David Bacon Stories & Photographs
It's Only a Paper Right
by David Bacon

RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS (7/1/02) -- For years, the biggest problem for the two million workers who labor in Mexico's maquiladoras is that although they have extensive legal rights on paper, the legal system refuses to enforce them. In June, the latest victims of this paper charade were 150 women who've spent almost two years waiting to be reinstated to their jobs at the Duro Bag plant, where workers labor around the clock cutting and gluing chichi paper bags for the U.S. gift market just across the Rio Grande from Texas.

In 2000, they were fired for trying to organize an independent union at the factory. In the months that followed, they erected an encampment in the town plaza of Rio Bravo, fought an illegitimate election, and saw the home of one of their leaders burned to the ground. Their struggle has become a symbol in Mexico of the betrayal of the right to belong to a union that will actually fight for higher wages and better conditions.

After waiting two years, the Tamaulipas state labor board finally ruled that they had been fired illegally. At 5pm in the evening of May 27, they went down to the plant to go back to work. When they got there, they were bluntly told that regardless of what the labor board might say, they were still on the blacklist. Plant manager Conrado Hinojosa called them troublemakers, and the women were expelled from the factory once more, finding themselves again in the street outside, watching as the company opened its doors to others willing to take their jobs.

After a week in which the labor board did nothing, they sat in at its offices. And at the end of three days, they were given a date for yet another hearing.

All along the border, the rule of law has become hollow in the face of the desire by authorities to avoid doing anything to discourage US investors, including enforcing Mexican law. It is not simply a Mexican problem, however. As President Bush pushes to extend NAFTA across two continents, and Congress seems ready to give him fast track authority to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the experience of the Duro Bag workers may be duplicated over and over again, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

As usual, what appears to be a legal problem is really about money.

Last spring, Torreon's streets filled with women chanting and shouting demands for a return to a standard of living capable of providing something better than cardboard houses and communities without sewers, electricity and running water. The city's annual May Day parade witnessed over 2000 women shouting "we won't be quiet anymore!" and "we want a decent life!"

Further north on the border, in Ciudad Acuņa, the power of the factory owners is palpable and feared. Here women marched with bags over their heads to hide their identity, presumably protecting themselves from firings and reataliations. But both in Torreon and Acuņa, to the embarrassment of city officials and leaders of the conservative, government-affiliated unions, people along the parade routes heard the chants, cheered, and even joined in.

"In our communities, the whole family works," says Betty Robles, one of the organizers of the campaign for higher wages. "You see kids 9 or 10 years old bagging groceries in supermarkets or washing cars on the corners." SEDEPAC, the organization Robles helped start, did a survey this spring, and found it takes 1500 pesos a week to provide food, housing and transportation for a family of four. A normal maquiladora worker, however, makes just 320-350 pesos. Many explained that two and three families share a couple of rooms, pooling income to cover rent and basic needs.

That income gap was documented by the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, a religious research group, in a study cosponsored by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. CREA found that at the minimum wage, it took a maquiladora worker in Juarez almost an hour to earn enough money to buy a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice, and a worker in Tijuana an hour and a half. By comparison, a dockworker driving a container crane in the San Pedro harbor can buy the rice after 3 minutes at work, and even an undocumented worker at minimum wage only has to labor 12 minutes for it in LA..

It's a recipe for confrontation, and all along the border economic pressure is fueling a wave of industrial unrest sweeping through the factories.

It poses the most serious challenge faced by President Vicente Fox, who won election by promising greater democracy and a rising standard of living. Instead, however, Mexico's economy has hit the skids. An economic downturn in the US - the market for most of what the maquiladoras produce - created havoc in Mexico. Fox promised 1.4 million new jobs, but economists estimate half a million workers have been laid off since he took office. The omnipresent signs soliciting workers on factory gates have disappeared, and greater competition for jobs is pushing wages down.

Border workers historically have tried to break that downward cycle by organizing independent unions, free of control by a government which seeks to use their low wages to attract foreign investors. Many hoped Fox would support the right to choose such unions freely, because he promised that workers would be allowed to vote by secret ballot in union elections. Traditionally, because voting has been public, the old official unions favored by maquiladora owners have benn able to identify supporters of the new independent ones. Following a string of incidents in which independent union supporters in Tijuana and Mexico City were threatened, fired and even beaten for their choices, Mexico promised to allow voting by secret ballot instead.

That commitment was put to the test this spring at the Duro Bag plant. When voting began in the factory last year, on the morning of March 2, two unions were on the ballot - the independent Union of Duro Bag Workers, and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC). a union affiliated to Mexico's former ruling party.

The day before, observers outside the plant watched as automatic weapons were unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. When voting started the next morning, workers from the swing and grave shifts were prevented from going home as their shifts ended. Instead, they were held behind doors blocked with metal sheets and the huge rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line. Observers could hear cries of "Let us out!" until company managers began playing music at deafening volume on the plant speaker system.

Workers from the arriving day shift were taken in small groups into the room where voting was taking place, escorted by CROC organizers, who handed them blue slips of paper on which the union's local number was printed. There labor board representatives asked each voter to declare aloud her or his choice. Both company foremen and government-affiliated union representatives wrote notes as the voting took place. Only 502 workers voted, in a workforce the company says numbers over 1400. And of them, only four workers openly declared their support for the independent union, while 498 voted for the CROC.

