David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Border's Growing Labor War
by David Bacon

RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS (1/22/01) - In the dusty border town of Rio Bravo, just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas, the Duro Bag factory churns out the chichi paper bags sold for a buck at suburban shopping malls almost everywhere.

Eliud Almaguer, an intense, stocky labor activist in his thirties, got a job at the plant in 1998. There he says he saw people lose fingers in machines cutting the cardboard used to stiffen the bottoms of the bags. Safety guards, he claims, were removed from the rollers which imprint designs on the paper lining -- the extra time they caused in cleaning was treated as needless lost production. Almaguer recalls that solvent containers didn't carry proper danger warnings, and while workers got dust masks, they were useless for filtering out toxic chemical fumes.

"In terms of safety, well there just wasn't any," he remembers bitterly.

The union at Duro, a seccion, or local, of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union, did nothing to change matters. The union is part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since the 1940s. The local has a contract with the company - a protection agreement in which government-affiliated union leaders are paid to guarantee labor peace.

Mexico's new independent union federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), estimates that only 50,000 of the country's 650,000 union contracts are actually negotiated with worker participation. "The rest are simply protection agreements," explains UNT vice-president Jose Luis Hernandez. "The people who benefit from these contracts are a kind of Mafia. To get rid of them is going to require a virtual war."

Duro has become a battleground in this war, one which will have a profound impact on workers in all three NAFTA countries - the U.S., Canada, and Mexico itself.

The battle to change conditions in this plant is one of a long series of labor conflicts which have erupted over the last decade in factory after factory, from one end of the border to the other. In cities like Rio Bravo, Juarez and Tijuana, hundreds of thousands of workers stream through plant gates each shift change - a human wave pouring into communities of cardboard houses and dirt streets, where the expectation of a better life is on a collision course with harsh economic reality.

And as maquiladora-style production has transformed the Mexican economy, it has provided a proving ground as well for a new model of international relationships between workers and unions. This cross-border solidarity movement provides immediate material support for embattled workers like those at Duro. Internationally-coordinated campaigns target their employers, and have created a growing rank-and-file union base in all three countries. But it is still very difficult for border workers and their allies to muster sufficient economic pressure in the U.S. to force major corporations to respect workers' rights, much less change U.S. and Mexican government policies which lend the companies political cover.

At Duro, workers began the struggle to change conditions by trying to actually enforce provisions of the protection agreement (and Mexican law) that, at least on paper, guarantee overtime pay, profit-sharing and other rights. To get leaders committed to enforcement, they expelled the seccion's general secretary, Jose Angel Garcia Garces, whom they viewed as too close to company managers. In his place, workers elected Almaguer.

They then brought repeated grievances before the plant's human relations manager, Alejandro de la Rosa. "We'd take [our complaints] to his office, and he'd throw us out," Almaguer says. "The company was in violation of at least fifty percent of the contract."

Wages at Duro average 320 pesos a week (about $35), according to Consuelo Moreno, a Duro worker. Duro's vice-president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day. A gallon of milk in the supermarket costs 20 pesos - a third of a day's work. "My daughter had to drop out of school this year, because we didn't have the money for her to continue." Nevertheless, says Almaguer, "people were willing to work at bad-paying jobs. But not under those conditions."

In October, 1999, the company fired him. The union's leaders in Mexico City cooperated, excluding him from union membership. Police and guards were called into the plant. But after three days of turmoil, workers forced Almaguer's reinstatement as general secretary.

De la Rosa didn't return phone calls for this story, but alleged in Rio Bravo's local newspaper, El Bravo, that "the workers are protesting things that aren't our responsibility. Almaguer says he's a dissident leader, but he was actually removed some time ago."

This spring the contract at Duro expired, and workers drew up a list of demands for a new agreement. They asked for two pairs of safety shoes each year, work clothes, contributions to a savings plan, and a doctor at the plant to take care of injuries. "The company said it owned the factory - they would decide what would be done here," Almaguer recalls. When workers wouldn't budge, their national leaders signed a new agreement on April 11, ignoring their demands.

On April 14, 400 workers from the afternoon shift refused to go in to work, and were later joined by 800 coworkers from day shift. In June they struck again. By then, they had decided that enforcing the protection agreement was no longer possible. In front of the factory gates, workers began organizing a new, independent and democratic union.

"In the past, the company was always able to buy off our union leaders. Always," Moreno emphasizes. "And we paid the price. We can only change things if we have a union the company can't control."

