Duro Bag Workers


In
June 2000, 400 workers at Duro Bag Company in Rio Bravo Tamaulipas,
Mexico went on strike for higher salaries, better working
conditions, and the right to form their own union. Duro is
a private company headquartered in Ludlow, Kentucky and owned
by the Shor family, with Charles Shor as its CEO. Workers
in the Rio Bravo plant put in a 48 hour week and earn less
than $4.00 a day (around $40.00 a week) assembling gift bags
for Duro’s customers, who include big corporations like
Hallmark and Neiman Marcus. Duro is one of roughly 3,000 maquiladoras,
or assembly for export factories, on Mexico’s northern
border. Although the gendered division of labor varies by
industry, the majority of unskilled light assembly workers
are still women, and this is true at Duro as well.
Rio
Bravo is a small eastern border city, between Reynosa and
Matamoros, across the bridge from the Texan cities of Pharr
and McAllen. The economy here is as bad as in other Mexican
border towns. Jobs are sparse in the few retail outlets and
in the dwindling agricultural sector. Local people say that
probably a third of the men and women cross to the other side
in search of work. Women find work as domestics. Men leave
to work in fields as far away as Indiana, Maryland, and New
York. But most people look for jobs in one of the few maquilas
in town or in Reynosa. The maquilas didn’t move in to
Rio Bravo until the 1980s and there are still only a handful
here. Valeo, where workers assemble automotive parts, is the
town’s largest. At Kern-Liebers, known locally as “Resortes,”
they make springs for seatbelts. At the small Magnolia factory,
they assemble bows that are then transported to a maquila
in Reynosa to be sewn onto women’s underwear. Euromarmol
does tiles, sinks, and bathtubs. SGI workers put together
cardboard advertising signs for products like Sprint, Marlboro
cigarettes, and Viagra.


With a workforce of about 600, Duro is the third largest employer
in the area and it has a reputation for paying the lowest
salaries. According to Silvia Martinez, a former Duro worker,
“When you tell people in Rio Bravo that you work at Duro
the response is always, ‘Too bad.’ Because of the
salaries and bad working conditions it is the last resort.
You can’t talk on the assembly lines or go to the bathroom
when you need to, and now after the strike it is worse.”


There is a union at Duro. For years, the company has had a
protection contract with the Mexico City-based national union
of the Paper, Cardboard and Cellulose Union, which is part
of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), still Mexico’s
largest “official” union. Since the 1940s the CTM
has been a key actor in the country’s ruling bureaucracy.
Especially in the maquilas in the north, the CTM has worked
closely with the federal and state governments to guarantee
labor peace. Generally the company buys union protection through
a collective agreement that shields them against any attempt
by the workers to establish an authentic collective contract.


In April 2000 the national CTM paper industry union initiated
negotiations for a new collective labor agreement in Duro
and the workers elected an executive committee to represent
them. Inside the plant many workers had faced mistreatment,
abuse, and insults from the supervisors as well as serious
health problems from the glues they handled. Some people lost
fingers in machinery because of fast production and little
protection. In the new contract negotiations workers were
asking for a wage increase from 48-63 pesos per day (around
US$50.00 dollars a week) and improvements in working conditions,
including safety equipment, fans or air conditioning, chairs
in decent condition, fumigation of the building, and food
free of insects. But the CTM national union signed the new
contract without taking into consideration any of these demands.


After the company fired the newly elected executive committee,
workers held a work stoppage. They demonstrated all over town
denouncing the violations of their rights and asking for community
support. They approached the tri-national Coalition for Justice
in the Maquiladoras for help and generated interest from national
and international media. There were immediate local results.
When the company failed to honor its agreement that the fired
workers would be reinstated, the second shift went on strike.
Violence was unleashed when a company bus headed for three
workers, one of them pregnant, and police held guns to workers’
heads. Workers camped outside the plant in protest. On June
19, 2000 local police armed with machine guns entered the
campground and began beating workers. Over a dozen people
were arrested and many others brutally beaten. In an effort
to pressure public officials to release those who had been
arrested, the striking workers moved their permanent demonstration
to the plaza in Rio Bravo’s center where they remained
every day for ten months.