Throughout their long effort to form an independent union, Duro workers had help from the north, organized by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, based in San Antonio, Texas - a group of unions, churches and community organizations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Help also came from Mexico's new independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City.

Mexican employers and the government-affiliated unions charged that U.S. unions were trying to chase the company's work back into its U.S. plants. Rick de la Cruz, a vice-president of Local 6-314 of the U.S. Paper, Atomic, Chemical and Energy Workers (which represents three Duro plants in the U.S.), visited Mexico with fellow unionists from his Texas plant to support the independent union. He said charges were ridiculous. "If that work leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the U.S. - it's going somewhere workers have even fewer rights," he responded. "'We just think everyone should have human rights, and not just in Mexico - in the U.S. too."

Duro is just one of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, employing over 1.2 million Mexican workers, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. If more of these workers ran their own unions, negotiated their own contracts, and raised wages, it would be very costly to the foreign owners.

When the labor board denied workers the right to vote by secret ballot, that decision violated an agreement between Mexico's former labor secretary, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, and Alexis Herman, US labor secretary under Clinton. Since NAFTA went into effect in January, 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed under the treaty's labor side-agreement, with few discernable results. To counter rising criticism, in 2000 the Mexican government reluctantly agreed to implement secret-ballot elections.

Duro was the first test of that agreement, and current labor secretary Abascal refused to honor it. "The Duro election strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights. The sideagreement is bankrupt," declared Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

"When the chips are down, both the US and Mexican governments are more interested in promoting investment than implementing any commitments about labor rights," added Robin Alexander of the US United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent union at Duro. "Workers in the U.S. can't maintain decent standards here if a company like Duro can go across the river and violate the rights of workers in order to pay low wages."

Under President George Bush, however, the situation has deteriorated. When Duro workers tried to file a complaint alleging that the Mexican government had violated their right to a secret ballot, the US Department of Labor refused to even consider it.

The wrecked election at Duro didn't stop the wave of efforts to organize independent unions, however, and workers in other maquiladoras also received support from US unions. In Coahuila, a cross-border solidarity effort has helped to sustain SEDEPAC's living wage campaign. A number of US unions have organized a network called Enlace ("links" in Spanish), and have sent organizers to help, including Los Angeles' hotel union Local 11, the janitors' Service Employees Local 1877, and units of the Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Last spring, workers at another maquiladora - Kukdong (now called Mex Mode) - in the central Mexican town of Atlixco, Puebla, also organized an independent union. And on September 21, they won a contract covering 450 people -- the first such agreement in a garment maquiladora in a decade.

In January of 2000, after protesting broken promises of wage raises, bad food in the company cafeteria, and the firing of a group of supervisors, workers occupied the plant for three days. They were beaten and evicted by local police. But Kukdong workers contacted the Mexico City office of the AFL-CIO, whose representative, Jeff Hermanson, has a long history of developing ties between US garment workers and their colleagues in other countries. Hermanson and United Students Against Sweatsshops helped Kukdong workers publicize their case on US college campuses, publicizing the fact that Nike and Reebok sportswear was sewn in the plant. US protests focused on the violation of Nike's self-imposed code of conduct, and the pressure forced the company to send inspectors to Kukdong to take a look. That led eventually to the recognition of the independent union.

Nevertheless, the Fox government's national labor policy shows every sign of catering more to investors than minimum wage maquila workers. Last year, the World Bank recommended rewriting Mexico's Constitution and Federal Labor Law, eliminating protections for workers in place since the 1920s. Those include giving up mandatory severance pay and requirements that companies negotiate over factory closures, give workers permanent status after 90 days, limit part time work and abide by the 40-hour week, as well as eliminating the historical ban on strikebreaking. Mexico's guarantees of job training, health care and housing, paid by employers, would be scrapped as well.

Fox embraced the report, calling it "very much in line with what we have contemplated." The recommendations were so extreme that even the head of a leading association of employers, Claudio X. Gonzales, called them "over the top," noting the bank didn't dare to make such proposals in developed countries. "Why are they then being recommended for the emerging countries?" he asked.

And in Mexico City, Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexico's labor lawyers, was appointed to head the local labor board by leftwing mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador. Campos Linas rejects Fox's argument that gutting worker protections will make the economy more competitive, attract greater investment, and create more jobs. "Mexico already has one of the lowest wage levels in the world," he charges, "yet there's still this cry for more flexibility. The minimum wage in Mexico City is 40.35 pesos a day - no one can live on this. And now we've lost 400,000 jobs since January alone. Changing the labor law will not solve this problem."

Campos Linas's first act was to promise that even if the federal government wouldn't enforce secret ballot elections, he would. In addition, he announced he would make public all the sweetheart protection contracts between the old unions and employers. There are 70-80,000 sweetheart agreements, whose existence is usually unknown to the million workers covered by them.

Whose priorities will prevail in Mexico - those of workers or those of free-trade investors? "The changes proposed by the bank would be a gigantic step backwards for workers," Campos Linas emphasized. "The bankers don't understand that it took a revolution - a million people died - to get our constitution and labor law. Our problem isn't that we need a new law. It's to enforce the one we have. "

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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