David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Tijuana Police Defy Court Protection of Maquiladora Strike
by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (6/16/99) -- For weeks this spring, Tijuana city and Baja California state authorities have defied a succession of decisions by state and Federal courts, attempting to suppress the renewed strike at the Han Young maquiladora. The conflict, which has rocked labor relations on the border here for two years, flared up again in late April and has been raging since.

The situation on the border has attracted the attention of Federal legislators, and in early June, fourteen senators in the upper house of the Mexican Congress signed a letter calling for a return to the rule of law. Speaking for the group, Sen. Rosa Albina Garabito declared that "violations of the rule of law by actions of the authorities themselves betrays an inadmisible contempt which we cannot tolerate ... We demand an immediate and definitive end to the repression the strikers have suffered since the beginning of their struggle."

Raul Ramirez, member of the Baja California Academy of Human Rights, warned in May that "the state is in danger of violating the Constitution and the Federal Labor Law ... as it succumbs to the temptation to use force."

On April 6, the First Collegial Court of the Fifteenth District, the highest judicial authority in Baja California Norte, issued a ruling which shocked the state's political establishment. The court held that Tijuana authorities had violated the Federal Labor Law last June in suppressing a strike at Han Young, the first strike by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras.

"The justice system of the republic protects [the independent union] against acts of the authorities [in declaring the strike illegal]," the court said. The opinion, granting the strike legal status, was signed by all three sitting judges.

Gerardo Medel Torres, the new chief of the local labor board, which last year called the strike "nonexistent," has also publicly conceded that it is legal.

Following the court's ruling, on May 3 the independent October 6 Union for Industry and Commerce once again tied red and black strike flags across the gate into the Han Young factory, bringing production to a halt. In a legal strike in Mexico, when strike flags are put up, the struck establishment must be closed and remain so until the dispute is resolved.

Instead of respecting the high court decision, however, city and state police have continued trying to bring strikebreakers into the facility to resume work, even after the union obtained further court orders protecting its strike.

On May 5, a patriotic holiday in Mexico, two attorneys arrived at the struck factory accompanied by ten trucks of Tijuana municipal police. The attorneys refused to identify themselves publicly, but police commandant Armando Rascon later identified them as Marcantonio Mejia and Jesus Ibarra Estrada, lawyers for the state employers' association, COPARMEX.

The two demanded that police take down the strike banners, and permit 20 workers, assembled a short distance away, to enter. At first Rascon announced he would comply. When asked if this action wouldn't violate the state court's decision, he declared "that doesn't matter." Rascon said he had no idea whether the attorneys had a valid court order telling him to break the strike. "My orders come from the state," he said.

After television crews from local stations arrived and began filming the action, and representatives of the federal Labor Department and the local opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution began taking notes, Rascon made an aboutface and told the strikebreakers to go home.

Six days later, however, over 100 members of Tijuana's Special Forces police detachment, joined by state Judicial Police, did tear down the strike flags, and escorted 70 people into the plant. Production, however, didn't resume since, according to the union, few of the new workers knew how to operate the factory's welding equipment.

The next day, Enrique Hernandez, general secretary of the October 6 union,tied the strike flags once more across the closed factory gates. "I don't care how many times they take the flags down," he declared. "We will just put them up again."

On June 8, a Federal judge again ruled against efforts by Han Young's owners to again have the strike declared illegal. The decision was attacked by Isias Valenzuela, head of Han Young's previous, government-affiliated union, which lost its bargaining rights when workers organized the independent October 6 union. According to Hernandez, Valenzuela threatened that "we will deal with the law ourselves."

The following day, June 9, fifty men broke into the plant, using torches to cut down the fence and plant gate, and burning two strikers who tried to stop them. The operation was overseen by 100 Judicial Police, accompanied by state government officials who had an ambulance stand by in readiness at the scene.

Police action hasn't been confined to the streets in front of the plant. Silvestre Rodriguez, Miguel Angel Sanchez, and other members of the strike committee say that state Judicial Police have come to their homes, telling their families that they intend to arrest them. Rodriguez has been a Han Young employee since 1993, and Sanchez since 1995.

Arrest orders were sworn out against Hernandez and union attorney Jose Peņaflor last December, accusing them of holding the plant's owner hostage in the factory for an hour during last year's strike. Both men deny the charge, saying it was a pretext used to detain them.

"They want to use these charges to keep us under constant threat of arrest," Peņaflor says, "hoping it will stop the union."

New charges have been made against Hernandez, Reyes, and Sanchez, accusing them of illegally depriving the company of the use of its factory. The union has obtained injunctions blocking all of the arrests. Even after the court prohibition, however, city police issued new arrest warrants against Hernandez in May, and again in June.

The Baja California courts seem reluctant to enforce their own decisions. Pedro Fernandez Reyes Colin, the lead judge who signed the state high court decision, said that although he had the power to enforce it, he was taking no action. "I'm not aware that any violations are occuring," he stated.

On May 13, Peņaflor filed criminal charges against state officials for failure to obey the court decisions and injunctions. Dodging police sent to detain them, he and Hernandez flew to Mexico City, where federal Senators set up a commission to investigate the situation in Tijuana. The recent letter followed their investigation.

Tijuana and Baja California police defiance of court rulings has been encouraged by the state chapter of the Mexican Employers Council (COPARMEX). COPARMEX director Pedro Martinez and Maquiladora Industry Association head Jose Calleros Rivera have called the resumption of the Han Young strike a threat to investment all along the border. Martinez said the strike was a "breeding ground" for links to U.S. unions and the leftwing opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution.