On August 14 of that year an international group of 300 activists,
union leaders, and workers held a Public Forum for Freedom
of Association in Reynosa to condemn the corrupt local government.
As a result, the impossible took place: the government agreed
to allow the registration for the independent Workers’
Union of the Duro Company of Rio Bravo. The Duro Workers’
Union was the first independent union to be registered in
the state of Tamaulipas and it was aiming to be one of the
first independent unions in the history of Mexico to go to
an election.
In
the coming months, the company, the official (CTM) union,
and the government unleashed a series of repressive actions,
dirty tricks, and intimidations. Workers who had taken active
roles in organizing for the new contract negotiations were
threatened. The house of one of the Duro Union leaders was
robbed of important documents and later burned down; his dog
was poisoned. Striking workers received telegrams telling
them they must report to work with a proof of illness (without
it they would be fired). The Duro manager circulated a list
of troublemakers who should not be hired in any other plants
in the area.


Getting the registration inaugurated a long series of bureaucratic
hurdles. Just scheduling the election required months of persistence
and protest through delays and excuses. In December 2000 Duro
Union members who attended a hearing at the federal labor
board in Mexico City were surprised to see members from another
union, the CROC (Revolu- tionaria de Obreros y Campe- sinos),
who said they were there to represent the Duro workers. The
CROC has a reputation as a corrupt union that sells protection
contracts. In the north they are only well known on the west
coast in the Tijuana area where they used their gangster-style
practices during the Han Young strike in 1997-98. Until they
showed up at this hearing, they had had nothing to do with
Duro.


Eventually the election was set for March 2, 2001. The CROC
was included on the ballot along with the CTM and the Duro
Workers’ Union, but on the day of the election the CTM
withdrew. Clearly they had no worries about the CROC coming
in. Why? According to Martha Ojeda, executive director of
the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, “Formerly,
the CTM with its ties to the PRI was the official union in
control. The CROC was simply another charro union. Now they
are entering the scene and using practices that exceed the
corruption of the CTM.” Historically the state of Tamaulipas
was the kingdom of the CTM and Tijuana was the CROC’s
territory. According to Ojeda, in 1998 at Han Young the CROC
asked the CTM to enter the election as the third party that
would divide the vote, but even so, the independent union,
the Frente Autentico de los Trabajadores (FAT), won. “Under
the PAN government,” she adds, “I think we are beginning
to see the new face of neo-liberal unionism in Mexico, it
looks like the CROC is a new player, and its gangster-style
tactics are becoming ‘acceptable’.”


The week before the Duro election, a team of hired gangsters
descended on Rio Bravo. They pursued the striking Duro Union
workers who were trying to distribute leaflets during the
shift changes, threatening them and chasing them across the
fields. They followed union supporters in trucks and maintained
radio contact with the police. They removed  posters
from public spaces within hours after they were put up. Local
police collaborated with the thugs, arresting the organizers
and refusing to accept their complaints of violence and intimidation.
In the
days before the election, intimidation inside the plant intensified.
Management told workers that if they voted for the independent
union they would be fired. They told them if this union won
the plant would close. Management also announced that a wage
increase would show up in pay envelopes the morning of the
election plus an additional 10 percent raise for higher seniority
workers if they did not vote for the independent union.


The day of the election organizers from the Duro Union arrived
before dawn to greet the departing second shift and the arriving
first shift. But the second shift workers never appeared.
Throughout the day family members came looking for daughters
and wives who had never returned from their night’s work.
A worker from the first shift later said, “When I showed
up for work on Friday all the workers from the second and
third shift were still there…. Our fellow workers told us
that they played loud music all night and nobody was working.
I saw many of my (female) co-workers, most from the second
shift, who were feeling bad, and they just gave them a cotton
ball with alcohol to smell.”