Forstrom says only a minority of the plant's workers are involved in the protests. Although he admits that some workers have been injured, he claims they've taken the guards off the machines themselves. Conditions are better in Rio Bravo, he says, than at some of the company's seven U.S. plants, and while relations with the CTM are good, they're not pushovers. On the other hand, "Almaguer has had an agenda different from the company and the majority of employees," Forstrom says. "I think he has something to gain personally. It's fairly obvious - a job, money, status."

Duro is just one of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, employing over 1.2 million Mexican workers, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. Decades ago, the ability of workers to cooperate across the border here was primarily an ideological question. But the huge expansion of the border workforce is only one indication that today cooperation has become an issue of survival -- the survival of unions, jobs, and living standards affording a decent life to working families, in both the U.S. and Mexico.

The old cold war policy of former AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland was unable to cope with this globalization of corporate activity. Furthermore, they were compromised by their unremitting defense of free trade, corporate interests, and U.S. foreign policy. But over the last decade, their old policy has been challenged by a new alternative - solidarity from below. The newest vision of what an international labor movement could become is being born, not in an office in Washington, but in shantytowns here along the border.

For Duro workers, this support network is partly based in the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, which brings together unions, churches and community organizations in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. For over a decade, the Coalition has functioned as a resource for Mexican workers trying to fight an economic policy which uses their low wages to encourage further maquiladora investment. Two years ago, the organization became even more threatening to investors and the political apparatus which protects them, when it elected Martha Ojeda as its new director.

Ojeda was a maquiladora worker herself, having grown up just south of Texas in Nuevo Laredo, where she went to work for Sony Corp. As her factory grew into a complex employing thousands over the next two decades, Ojeda became a leader of the CTM-affiliated plant union. And like Eliud Almaguer, she committed the cardinal sin for a border worker - she sought to make her union real.

On April 12, 1994, Sony fired 18 plant leaders who ran for union office on a reform slate. After the firings, thousands of workers sat down in the road leading to the plant gate. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them and forced them to return to their jobs. Ojeda fled into political exile in Texas. Until charges were dropped years later, she faced arrest and prison if she returned to Mexico.

The independent union effort at Sony, coming on the heels of the passage of NAFTA, was one of the first to receive the support of a broad movement of U.S. workers, union activists, church and shareholder campaigners, and political and community leaders.

Today, the CJM organizes health and safety groups in maquiladoras, trains workers to exercise their rights, and helps them democratize their unions and organize independent ones. The coalition maintains a tri-national network of activists, who bring pressure to bear on employers when plant struggles break out.

At Duro, the coalition assisted the strikers as they chased Tamaulipas' governor, Tomas Yarrington, around the state for two months. Whenever he appeared in public, workers unfurled banners demanding "libertad sindical" [the right to belong to a union of their own choosing]. Meanwhile, determined women, often with their children beside them, confronted police outside the plant, and camped out in Rio Bravo's main plaza. CJM activists were arrested with the strikers, and mobilized a flood of letters and faxxes to Yarrington and company officials.

Cooperating with the CJM, UNT General Secretary Francisco Hernandez Juarez organized a public protest in August, bringing to Reynosa hundreds of advocates of independent unionism from Mexico and the U.S. Under the combined pressure, the Tamaulipas labor board finally granted the Duro union legal status. Workers have yet to negotiate a new contract to replace the old protection agreement, and 150 remain fired. Almaguer's house, made of shipping pallets and cardboard, was burned down in an arson attack October 31, a crime local police refuse to investigate. "This fire was intentional," he says. "They were trying to wipe us off the map, and now my home is just ashes."

Hernandez Juarez believes that if Duro workers win higher wages, other workers also will organize independent unions. Today the UNT is a growing presence on the border, and employers clearly feel the threat, as do those union leaders who stand to lose their protected status. They accuse Almaguer and his associates of being pawns manipulated by U.S. unions and the CJM.

El Bravo refers to Marta Ojeda as a professional agitator, and accused Almaguer of being paid to organize the work stoppage. Tamaulipas CTM leader Leocadio Mendoza Reyes accused Ojeda of mounting a "dirty war" against the CTM, to "destabilize" the maquiladoras and scare companies into relocating jobs to the U.S.

Rick de la Cruz, a vice-president of Local 6-314 of the U.S. Paper, Atomic, Chemical and Energy Workers, who went to the Duro protest with a group of fellow workers from his Texas plant, thinks those charges are 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 says. "'We just think everyone should have human rights, and not just in Mexico - in the U.S. too."

Even Forstrom points out that Duro's automated operations remain in the U.S., while the Rio Bravo plant's labor intensive production competes with China and Indonesia. "We're in Mexico to take advantage of inexpensive labor," he says.

