Hunger On The Border
oday the U.S./Mexico border
is the subject of intense political controversy. Most of the fireworks
focuses, however, on the idea that more enforcement can keep people
from crossing it. Lost in this hysteria is the reality that the
border is a huge place, where millions of people live and work.
Not only that, but free trade policies hold down living standards
and prevent union and community organizing. That, in turn, produces
pressure on people to seek a better standard of living elsewhere.
To explore the real conditions for border workers, I interviewed
Julia Quiñones, coordinator of the Border Committee of Women
Workers, the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, with offices in
Piedras Negras, Mexico.
BACON: In Spanish, the name of the border committee uses the
word “obreras,” which means women workers. Why?
QUIÑONES: The Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) is an
organization of rank and file women, led by women and men who work
in the maquiladoras. The organization was born out of the particular
needs of young women who work in the factories. In the beginning
the industry was especially interested in employing women and, even
though this situation has changed over time, we continue to maintain
a focus on their experiences. We look for a greater level of participation
by women inside their unions and at all levels of leadership.
What does the Comité do?
The CFO is working in three Mexican states—Tamaulipas, Coahuila,
and Chihuahua. Our purpose is to educate and organize workers around
their labor rights. We try to engage workers in learning and talking
about the impact of free trade and we focus on violence against
women. We have a program to build economic self-sufficiency and
we’ve created our own maquiladora, making products and giving
employment to women.
What are the effects of free trade and the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in your section of the border?
Maquiladoras arrived in our region over 40 years ago. With the advent
of NAFTA 11 years ago, the working conditions in the maquiladoras
got much worse. Even those plants, which over the years had achieved
better benefits and wages, began to move south into the interior
of Mexico where the salaries were much lower and the conditions
What about the plants that have remained on the border? Have
salaries gone up in the years that NAFTA has been in effect?
The problem of unemployment wasn’t resolved at all. Salaries
have not gotten better. They’re completely insufficient for
anybody to live on. Workers continue to live in extreme poverty
and many people still arrive in the border region looking for work.
The cities are overloaded and don’t provide basic services
or infrastructure. Look at Ciudad Acuña. It’s a disgrace.
There are large transnationals, such as Alcoa and Delphi, operating
there, yet workers have to build their houses out of cardboard or
materials taken from the factories.
What is an average maquiladora factory wage?
The average salary for a maquiladora worker is $45 a week. This
allows workers to buy pasta, beans, rice, potatoes, maybe oil—just
the basic things to eat. They can’t buy cereals. They buy milk
on rare occasions if there are children. No meat.
In a Mexican supermarket on the border, how much does milk cost?
There is a mistaken idea that just because we live in Mexico all
the products we buy are cheaper. In reality the basic food we buy
is more expensive on the Mexican side. If you go over to the U.S.
side, a gallon of milk will cost about $2.50, or 27 Mexican pesos.
On our side of the border, in Piedras Negras, it would be 45 pesos
or about $4.50—twice as expensive. It’s always the case
that in any family two or three people have to work to provide for
basic necessities. If there’s just one family member working,
other members have to supplement this income by selling things like
beauty products. Often people cross the border to sell their blood.
What are the conditions in the neighborhoods where workers live?
It really is a shock, even to workers who come up from the countryside
because they are used to living in houses that are bigger, that
have patios, that have space. When they arrive, they see there are
very few options for workers here. Perhaps the lucky ones can acquire
a house through the Mexican housing program, INFONAVIT. But if they
do so they’re really in debt to the Mexican government for
the rest of their lives. Otherwise, workers are forced to build
their own houses out of whatever materials they can find, in places
that are completely inappropriate—along the sides of cliffs
or in areas prone to flooding, like stream beds.
What about basic services, like sewers, running water and electricity?
Are the municipal authorities providing those services?
In some of the neighborhoods there are such services. For example,
in houses built by INFONAVIT, the government provides electricity.
The problem there is that the bills are very high. A monthly electricity
bill might get up to 450 pesos, or $45, and a water bill 150 pesos
per month, or $15. And the water is not drinkable. In other neighborhoods,
where people squat and build their houses the best they can, the
government doesn’t provide services. People are reduced often
to robbing power from electrical lines. When you go into people’s
houses, you can see the wires running along the ground where kids
are walking and playing.
Are there unions in the factories?
On the border you have to understand there are many different situations.
