David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Strikers Beaten at NAFTA-Sponsored Hearing
by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (6/23/00) -- The Camino Real is a swanky Tijuana establishment full of men in expensive business suits -- a modern concrete blockhouse, garishly painted in violently clashing shades of purple and yellow. It's very appearance makes it an appropriate choice for a meeting about labor conflict, and last Friday morning it was the scene of a conflict that suddenly turned immediate and violent.

In Salons Uno and Dos, the hotel's largest combined hall, Mexican Labor Sub-secretary Javier Moctezuma Barragan began intoning a list of rights won for Mexican workers by the outgoing administration of President Ernesto Zedillo. Three hundred well-dressed listeners filled the auditorium's seats and lined the walls, appearing to give him rapt attention. Most wore badges with the initials of the CROC (the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants), one of Mexico's principal government-affiliated union federations.

As Moctezuma spoke, a small group of two dozen workers entered and walked quietly down the aisle between the seats, carrying banners. Hand-painted letters on torn sheets called for "libertad sindical," -- the right of workers to decide for themselves what union they wish to join -- and condemned the repression of the two-year old strike at the Han Young factory.

When the group arrived at the front of the room, its leader, Enrique Hernandez, looked out at the sea of hostile, angry faces as Moctezuma fell silent. Then suddenly, with no warning, men from both sides of the aisle jumped from their seats, screaming as they began beating Hernandez and his companions with their fists.

Hernandez took a blow to the side of his head and went down. His friends turned to flee, but the aisle behind them was full of men with the CROC badges, fists flying. Hernandez made it to his feet, only to be pushed towards a corner of the hall, where he was knocked down again. His head snapped back, as heavy shoes kicked his cheek. Other kickers went for the ribs. One swung a pedestal, angling for Hernandez' face.

The room broke into chaos, as the advocates of libertad sindical were forced to flee under a rain of blows. Hernandez, once again on his feet, was pushed and buffetted by fists as he backed out of the salon. Pursued by dozens of angry attackers, the workers were pushed through the hotel lobby and out of the main doors. The Tijuana newspaper "La Frontera" later identified the leader of the perpetrators as Raniel Falcon, director of a youth group organized by the CROC, which has been linked to the state government of the National Action Party. Hernandez says they included a group of CROC-affiliated truckers.

After a few minutes, Moctezuma came out and stood halfway down the lobby stairs, while Hernandez and his companions demanded that he do something to guarantee their right to be heard. The sub-secretary announced there was a "lack of space." He took a few questions from agitated reporters, and returned to the salon. No invitation or guarantees of safety were forthcoming for the workers left outside.

This would have been simply one more demonstration of the problems in organizing independent unions in Mexico if one other important factor had not lent the situation an air of pitiful irony. The Mexican labor ministry had organized the meeting, a "Seminar on union freedom in Mexico," to explain two new agreements it signed in May. In those agreements it promised to protect the right of workers to form independent unions.

The case which led to one of the two accords was that of the very people beaten and left outside - the 57 workers whose strike at the Han Young factory was the first by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras. Not only were these well-known advocates of independent unionism violently expelled, but the very name of their strike and union was so completely absent from the commentary of the assembled dignitaries that it seemed forbidden.

"They threw us out because it was impossible to maintain the pretense that the freedom to organize independent unions exists while we were present in the room, living evidence of the lie," Enrique Hernandez commented bitterly.

Workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana's huge Hyundai industrial complex, began their independent union effort in June of 1997. Complaining of low wages and serious safety hazards, they sought to get the company to improve conditions. They quickly discovered, however, that there already was a union representing them, but one which they knew nothing about. It held no meetings, and no union representative had ever appeared at the job to resolve problems.

Like countless other Mexican workers, the Han Young employees were working under a "protection contract," an agreement in which the company made monthly payments to a CROC union leader. In return, the CROC guaranteed the company would be able to maintain low wages and poor conditions without labor conflict.

"There are about 650,000 union contracts in Mexico, but only 50,000 of them are real negotiated agreements." explains Jose Luis Hernandez, vice-president of Mexico's new national democratic union federation, the National Union of Workers. "The rest are simply protection agreements, The people who benefit from them are a kind of Mafia. To get rid of these agreements is going to require a virtual war."

When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in January, 1994, however, enforcing labor rights in Mexico became a responsibility of more than the Mexican government alone. All three NAFTA countries, including the U.S. and Canada, 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 that labor rights were being violated.

In the ensuing years, almost 20 complaints have been filed. Of them all, 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 have alleged that workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions.

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

Under the NAFTA process, the National Administrative Office in the U.S. Department of Labor held a series of hearings. As a result of extensive testimony by workers and independent union officials, the NAO concluded that serious violations of Mexican law had occurred.

In May, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, signed agreements to settle the Han Young and ITAPSA 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 in a few weeks 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, a U.S. union 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.

FAT's general secretary Benedicto Martinez credits the good intentions of the NAO, but says he's lost faith in the process. "Nothing will actually change at ITAPSA, and the Mexican government has a long history of finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers," he cautions.

