MAQUILADORA WORKERS ELECT THEIR FIRST INDEPENDENT UNION


 

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (11/25/97) — Beating off a last-minute attempt to destabilize
the election process, employees of the Tijuana factory of Han Young de Mexico on October 6
became the first maquiladora workers on the U.S./Mexico border to vote in favor of an
independent union. In the traditional open voting system used by the Mexican labor board,
(the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board – CAB), 55 workers publicly declared
their support for the Metal, Steel and Allied Workers Union (STIMAHCS) of the Authentic
Labor Front (FAT), Mexico’s most independent labor federation, while 32 favored the
existing company union.

"This is the beginning of the independent labor movement in Tijuana,"
declared Jose Angel Peñaflor Barron, a local attorney who acted as FAT’s lawyer during
the proceedings. "This is the beachhead for democratic unions on the border."

Since the election, however, the Mexican labor board has invalidated the election
results, and workers from the factory have organized a hunger strike in protest. FAT has
charged that the Mexican government with turning the legal process inside out "in a
desperate search for a pretext to invalidate the election," according to Peñaflor.

Company and government irregularities surrounding the vote led to a formal complaint in
the United States under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade
Agreement. It was filed October 30 with Irasema Garza, secretary of the U.S. Labor
Department’s National Administrative Office, which is responsible for investigating
allegations of the violation of labor laws in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The complaint alleges collusion between Mexican labor board officials and Han Young
company management. During the election, it states, the labor board illegally allowed
company supervisors to vote, as well as other workers hired long after the cutoff date for
voting eligibility. Additionally, CAB officials didn’t require identification from many of
these workers.

Since the election, four workers who supported the independent union have been fired.
They charge that while the government throws up legal obstacles, the company is packing
the factory with dozens of new workers who oppose their efforts.

These irregularities "send a clear message to the Han Young workers that CAB
officials do not want to allow the independent union its rights to collective bargaining
with Han Young," said Mary Tong, executive director of the San Diego-based Support
Committee for Maquiladora Workers in an accompanying letter to Garza.

The San Diego committee filed the complaint with the support of the AFL-CIO.

Although the October 6 election was scheduled to begin at noon in the tiny offices of
the CAB in a dilapidated building in downtown Tijuana, by 11:00 dozens of workers had
already formed a long line in front of the door to the conference room where voting was to
take place. Over half of those present were wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the FAT
union’s logo. Fearing the company wouldn’t release them to vote, the Han Young workers had
stopped work that morning, and had traveled to the labor board office as a group.

As the procedure finally began, they trooped into the room, one by one, and presented
themselves at a table, behind which sat CAB secretaries and officials. Each was asked for
a photo ID, and then another identification paper documenting their employee status at Han
Young. Finally they were asked the question – which union did they prefer?

A packed crowd of representatives of both the FAT and the existing company union, the
Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers (CROC), surrounded the workers
listening intently.

Numerous observers from U.S. churches and unions jammed into the small room as well.
Their delegation had been assembled by the San Diego-based Support Committee for
Maquiladora Workers, to ensure a fair and clean election.

As secretaries typed furiously, each worker openly declared their choice. When the
waiting line of workers had been exhausted, 52 had voted for the FAT, and only 7 for the
company union.

As the process ended, angry shouts broke out from the waiting area outside. A heated
confrontation erupted, as a new group presented themselves to vote. To the outrage of Han
Young workers, they recognized their supervisors, and saw others they had never seen in
the plant before.

The labor board representatives reopened the election procedure. After police were
called, the new group was escorted into the conference room, and began voting. Many had no
papers identifying themselves as Han Young employees. Some didn’t remember the name of the
company where they supposedly worked, until reminded by others.

At least one was not asked for an ID at all. Another admitted that he had gone to work
in the factory just days before. Still another, Manuel Uribe Vasquez, admitted after
voting that he was a foreman, and therefore ineligible to vote under Mexican law.