In a May 5 Tijuana press conference, Martinez and Calleros warned that independent unions could spread to other factories on the border in the wake of a union victory at Han Young. Of Mexico's 10 million permanently-employed workers, one million work in the border factories, and 200,000 in Tijuana alone. At present, most Tijuana maquiladoras have contracts with government-affiliated unions that, according to critics, guarantee labor peace despite low wages and often-dangerous working conditions.

Employer fears are not groundless. At the beginning of June, the October 6 union and others affiliated to the new, independent National Union of Workers conducted a plebescite for Tijuana maquiladora workers over wages and working conditions. In balloting in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants, workers were asked if they would favor a new minimum wage of 100 pesos ($10) daily, and if they would stop work to get it.

Despite heavy police presence in the areas surrounding the makeshift polls, over 5000 workers voted in Tijuana, Tecate, Ensenada and Rosarit o, approving the proposal almost unanimously.

Han Young strikers themselves propose a 35% salary increase, government-mandated profit-sharing, and wage scales rewarding seniority and job experience.

The Han Young factory produces truck chassis for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing facility, one of Tijuana's largest. Two years ago, Han Young workers began efforts to replace their government-affiliated union with an independent one.

In December, 1997, they won an historic decision granting their union legal status, following a hunger strike at the city hall and several weeks during which supporters in 25 U.S. and Canadian cities picketed Hyundai car dealerships. The Han Young situation also was used by U.S. Congressional opponents of President Clinton's free trade policies to derail the proposal to grant the administration fast track authority to negotiate further trade agreements.

The October 6 union then launched the first legal strike by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras on May 22, 1998. After striking for two weeks, police moved in, tore down and burned the strike flags in the street in front of the factory, and escorted strikebreakers inside.

It was this action that Baja California's high court declared illegal, setting the stage for the resumption of the industrial conflict this spring.

Representatives of Han Young were unavailable for comment. In May Tijuana newspapers reported that Ted Chung, president of Hyundai Precision America, Inc., had publicly called on Tijuana's mayor, , Francisco Vega de la Madrid, to request federal troops to provide security in the maquiladoras.

Peter Ahn, spokesperson for Hyundai Precision America, denied that Chung had made such a request. "It seems he was misquoted," Ahn said, adding that any such suggestion had come from the mayor during a visit to Hyundai's Tijuana facility. Ahn said he had never been informed of the court decision declaring the Han Young strike legal. "I've been told that there is no strike, and that the plant entrance is being blocked by outsiders who never worked there," he said.

The growing political crisis in Tijuana has also attracted criticism north of the border. Two years ago, Congressman David Bonior and other opponents of President Clinton's free trade policies used the conflict to derail fast track authority requested by President Clinton to negotiate further trade agreements. The North American Free Trade Agreement, they said, while encouraging foreign investment, had not effectively protected workers' rights.

Their criticism was supported when Irasema Garza, head of the National Administrative Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, held a hearing in the Han Young case a year ago. Her decision, under NAFTA's labor side-agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, held that the Mexican government had allowed extensive violations of normal legal procedures in order to deny the independent union the right to represent workers.

The continuation of attacks on the union since then led Bonior to charge this spring that "the NAFTA process is completely inadequate to deal with the latent violations of workers' rights." The Han Young case, he said, "shows it's virtually impossible to form independent unions in the maquiladora border area in Mexico. We need to fix NAFTA so that workers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada are protected as much as intellectual property rights."

As the conflict escalates, it is becoming the spark for political changes in Tijuana. Last summer, after the suppression of the Han Young strike, PRD candidates campaigned for the votes of maquiladora workers. The party called for raising factory wages, for child care for the mostly-female workforce, and for free transportation to and from work. It also demanded basic city services in the barrios, including housing, water, electricity, paved streets and sewers.

PRD support increased dramatically. While the party won only 10,000 votes in Tijuana in 1992 and1995, on June 28 last year it received 25,800, or 9.5% of the total votes cast. Previously that would have entitled the party to 3 seats on the city council, but a recent electoral reform sponsored by the city's ruling National Action Party denied the PRD any of the council's 14 seats.

Mexico's national elections are a year away, however, and growth in PRD support is an open threat to the political establishment which has protected maquiladora investment.

After the strike resumed May 3, PRD leaders issued a statement holding the conservative PAN state government responsible for any moves to suppress it, and demanded that it respect the right of workers to form independent unions.

Both the Han Young strike and the election effectively increased the popularity of the independent October 6 union. Last year workers at the factory of Pennsylvania-based Axiohm Transaction Solutions Corp. also asked the independent union for help. The plant makes printer heads for bank ATM and Lotto ticket machines.

Inocencia Hernandez, a supervisor at the factory for 11 years, says that she and five coworkers were fired after asking for wage raises. "A lawyer in the human relations department called me in," she said, "and told me the company didn't need my services any longer. A policeman escorted me out of the plant, pointing a gun at my head. We were accused of planning to assassinate the plant manager and burn the factory."

Mark Basla, Axiohm's director of corporate communications, wouldn't comment on the allegations, and stated that "Axiohm is an ethical company in its relations with all its employees."

After the firings, the independent union then filed a notice of its intent to strike Axiohm with the city's labor board. So far, the board has refused to recognize October 6 as the workers' union.

Last fall Mexico's new national independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers, organized a chapter in Baja California. Enrique Hernandez became one of the group's three presidents. The local federation has a combined membership of over 25, 000 workers, and is jointly sponsoring the campaign for a daily wage of 100 pesos. Current maquiladora wages average between 50 and 75 pesos daily, according to the union.

These developments threaten increased labor costs for U.S.- and other foreign-owned factories along the border. "We are rejecting government policies which use low wages to attract foreign investment," Hernandez said.

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