The Fruits Of NAFTA

David Bacon

Torreon, Coahuila,
is a dusty city in Mexico’s northeast desert. For decades, its workers labored
in the Peñoles smelter and the factories clustered around its mines and mills.
Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas—all states along the border—were the
heart of Mexico’s heavy industry. Its workers were heavily-unionized, well known
for their militance.

Today most of
those mills are closed. In their wake, a wave of foreign-owned maquiladora
assembly plants has spread out across the desert. Militant unions have been
replaced by ones more amenable to the demands of investors from Wall Street or
Tokyo. The north’s wages, once Mexico’s pride, now hover slightly above, and
sometimes even dip below, the legal minimum.

But history and
tradition don’t die so easily. This spring, Torreon’s streets filled with women
chanting and shouting demands for a return to a standard of living capable of
providing something better than cardboard houses and communities without sewers,
electricity, and running water. The city’s annual May Day parade witnessed over
2,000 women shouting “we won’t be quiet anymore” and “we want a decent life.”

Further north on
the border, in Ciudad Acuña, the power of the factory owners is palpable and
feared. Here women marched with bags over their heads to hide their identity,
presumably protecting themselves from firings and reataliations. But both in
Torreon and Acuña, to the embarrassment of city officials and leaders of the
conservative, government-affiliated unions, people along the parade routes heard
the chants, cheered, and even joined in.

“In our
communities, the whole family works,” says Betty Robles, one of the organizers
of the campaign for higher wages. “You see kids nine or ten years old bagging
groceries in supermarkets or washing cars on the corners. The daughter of one of
our activists was 13 when she went to work in the factory sewing pants and

The reason is
simple. SEDEPAC, the organization Robles helped start, did a survey this spring.
They found it takes 1,500 pesos a week to provide food, housing, and
transportation for a family of four. A normal maquiladora worker, however, makes
just 320-350 pesos. “We asked people, ‘how do you survive when there’s such a
huge gap?’ Many told us that two and three families share a couple of rooms,
pooling income to cover rent and basic needs.”

The income gap
seen by SEDEPAC organizers was extensively documented by the Center for
Reflection, Education and Action, a religious research group, in a study
cosponsored by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquila- doras and the
Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. CREA found that at the minimum
wage, it took a maquiladora worker in Juarez almost an hour to earn enough money
to buy a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice and a worker in Tijuana an hour and a half.
By comparison, a dockworker driving a container crane in the San Pedro harbor
could buy the rice after three minutes at work. Even an undocumented worker at
minimum wage only has to labor 12 minutes for it in LA.

It’s a recipe for
confrontation. All along the border this past year, from Matamoros on the Gulf
of Mexico to La Paz at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, economic
pressure is fueling a wave of industrial unrest sweeping through the factories.

It poses the most
serious challenge faced by the new Mexican administration of President Vicente
Fox, who defeated the country’s long-ruling Party of the Institutionalized
Revolution by promising greater democracy, employment, and a rising standard of
living. Instead, however, Mexico’s economy has hit the skids. An economic
downturn in the U.S.—the market for most of what the maquiladoras
produce—creates havoc in Mexico. Fox promised 1.4 million new jobs. But
economists estimate half a million workers have been laid off since he took
office. The omnipresent signs soliciting workers on factory gates in border
industrial parks have disappeared. And greater competition among workers for the
available jobs is pushing wages down.

Border workers
historically have tried to break that downward cycle by organizing independent
unions, free of control by a government that seeks to use their low wages to
attract foreign investors. Many hoped Fox would support the right to choose such
unions freely, discarding the old government-affiliated labor federations. “To
win votes, Fox made the famous ‘20 commitments,’ that included union democracy,”
says Hector de la Cueva, who directs Mexico City’s Center for Labor Research.
“But he’s made no effort to live up to the promise.”

One of the key
parts of that promise was a government commitment that workers would be allowed
to vote by secret ballot in union elections. Traditionally, because voting has
been public, the old official unions favored by maquiladora owners have been
able to identify supporters of the new independent ones. Following a string of
incidents in which independent union supporters in Tijuana and Mexico City were
threatened, fired and even beaten for their choices, Mexico promised to allow
voting by secret ballot instead.

That commitment
was put to the test this spring at the Duro Bag plant in Rio Bravo, just across
the river from Texas. And instead of creating an example of a new era of respect
for workers rights, Duro became the poster child for their abuse.