As this group voted, angry Han Young workers outside chanted "Fraud, Fraud."
In the end, however, the votes of the second group proved insufficient to defeat the FAT,
and the total stood at 55 for the FAT, and 32 for the CROC.

If workers can eventually force the government to recognize these results, the FAT will
take over the existing contract of the company union at Han Young, becoming the workers’
representative and the first independent union at a factory on the border.

Three days after the vote, however, on October 9, the labor board opened a hearing to
determine the eligibility of challenged voters. FAT questioned the eligibility of 25
votes, including supervisors and workers hired only days before, and the CROC questioned
two votes. The challenged votes are clearly not sufficient to overturn the FAT victory.

Then, on November 10, the CAB invalidated the election results. It ruled that the FAT
affiliate on the ballot, STIMAHCS, a union for metal workers, could not represent workers
making truck trailers or auto parts. STIMAHCS, however, represents auto parts workers in
other parts of Mexico, and is registered with the government as a national industrial
union.

The labor board also held that the election was not binding in any case, and only
demonstrated the sentiment of the workers at the time it was held. Aside from invalidating
the entire legal process, the ruling seems to support the workers’ concern that Han Young
management intends to pack the plant with employees selected for their opposition to the
independent union effort.

Enrique Hernandez, coordinator of Tijuana’s Community Union for the Defense of Labor,
which has been assisting the Han Young workers, called the labor board’s rationale a
"ridiculous explanation for a travesty of justice." In response, on November 20,
four workers began a hunger strike outside of the offices of the Baja California state
government.

The board’s impartiality has been in question all through the election process. A week
before the vote, the company union met with the governor of Baja California, Hector Teran
Teran, the Thursday before the election. The governor then forced the resignation of the
CAB chief in Tijuana, Antonio Ortiz. Tijuana newspapers quoted sources inside the labor
board, saying that Ortiz was punished for allowing the election to take place at all.

During the voting, the board’s previous chief, Jose Mandujano, showed up representing
Han Young. For many years, he was the lawyer for the Maquiladora Association, an
organization of factory owners. The October 6 election was administered by his protege,
Carlos Perez Astorga, who denied that any voting irregularities had occurred.

The Mexican government is very nervous about the Han Young fight because the company is
a feeder factory for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing complex, one of largest in
Tijuana’s vast industrial network. It builds chassis for truck trailers and huge metal
shipping containers, which are then finished in the main Hyundai plant. According to
workers, Han Young turns out 26 chassis a day, each selling for $1800 (US). On September
3, a state government representative ordered all TV stations in Tijuana to stop covering
the Han Young situation.

The October 6 election capped a long organizing effort by employees dissatisfied with
poor working conditions and low wages. "The company doesn’t give us gloves, jackets,
or other safety equipment, and there’s no ventilation" explained Armando Hernandez
Roman, a welder with three years in the plant. "I make 54 pesos a day (US $5.50), and
there are no raises to compensate for the rising inflation." Prices have more than
doubled for basic groceries in Mexico in the last three years.

Han Young de Mexico has had a company union contract with the CROC since its factory
opened five years ago. According to Peñaflor, "it is the kind of protection contract
maquiladora owners sign to ensure labor peace." Han Young workers say CROC
representatives never called meetings, or came to the factory to help with their problems.

Last spring, employees contacted the workers’ center in the Tijuana barrio of Maclovio
Rojas. For nine years, Hyundai has been attempting to take this community’s land to expand
its factory and develop industrial parks. When residents refused to abandon their homes,
three barrio leaders were arrested, spending months in prison.

Activists in Maclovio Rojas, assisted by the San Diego committee, started their
workers’ center last year to support a wave of labor unrest sweeping through Hyundai
factories. The company has subcontracted out its most troublesome operations to plants
like Han Young. At one contract plant, Daewon, 16 workers were fired in industrial unrest
in July of 1996. At another, Laymex, 91 workers walked out the following month.