The problem of the lack of enforcement is particularly acute at Han Young, where the independent October 6 union won the legal right to represent workers two and a half years ago. The plant's owners were then legally required to negotiate and sign a contract, but have yet to do so. When workers struck in 1998, the Baja California labor board ruled their strike illegal.

The Mexican 15th District Federal Court has overruled that decision three times, the last time in April, and has ordered the labor board to protect the workers' right to strike. Yet for two years, the board has refused to implement those orders. Instead, 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.

In addition, strikers like Julian Puente have been blacklisted. "I went to Hyundai's main plant, and got hired," he says. Hyundai was offering 69 pesos a day, about $7, for skilled welders. "But then one of their foremen recognized me as a striker. The human relations manager told me there was no work for me there." Like other strikers, he can only find occasional work on local construction projects.

"The settlements haven't remedied our situation at all," charges Jose Peņaflor, the lawyer for October 6. "The violence today has its roots in efforts by corrupt union leaders to hold onto their protection contracts. The problem is the enforcement of the law. Despite what the government says in meetings like the one today, Mexico's labor policy is actually hardening. It's clearer than ever that it won't permit any kind of independent union on the border."

For the U.S. Labor Department, the beatings at the Camino Real have to be a big embarrassment. Four DoL representatives attended the seminar, led by Louis Karesh, deputy secretary and head of the NAO. "I'm disappointed to see what happened," he said, but tried to present a positive interpretation. "I was glad to see Moctezuma came out to talk to the workers."

The Clinton administration's position linking trade policy and labor rights has placed the NAO and Karesh under a spotlight. 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. In the wake of Congress' vote on China's trading status, Vice-President (and presidential candidate) Al Gore went even further, claiming that he would guarantee the enforcement of labor rights in future trade negotiations.

Moctezuma held out the same promise to Mexican workers, declaring in his speech Friday that "NAFTA has as a purpose increasing the respect for workers' rights." Mexico has developed "a new labor culture of harmony and cooperation between workers and employers" as a result of NAFTA, he added.

Yet the actual record of the side agreement doesn't provide much precedent. In fact, as a result of all the complaints filed since 1994, only one of the many workers fired for independent union activity has been rehired, and not a single contract signed. 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."

Saying he'd hold further dialogues with the Mexican government as a result of Friday's events, Karesh pointed 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.

But will even these commitments be enforced? "I believe we will begin to see an impact," Karesh says, "but will there be immediate change? I don't think so."

The UNT's Jose Luis Hernandez called the situation "absolutely absurd." Noting that Moctezuma had personally invited him to the seminar, and guaranteed that the October 6 union would be given a chance to speak and make proposals, Hernandez called the beatings an act of treachery. "We didn't have a problem of physical space in the hall, but of political space in our country. The Mexican government signs these agreements to project a certain image, but in reality there's a lack of political will to enforce them. The government depends on this system of protection contracts, both to attract foreign investors who want low wages, and because this system supports them politically."

He pointed out that the beatings took place within a few days of the July 2 national election, where the governing Party of the Institutionalized Revolution may lose to a competing party for the first time in its history.

Hernandez announced to the Han Young workers after they had beaten a strategic retreat to their downtown Tijuana office that he intended to lay the problem before the AFL-CIO when he meets with Texas state union officials next week. "What's happening here affects U.S. workers too, since companies are relocating production to Mexico to take advantage of our situation," he says.

For over two years, the Han Young strikers have been slammed by Baja California authorities and government-affiliated unions for the support they've received from U.S. unions. Despite the increase in nationalist rhetoric in the current election campaign, however, Hernandez says that those ties are important to the survival of workers on both sides of the border. "In the last few years, it's clear to us that the AFL-CIO has a different attitude now towards Mexicans, both here in Mexico and in the U.S." he notes. "We're cooperating and supporting each other much more now that in the past. We'd like to see the AFL-CIO take this case to the U.S. administration."

Peņaflor also intends to seek remedies in the U.S., and plans to file suit in U.S. courts over allegations of fraud at Han Young. He says a precedent was set when a California Federal judge accepted jurisdiction in 1996 over the case of sexual harassment at Tijuana's Exportadora maquiladora, deciding that workers could claim the protection of U.S. civil rights laws owing to the fact that Exportadora had U.S. owners and produced for National O-Ring, a U.S. company.

In the end, however, the UE's Robin Alexander says unions have to face the fact that the NAFTA process itself is fatally flawed. In order to protect workers rights adequately, "we need a separate entity that has teeth, that has the power to require enforcement," she says. "It's obvious now that NAFTA won't sanction governments when they violate workers rights, and that companies can't be held accountable either. We don't want more meetings and further study. We want real changes."

On the other hand, for Moctezuma Barragan, the situation couldn't be better. In ending the Tijuana seminar, he complimented his audience, telling them that "in Baja California, society has a clear democratic mission, characterized by open and frank discussion."

The workers expelled from thee meeting weren't in much of a position to argue.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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