In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, for example, the most common arrangements
are known as protection contracts. These are union contracts that
the workers don’t know anything about, but which protect the
company instead. In Tamaulipas or Coahuila most of the maquiladoras
have unions, but these are called “charro” unions because
they are unresponsive and corrupt and don’t support the workers.
In Ciudad Acuña, unions are prohibited.
The Border Committee was very active helping workers at the Alcoa
Fujikura plant in Piedras Negras to improve their conditions and
form an independent union. What happened to them?
At Alcoa in Piedras Negras there was a “charro” union
there that belonged to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).
It was not responsive to workers so they tried to take control
of their own collective bargaining in order to improve their salaries
and their benefits. These workers won election to leadership positions
on the plant level, but then found that everything they tried to
do was undone by higher leaders of the union who made secret agreements
with the company.
So they formed an independent union and left the old one. Under
Mexican law, they had to get their union registered by the government.
They filed the paperwork with the local Conciliation and Arbitration
Board, but the agency denied the registration. This case is still
not resolved. After appealing within the Mexican legal system, they
filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, accusing
the Mexican government of failing to guarantee its citizens the
right of freedom of association.
What happened to the workers involved in that effort?
Some of the leaders were fired, but others continued organizing.
That’s really the key to maintaining a movement with an organized
rank-and-file base. When the company fires some leaders, other leaders
emerge and keep going. Today there are hundreds of workers involved
in this movement.
they went through is a logical evolution and you can see it develop
in many factories. First workers begin to make changes in their
individual lives and in their individual conflicts. They begin to
organize and act together along the same assembly line, and then
at a plant-wide level. Ultimately, because they want more say and
control, they try to find a union structure that represents them.
The story you’re telling is very similar to many others.
At Sony, in Nuevo Laredo, people were beaten up in front of the
factory. It happened at Custom and Auto Trim at the Han Young plant
in Tijuana, and at the Duro Bag Company in Rio Bravo. But NAFTA
had a labor side agreement that was supposed to guarantee labor
rights in Mexico so that this wouldn’t take place. What about
The labor side agreement supposedly protects the principle of freedom
of association. But complaints are filed and after a long process,
the only thing that comes is a recommendation, which never translates
into actual enforcement. It’s not an effective guarantee of
Is there any form of labor protection that can be incorporated
into agreements like NAFTA that would guarantee workers rights?
Or do you think that workers have to guarantee their labor rights
in some other way?
I think both are possible. NAFTA could be renegotiated to include
effective and obligatory measures to enforce workers’ rights.
Holding transnational corporations accountable for complying with
the law would be helpful to workers. At the same time, even if you
have such protections as part of trade agreements, organizing workers
at the grassroots level, forming workers’ organizations, is
vital. Otherwise, we can’t enforce any rights recognized by
What about support from unions on the other side of the border?
We’ve been creating alliances with some U.S. labor unions because
we’re working for the same companies and we need to connect
our struggles across the border. At the same time, we want these
relationships to respect the autonomy of our organizing style and
work. Right now, what’s most important to us is developing
a greater level of commitment to Mexican workers among U.S. unions.
What about the Mexican labor movement? Is it going to become
more effective and responsive to border workers?
I think so. Ultimately we want an independent labor movement in
the maquiladoras. Genuine unionism is the best hope for our families
and our future. We’ve been able to build important alliances
with other unions and movements within Mexico. We share common objectives
with unions like the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), and with the independent
union called Alcoa Puebla. This union was formed at the Alcoa factory
in Puebla, with the help of the independent union at the Volkswagen
plant there. Some groups of miners are part of this network also.
We also have an agreement with the National Union of Workers, Mexico’s
large, new progressive labor federation.
What can workers in the U.S. do to be part of this?
The first thing workers can do is organize and fight for their own
jobs where they are. This is the first step towards building international
solidarity. For the companies, there are no borders anymore or barriers
to the movement of capital. We need to take a lesson from their
mentality and build the same borderless solidarity and support for
one another. If workers in the U.S. understand that Mexican workers
face huge economic difficulties when they try to organize themselves,
they can contribute economic support. Mexican organizations don’t
have the same capacity as organizations in the United States.
Supporting Mexican workers in the United States is important too.
The effort of Mexican and other immigrant workers to legalize their
status is connected to our rights as workers in Mexico. If workers
in the U.S. can’t exercise fully their rights, it brings everybody
down. Ultimately, the economic level of everybody has to come up.
Corporations are very good at looking around the world to see where
conditions are the worst and move to that place. If we can help
each other come up, they won’t be able to do that.
Bacon is a long-time activist and a freelance writer and photographer.