With the center’s help, Han Young workers elected an organizing committee, and went on
strike for two days last June. While calling for immediate improvements, they also
demanded that company managers recognize and bargain with their own elected
representatives, rather than with CROC.

Faced with a costly halt in production, the factory’s managers acceded to the demands.
According to Enrique Hernandez, president of the Popular Alliance, another workers’
support organization in Tijuana, maquiladora owners have became worried that the
independent union effort might spread. "If workers succeed here, the formation of
independent unions could sweep like a wave through the city’s factories, where conditions
are much like those at Han Young," Hernandez said. "That would increase pressure
to raise workers’ poverty wages."

Following the strike, Han Young hired a personnel director, Luis Manuel Escobedo
Jimenez, who fired eight strike leaders before the election. One leader, Emeterio Armenta,
accuses him of being "an expert in psychological warfare." U.S. unions are
familiar with anti-union consultants like Escobedo, but they have rarely been used in
Mexico.

Company pressure on workers escalated. According to Armando Hernandez, Ho Young Lee,
his supervisor, called him into a private meeting at the beginning of September. "He
offered me a raise of 6 pesos a day (85¢), and told me that if I didn’t accept it, and
stop the effort to organize an independent union, I’d lose my job." Hernandez refused
and was fired.

Other workers report that plant manager Won Young Kang called a meeting at lunchtime on
September 25, in which he told them that the factory would close if they voted for the
independent union. "It’s not possible that the company would close," Won said,
denying the charge. "The company doesn’t favor any union."

A week after the election, Mary Tong of the San Diego committee was informed by Gerardo
Delgado Cruz, the regional representative of the National Immigration Institute, that she
could no longer attend any legal proceeding, press conference, or any other activity
viewed by the government as political while in Tijuana. "He told me that if I showed
up at any event like this, even if I didn’t say anything, I would be deported," Tong
says. "That would clearly cover the union election, for instance, as well as the
hearings to get the results certified."

Tong said Delgado referred to the presence of 18 representatives of U.S. community and
labor organizations during the Han Young election, who went to Tijuana at the urging of
the San Diego committee to act as observers. Delgado admitted that a government
photographer had taken photos of all of them, and forwarded them to the Interior
Secretariat in Mexico City.

"Delgado told me that, in the view of the government, the observers were engaged
in illegal activity just by their presence at the election," Tong said.

FAT’s general secretary, Benedicto Martinez, said the presence of observers shined a
light of publicity on the election process. "I’m glad they were here. They call them
outsiders, but there are times when people need outside support." he said.

Outside help also came from the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Federation
representative Ed Feigan contacted the union for Hyundai employees in Korea, the Korean
Confederation of Trade Unions, which wrote a letter to Han Young warning against any
efforts to intimidate its workers.

Meanwhile, the Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Progressive Asset
Management, shareholder action groups, contacted the Korea Fund of Scudder, Stevens and
Clark, a major investment house, to pressure Hyundai.

On October 25, church groups and labor organizations in the U.S. began handing out
leaflets in front of Hyundai auto dealerships. The U.S. is Hyundai’s largest market for
cars. The activists protested Han Young’s efforts to invalidate the vote, and called on
the Hyundai Corp. to ensure that its contractor respect the results.

Tong points out that such cross-border actions benefit U.S. as well as Mexican workers.
"In a global economy, the jobs and livelihood of people north of the border can
depend on the outcome of the struggles of workers south of it, at factories like Han
Young," she says.

If FAT’s Tijuana victory is eventually upheld, it could influence Mexican labor and
economic policy nationally. The FAT’s Martinez was instrumental in forming a new labor
federation in Mexico City, the National Federation of Workers, in September. Its
affiliated unions have announced their intention to break their relationship with Mexico’s
governing party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution. They say they will oppose
government policies of using low wages as an attraction for foreign investment, especially
in the maquiladora sector. "This election will lead them to pay more attention to
workers on the border," he concludes.