Accusations of foreign interference are a common weapon against independent unions on the border. In Tijuana, these allegations reached the level of hysteria after another group of workers, at the Han Young factory, not only won legal status for their union with international support two years ago, but then mounted the first legal strike by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras.

Workers at the plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana's huge Hyundai industrial complex, began a campaign to eliminate low wages and serious safety hazards in June, 1997. They quickly discovered, however, that the company had a protection contract.

Supported by the San Diego-based Committee to Support Maquiladora Workers, the independent October 6 Union for Industry and Commerce won legal status after work stoppages and a hunger strike, during which workers chained themselves to the doors of Tijuana's city hall. U.S. Congressman David Bonior pressured both the Mexican and U.S. governments by using the conflict to defeat the Clinton administration's proposal for fast-track authority to negotiate an extension of NAFTA in 1997.

When workers struck over company stonewalling in 1998, however, the Baja California labor board ruled their strike illegal.

The Mexican 15th District Federal Court then overruled that decision on three separate occasions. Yet for two years, Tijuana and Baja California authorities have called in the police to remove the strikers' picketlines, burn their strike flags, and escort strikebreakers into the plant. In Mexico, it is illegal for a company to hire and operate with strikebreakers during a legal strike. But in Tijuana, policies designed to promote foreign investment outweigh the rule of law.

Lawlessness reached a high point on June 24, when the Mexican labor ministry organized a "Seminar on union freedom in Mexico," to explain two new agreements it signed with the U.S. Labor Department in May. Han Young strikers tried to attend the meeting, held in Tijuana's swanky Camino Real Hotel, and found the hotel ballroom already packed with supporters of government-affiliated unions. As strikers and their supporters quietly walked down the aisle carrying their banners, looking for space to sit, dozens of men in the crowd sprang from their seats. Led by Raniel Falcon, a gang of young toughs affiliated to a government-controlled union, beat the vastly-outnumbered strikers with fists and feet, and drove them out of the hotel.

Ironically, the meeting was held to discuss the Han Young case, but no mention of it was made, and the independent unionists were given no guarantees of safety to permit their return after they were expelled.

Four U.S. Labor Department representatives attended the Tijuana seminar, led by Louis Karesh, deputy secretary and head of the National Administrative Office. "I'm disappointed to see what happened," he said, but added that "I was glad to see [Mexican Labor Sub-Secretary] Moctezuma come out to talk to the workers."

Steve Beckman, a staff member at the international department of the United Auto Workers and a member of the NAO's advisory committee, says "the U.S. should have walked out of the Tijuana meeting and called it a disgrace, met with the workers involved, and demanded punishment of those responsible for the beatings."

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, however, instead wrote a letter to the United Electrical Workers and United Steel Workers, essentially blaming the strikers for bringing the violence down on their own heads.

"Members of the audience asked representatives to move, but they continued the demonstration," her letter says, adding that "the Mexican officials responded to all questions from the audience," - after, of course, the strikers themselves had been expelled. Moctezuma himself "reiterated his government's commitment to improving workers' freedom of association rights," Herman declares, concluding that the meeting "was organized in conformity with those commitments."

The incident marked a fitting conclusion to a sorry record of total failure by NAFTA to enforce workers' rights. When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in January, 1994, all three NAFTA countries agreed to another treaty, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, which pledged each to enforce its own labor laws, and set up a process for hearing complaints of violations.

In the ensuing years, almost 20 complaints have been filed. The highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young, and at another plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, U.S. and Mexican unions alleged that workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions.

Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico failed to enforce its health and safety laws at the plants. The ITAPSA complaint charged especially dangerous conditions, with workers routinely exposed to asbestos, a known source of lung cancer.

Under the NAFTA process, the NAO held a series of hearings, and concluded that serious violations of Mexican law had occurred. In May, U.S. Labor Secretary Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, settled the cases. Mexico agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better protection for workers organizing independent unions, and better enforcement of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the two. Another is scheduled this fall in Mexico City, where ITAPSA is located.

The agreements, however, do not require the Mexican government to do anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant. "We're extremely disappointed," says Robin Alexander, director of international affairs for the United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent Mexican Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in its fight at ITAPSA. "We expected there would be a more significant outcome."

The UE, FAT and the union at Han Young had particularly high hopes for the complaints about lack of enforcement of health and safety laws. While NAFTA has no penalties for denying workers their right to form independent unions, Mexico could have been fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially huge amount of money, for health and safety violations. With the settlement agreements, that possibility was removed.

"Nothing will actually change at ITAPSA," says FAT general secretary Benedicto Martinez. "The Mexican government has a long history of finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers."