The six workers and three lawyers from the Duro Workers’
Union who were allowed inside the plant to observe the election
reported massive fraud and intimidation. There was no secret
ballot. The CROC’s hired thugs lined the halls and escorted
workers through a gauntlet to speak their vote in front of
a table of managers. Some were given a piece of paper with
a number on it and told to submit this as their vote. The
observers reported they could hear people shouting, “Let
us go,” before blasting music was turned on that would
play throughout the “election.” The doors were blocked
with metal sheeting, the windows papered over. Observers were
kept in cubicles so they could not communicate with one another
and their objections to fraudulent voting were ignored. Results
were announced late in the day; 502 workers were qualified
to vote. Many of them arrived outside the plant in the morning,
but were not allowed to enter. Nonetheless, the company reported
498 voted for the CROC and four for the Duro Workers’
Union. Throughout the spring of 2001 some of the fired Duro
workers filed claims and negotiated settlements with the company.
Others traveled to Mexico City to protest the fraudulent election
in hearings with the federal labor board that were continually
re-scheduled. Finally in July the labor board ruled in favor
of the CROC as the official winner of the election, despite
protests and counter evidence from the Duro workers. The workers
appealed this decision. As long as the appeal process was
underway, no union could hold the contract. So in the face
of this roadblock, the CROC resorted to hijacking the Duro
Workers’ Union.


Quite by accident, the workers’ lawyers uncovered a document
supposedly signed by the new Secretary General of the Independent
Union of Duro Workers stating that the resolution of the election
was correct and that the election had been normal with no
irregularities. It also appeared that on May 8, 2001 the Secretary
General of the Tamaulipas state labor board had accepted and
registered the application for a new group to be recognized
as the executive committee of the Independent Union of Duro
Workers. In other words, with the complicity of the government’s
labor board, the CROC stole the registration. With papers
on file that effectively handed over their union to the CROC,
the Duro workers’ appeal of the fraudulent election would
have to be thrown out. In fact, the “new” executive
committee asked that this appeal be dismissed.


The fired Duro workers are still navigating a maze of legal
obstacles to get their severance pay and back salary. If their
experience has taught them to be cynical about what legal
channels can accomplish, it has also opened avenues some never
imagined. For the committed core group are no longer workers,
they have become organizers. “We are not losers, we are
winners,” one worker exclaimed immediately after the
election results were announced; “we won because we won
our dignity.”


But they also won much more. Over the past year they formed
an organization, DUROO (Democracia, Unidad, Respeto a la Organizacion
Obrera/Democracy, Unity, Respect for the Organization of Workers).
They are building a Workers’ Center. They are collaborating
with other groups along the border, having learned that their
struggle is not isolated. Some women who had never spoken
up before have gathered the “coraje” to speak out
not only for their cause but for all maquila workers.


In December 2000 a group of striking Duro workers intercepted
Vicente Fox during his tour of Tamaulipas and asked for his
support. He took their phone number and said he would be in
touch. They are still waiting for his call.


On March 19, 2001 the Duro workers traveled to Mexico City
to meet with the Zapatistas. This historic encounter between
maquiladora workers from the north and the campesinos from
the south who rose up the same day NAFTA was initiated acknowledged
that in Mexico organized struggle against neo-liberalism is
moving on many levels.
Over
the past two years the Duro organizers have developed long
and short-term goals. They now strategize their fights with
local officials and the company within a broader, international
movement for social justice. They have begun the process of
bringing the hijacking of their union registration to international
attention by filing a complaint under the NAFTA side agreements
(the North American Agreements on Labor Cooperation) with
the National Administrative Office in Washington, DC on the
issue of freedom of association.


The Duro workers know an international complaint may not win
them any material compensation. But they have decided it is
a risk worth taking anyway. It could offer a platform for
bringing the other 24 cases filed under NAFTA’s side
agreements into public view and add another specific example
of labor rights violations to arguments against the Free Trade
Area of the Americas now being secretly negotiated. Current
drafts of the FTAA do not even mention workers’ rights
and have no binding provisions on labor standards. The negotiations
include no study group on labor issues. The Duro workers’
struggle, like the other cases already filed under NAFTA,
offers proof of free trade’s high human price, proof
that NAFTA’s extension throughout the hemisphere must
be blocked. Entering the Duro workers’ case into the
debates can help shine the light of public attention on the
roll back of workers’ rights and the new gangster-style
tactics against workers that are already paving the way for
the FTAA in Mexico.


Rosemary
Hennessy teaches at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is
working on various projects with organizers on the northern
Mexican border.