over a decade, the PAN has ruled Tijuana and Baja California, and is strong in other northern states as well. On a national level, Mexico has been governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party since the late 1920s. Both parties share a common policy of using economic austerity to promote foreign investment.

In the past, the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution has been small and marginalized on the border. The party has made electoral inroads in southern Mexico, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, its presidential candidate in the last two national elections, is now mayor of Mexico City, the country's second-most powerful elected office. But it has not been a serious threat to the PAN/PRI hold in the north.

Last summer, however, in the midst of Tijuana's growing labor strife, PRD candidates campaigned seriously for the votes of maquiladora workers for the first time. Thousands of flyers were distributed calling for raising factory wages, for child care for the mostly-female workforce, and for free transportation to and from work. These work-related issues were linked to demands for basic city services in the barrios, including housing, water, electricity, paved streets and sewers.

Araceli Dominguez, a reporter who had covered the Han Young strike for the city's largest newspaper, El Mexicano, ran for city council on the PRD ticket. She put strikers to work painting and posting her banners, and the paper promptly forced her to quit her job. Meanwhile, the PRD began organizing its first-ever neighborhood committees in working-class electoral precincts. Tijuana's fast-growing streetsellers association, which represents thousands of migrant workers from Oaxaca, set up a PRD committee headed by its president.

"We're trying to involve our party in the life of the people," explains activist Jorge Alberto Jimenez, a worker in the Social Security office who passed out hundreds of leaflets. "We want to get rid of the apathy which has traditionally kept voter participation very low."

The PRD mayoral candidate, Jesus Ruiz Barraza, rector of the University of Tijuana, spent $300,000 on his campaign, supplementing a first-ever infusion of money from Mexico City. Cardenas came and campaigned for local candidates.

PRD support increased dramatically. While the party won only 10,000 votes in Tijuana in 1992 and 1995, on June 28 it received 25,800, or 9.5% of the total votes cast. "In the past, I would have been entitled to a seat on the city council, along with two of our other candidates," says Aurora Pelayo, PRD president for Baja California. "But the PRI and the PAN engineered an electoral reform last year which they used to deny us any seats at all."

The party did, however, win council positions in the smaller cities of Mexicali, Tijuana, Ensenada and Rosarito.

"We succeeded in provoking a general debate over the conditions of workers," Ruiz Barraza says. "While our city has grown as a result of the increase in maquiladora-generated jobs, we've become impoverished because of the low wages. Since NAFTA was signed, the whole border area has moved backwards economically."

Government-affiliated unions, which in the past have been used to turn out votes for the PRI, were also weakened last year. In Mexico City, a new, independent labor federation was organized which does not require its members to belong to the ruling party. A local chapter in Baja California, organized last summer, already has 25,000 members.

The new federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT) has begun to challenge government economic policies. When Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo offered workers a 14% increase in salaries to compensate for raging inflation, the UNT demanded 22%. Along the border, the federation calls for a daily wage of 100 pesos ($10), double the present average maquiladora salary.

These developments threaten increased labor costs for U.S.- and other foreign-owned factories along the border. "We are rejecting the government policy which use low wages to attract foreign investment," explains Enrique Hernandez, general secretary of the Han Young workers' union and local UNT vice-president.

Of Mexico's 10 million permanently-employed workers, one million work in the border factories -- 200,000 in Tijuana alone. Increased voter participation and worker activism could prove crucial in Mexico's national elections in the year 2000. "If the movement among maquiladora workers grows," says Hernandez, who used to head the PRD state organization in Baja California, "by 2000 we could win tens, or even hundreds of thousands of new votes."

That prospect promises to unbalance the country's power structure. Hernandez and Jose Peņaflor Barron, the Han Young union lawyer, have been repeatedly detained and interrogated by the Tijuana police. They are continually threatened with permanent arrest and incarceration.

Border political authorities and factory owners clearly view this potential political shift with alarm.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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