The Clinton administration's position linking trade policy and labor rights places the NAO and Herman under a spotlight. During the WTO meeting in Seattle, the administration argued that free trade agreements could protect workers rights while boosting profits for large corporations. It pointed to NAFTA's labor side agreement as proof of its claim. Vice-President Al Gore went even further, claiming he would guarantee the enforcement of labor rights in future trade negotiations.

Yet the actual record of the side agreement doesn't inspire confidence. As a result of all the complaints filed since 1994, only one of the many workers fired in Mexico for independent union activity has been rehired, and not a single contract signed. A small number of cases has been filed over the failure of U.S. labor law to protect workers here as well, with a similar lack of concrete results. Karesh says that because the treaty is government-to-government, "we can't get a particular worker's job back, or try to resolve cases in favor of particular groups of workers."

He points out that the Mexican government did promise two important reforms in the settlement agreements. It said that workers would be able to choose the union to represent them by secret ballot in future elections, a change from the current procedure which requires that workers announce their vote in public. And it agreed to publish a list of all union contracts, which would make protection contracts public knowledge for the first time, especially to those workers who labor under them. "I believe we will begin to see an impact," Karesh says, "but will there be immediate change? I don't think so."

Beckman sees a "very limited" value in the NAO process. "Our government's policy is not uniform, and there are contradictions in its stated goals. Our job is to push them, just like the companies do."

And despite the beatings (which received almost no coverage in the U.S. press), further NAO complaints continue to be filed. A recent one alleging violations of health and safety, as well as labor, rights in Breed Technology's Custom Trim/Auto Trim plants, was filed by the CJM and the Comite Fronterizo Obrera (the Border Women Workers Committee) in September.

While Mexican organizations also believe NAO complaints have limited value, they nevertheless feel they keep their government under pressure, and provide a forum for continuing to denounce violations.

One way out of the NAO box is to build a much longer-range relationship between U.S., Canadian and Mexican unions, going beyond individual campaigns. The UE and the FAT have a "strategic organizing alliance," in which the two unions have supported each other since their first joint campaign challenged General Electric in Ciudad Juarez in 1994. Both unions root their cross-border relationship among rank-and-file members, who visit each other's plants, and get a good understanding of life on each side of the border. The relationship respects the autonomy of each union and its decision-making process, undermining accusations that the Mexican union is simply a tool of U.S. labor.

At ITAPSA, the UE and the FAT extended their two-part alliance to attempt to involve all the unions which represented plants owned by its parent corporation, Echlin Industries, [now part of the Dana auto parts giant]. That alliance points in an important direction. If workers had strong, independent unions at all the Mexican, Canadian and U.S. plant of a given company, they could share information about contract terms and wages, and eventually assist each other in bargaining. In the event of a conflict with the parent company, simultaneous job action in all three countries could prevent it from shifting production across borders to defeat unions.

But actually achieving a level economic playing field, with wages relatively equal from country to country, lies a giant step beyond. And without such economic equality, corporations will continue to shift production where wages and costs are lowest.

This is the root problem with NAFTA and its labor side-agreement. Protecting workers' rights requires the U.S. government to promote conditions which undermine the profit-making NAFTA was designed to further - a basic conflict of interest.

In the years since NAFTA was signed, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch says the U.S. Department of Labor has certified that over 500,000 U.S. workers have lost their jobs due to the agreement -- a vast undercount in most expert opinion. Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has documented the doubling of instances since NAFTA passed, in which employers have stifled organizing efforts of U.S. workers by threatening to relocate production.

The record in Mexico is even worse. The Mexican government admits the loss of over a million jobs in 1995 alone. That year's peso devaluation cut the standard of living in half for most workers, while increasing profits for transnational corporations.

The new rules of economic globalization say that Mexican workers, if they want jobs, must accept low wages and conditions far worse than those north of the border, and firings and repression if they try to change them.

Well before the treaty's passage, the disparity between U.S. and Mexican wages was growing. According to economist and former Mexican senator Rosalbina Garabito, Mexican salaries were a third of those in the U.S. up to the 1970s. They are now less than an eighth - even a 12th or 15th, depending on the industry.

According to a recent Mexican government survey, the average 5-member family, with three members working full time, has an income of about 5-6000 pesos a month ($550-650). Forty million people live in poverty, 25 million in extreme poverty.

In Tijuana, the average maquiladora daily wage is about 50 pesos. Under pressure from foreign lenders, the Mexican government has ended subsidies on the prices of basic necessities. Yet during the last two decades of economic reforms, the income of Mexican workers has lost 76% of its purchasing power.

