David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Hellraiser - Martha Ojeda
by David Bacon

SAN ANTONIO, TX (7/11/00) -- Martha Ojeda is a leader of a unique movement of union, community and religious activists, who are creating a new kind of cross-border solidarity, an answer from below to the globalization of the world's economy.

As executive director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Ojeda has organized thousands of maquiladora workers in some of the poorest barrios in Mexico, a stone's throw from the U.S. border. Challenging the maquiladora border bosses, she takes on some of the world's biggest corporations, running some of Mexico's most miserable sweatshops.

Many of them don't take Mexicans seriously as anything other than cheap labor, especially Mexican women. Ojeda blows away their submissive stereotypes, however, speaking in a staccato mixture of Spanish and English, punching the air with her fists to punctuate her sentences.

She has a cynical side that sees that justice is hard to come by on the border. But Ojeda's idealism keeps the difficulties of her job from intimidating her. "Here I can fight for the dreams of my people," she explains, "for freedom, for a better living standard, for democracy and our rights."

For the last decade, border workers have turned to the 150 Mexican, Canadian and U.S. organizations under the Coalition's umbrella for support. According to University of California professor Harley Shaiken, "the productivity of maquiladoras rivals plants in the U.S., but they combine first world quality with third world wages, right next to the U.S. market. While that's a very powerful incentive to companies to build factories, the Mexican government has created an investment climate which depends on a vast number of low wage-earners."

Ojeda knows well the difficulty of challenging that pro-investment climate. She wears the scars of the labor war at Sony Corp.'s plant in Ciudad Laredo, a border city across from Texas. There workers' efforts to raise wages were met with probably the most violent response in a decade of rebellions in the border plants.

Martha Ojeda started worked at Sony's Ciudad Laredo plant when it opened in 1979, with only 25 employees. She became well-known as a leader in her factory battling for better conditions.

Like most of the 1,000,000 workers who now labor in the 2000 maquiladoras, Sony employees had a union, a local of the Confederation of Mexican Workers. But they found their union was controlled from Mexico City by officials in league with the government's low-wage policy. In 1992 Ojeda's coworkers nominated her for union president, and they were all promptly fired.

Mexico City officials declared her opponent the winner in a fraudulent election at the plant. For three days, outraged workers blocked the gates. Finally, hundreds of Sony guards and local police beat them and dispersed the protest. Ojeda fled to San Antonio, Texas, where she lived in exile for two years before Mexico admitted her right to return home.

The Sony case became one of the first filed under NAFTA's labor side-agreement. The Mexican and U.S. governments agreed workers' rights had been violated, but nothing changed on the ground. "The NAFTA process favors investment, but it's unable and unwilling to protect workers rights," she concluded bitterly.

After the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras spearheaded the legal case against Sony, Ojeda became the first Mexican to head the organization. Coalition members wanted to emphasize the leadership of Mexican activists in an organization dedicated to crossing the border to increase workers' clout.

In 1997, she helped the Border Women Workers Committee (CFO), a Coalition member, to begin organizing Alcoa Fujikura's 13,250 workers at its plant in Ciudad Acuņa. There the workforce, mostly women, accused the company of hiding a series of gas releases which made many of them sick.

Ojeda and CFO took a delegation of workers to Alcoa's annual stockholders meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While the company might have ignored a group of workers and activists, they couldn't ignore another Coalition member Ojeda brought with them - the Interfaith Committee for Corporate Responsibility. Grouping together religious orders with millions of dollars invested in stocks, the Committee specializes in shareholder actions to promote social justice.

At the meeting Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill at first insisted that "you can eat off the floors of these plants." But the groups won a commitment to investigate conditions. At its conclusion the company agreed that a series of gas poisonings had gone unreported in 1994, and fired Alcoa Fujikura's president, Robert Barton.

Today, Ojeda is helping workers at the U.S.-owned Duro Bag Co. to organize an independent union and resist a wave of retaliatory firings. Working especially closely with U.S. unions, Ojeda is helping labor on both sides of the border to learn new ways to organize workers and challenge employers, in an era when companies can move jobs and capital across borders as though they no longer exist.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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