Gema Lopez Limon, professor at the University of Baja California in Mexicali, argues that the worsening conditions of Mexican workers are a direct result of the impact of reforms, especially the privatization of the state sector of the Mexican economy. "Our government and corporations are using privatization to do away with unions entirely," she says.

While three-quarters of the workforce in Mexico belonged to unions three decades ago, less than 30% do so today. In the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, for instance, union membership still hovers at 72%. But when the collateral petrochemical industry was privatized over the last decade-and-a-half, the unionization rate fell to 7%.

If U.S. unions can't find a way to support Mexican unions battling this wave, there won't be much of a labor movement left to reform. The right to organize independent unions on the border is part of a larger picture, and depends on the ability of Mexican unions to fight for political rights and economic policies which protect workers.

The cross border solidarity movement has only begun to tackle this problem. In the early 1990s, when 10,000 Mexico City bus drivers lost their jobs in the privatization of the Route 100 transit system, leaders of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union visited their leaders in prison, delivering a check for $5000. The union also sent delegations to visit Mexican ports, looking for unions and workers interested in mounting a fight to stop port privatization.

Then, in 1999, the AFL-CIO itself supported the copper miners' strike at Cananea, just 60 miles south of Arizona. The workers sought to stop massive layoffs, after the mine had been sold to Grupo Mexico, in partnership with the American Smelting and Refining Co.

Led by state AFL-CIO representative Jerry Acosta, caravans of pickup trucks laden with food and supplies snaked their way from the U.S. to the tiny mountain town in the Sonora desert, where strikers had occupied the mine. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO's office In Mexico City tried to encourage the union's national leaders to support the fight. In the end, however, the Mexican government sent in troops, and facing the threat of bloodshed, the miners retreated. Hundreds lost their jobs.

Last year the Mexican Electrical Workers, one of the country's oldest and most democratic unions, successfully fought the privatization of the Power and Light Company of central Mexico, collecting over 2.7 million signatures in opposition within three weeks. The new Mexican administration of Vicente Fox, however, whose National Action Party defeated the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for the first time in 71 years, supports even greater neoliberal reforms. Fox has already announced that on taking office, electrical privatization will be back on the agenda.

Up to now, U.S. labor has been relatively silent on privatization, despite the fact that to Mexican unions it constitutes a much greater threat than the growth of U.S.-owned maquiladoras on the border. Solidarity is a two-way street. If the AFL-CIO only fights about the activities of U.S. corporations, it appears motivated mainly by a desire to punish job flight. Just as U.S. unions expect their Mexican counterparts to do a better job defending the interests of maquiladora workers, Mexican labor might appreciate more help from the AFL-CIO in opposing U.S.-mandated reforms.

Mexican unions, especially progressive and independent ones, see U.S. pressure behind the IMF loan conditions and their government's neoliberal policies. They wonder if AFL-CIO support for the Clinton administration and Al Gore in November's election means it is acquiescing to those policies. If the U.S. labor federation were to call for our government to stop pushing privatization during the upcoming battles, it would go a long ways towards demonstrating its commitment to solidarity, even at the risk of antagonizing the U.S. administration. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney could go to Mexico City, and make that solidarity visible by linking arms with Mexican union leaders at the head of their next anti-privatization march.

Even better, U.S. union members and local officers could be organized to send delegations of their own, on a continuing basis, at the invitation of their Mexican counterparts. Even without an AFL-CIO call, every time a struggle like Duro begins, U.S. labor activists start heading south, while those from Mexico come north. Solidarity has captured the imagination of labor's activist core.

In 1995, after being elected AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Rich Trumka called for a different direction for AFL-CIO international relationships. "The cold war has gone," he declared. "It's over. We want to be able to confront multinationals as multinationals ourselves now. If a corporation does business in 15 countries, we'd like to be able to confront them as labor in 15 countries. It's not that we need less international involvement, but it should be focussed towards building solidarity, helping workers achieve their needs and their goals here at home."

Trumka's statement is not just a reflection of good sentiments by an enlightened labor leader, but an expression of profound movement below, in labor's rank-and-file. In the years since the change in the AFL-CIO's direction, U.S. workers have won a deeper understanding of the need for solidarity - that they cannot confront transnational corporations successfully within the borders of the U.S. alone. NAFTA's aftermath taught millions of U.S. workers that government policies lead to job flight by enforcing privatization and pro-corporate economic reforms. Those policies can't be challenged successfully either, without cross-border cooperation.

Security is not national, but international.

Today a movement of workers and activists is creating a laboratory for a new kind of internationalism, and its growth is having a profound effect on labor's political direction, in both the U.S. and Mexico. If unions are to survive and challenge the new world economic order, these changes are the hope for the future.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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