On the morning of
Friday, March 2, voting began inside the factory, where workers labor around the
clock cutting and gluing chichi paper bags for the U.S. gift market. On the
ballot were two unions—the independent Union of Duro Bag Workers organized over
the last year, and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants
(CROC), a union affiliated with Mexico’s former ruling party.

The stage was set
the day before, when observers outside the plant watched as automatic weapons
were unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. Then, the
following morning, workers from the swing and grave shifts were prevented from
going home as their shifts ended. Instead, they were held behind doors blocked
with metal sheets and the huge rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line.
A few observers from the independent union reported that they could hear cries
of “Let us out” until company managers began playing music at deafening volume
on the plant speaker system.

Then, observers
reported, workers from the arriving day shift were taken in small groups into
the room where voting was taking place. They were escorted by CROC organizers,
who handed them blue slips of paper on which the union’s local number was
printed. At the voting table, representatives of Mexico’s national labor board
asked each voter to declare aloud her or his choice. Both company foreperson and
government-affiliated union representatives wrote notes during the vote.

Only 502 workers
voted, in a workforce the company says numbers over 1,400. Of those, only 4
workers openly declared their support for the independent union, while 498 voted
for the CROC.

“While the Duro
election is clearly a tragic defeat for the workers and their efforts to win
better wages and conditions,” said Robin Alexander, director of international
relations for the U.S.- based United Electrical Workers, which supported the
independent union, “I hope the violations here were so blatant that they’ll
serve as a wake-up call.”

Throughout their
long effort to form an independent union, Duro workers had help from the north,
organized by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, based in San
Antonio, Texas—a group of unions, churches and community organizations in the
U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Help also came from Mexico’s new independent labor
federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City.

Mexican employers
and the government affiliated unions charged that U.S. unions were trying to
chase the company’s work back into its U.S. plants. Rick de la Cruz, a
vice-president of Local 6-314 of the U.S. Paper, Atomic, Chemical and Energy
Workers (which represents three Duro plants in the U.S.), visited Mexico with
fellow unionists from his Texas plant to support the independent union. He said
charges were ridiculous. “If that work leaves Mexico, it’s not coming back to
the U.S.—it’s going somewhere workers have even fewer rights,” he responded. “We
just think everyone should have human rights, and not just in Mexico—in the U.S.

Duro is just one
of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, employing over 1.2 million Mexican workers,
according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. If more of these workers
ran their own unions, negotiated their own contracts, and raised wages, it would
be very costly to the foreign owners. As a result, the Mexican employers’
association, COPARMEX (the equivalent of the U.S. National Association of
Manufacturers) took charge of Duro’s legal battle. COPARMEX’s former chief
Abascal is now Fox’s Labor Secretary.

Abascal denied
requests for a secret ballot and the federal labor board, under his control, ran
the election in Rio Bravo. That decision violated an agreement which supposedly
guaranteed secret ballot voting, negotiated between his predecessor, Mariano
Palacios Alcocer, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.

Since NAFTA went
into effect in January 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed under the labor
side agreement. Nevertheless, no independent union has been able to negotiate a
contract as a result of any NAFTA ruling. To counter rising criticism, in 2000
the Mexican government agreed that workers would be able to vote by secret

Duro was the first
real test of that agreement and Abascal refused to honor it. “The Duro election
strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights. The side
agreement is bankrupt,” declared Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for
Justice in the Maquiladoras.

The wrecked
election at Duro didn’t stop the wave of efforts to organize independent unions,
however. Workers in many other maquiladora battles this year have counted on
support from U.S. unions. In Coahuila, a cross-border solidarity effort has
helped to sustain SEDEPAC’s living wage campaign. A number of U.S. unions have
organized a loose network called Enlace, and have sent organizers to help. They
include Los Angeles’ big hotel union Local 11, as well as the janitors’ Service
Employees Local 1877 and units of the Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Before the May
Day march, SEDEPAC activists began setting up grassroots committees inside a
number of factories, including the huge garment sweatshops run by Sara Lee. Many
of those committees are clandestine, since open activity often leads to
termination. According to Robles, Sara Lee fired over 1,000 workers last year,
many of whom had been injured on the job, when they made an effort to form an
independent union.

Inside the
plants, women activists are called “promotoras,” because they promote
organization among their fellow workers. The promotoras go to workshops for
training in identifying health and safety hazards and in what’s called
“identidad,” or self-identity. “Many of the women are migrants from indigenous
communities far away, and feel torn from the cultural roots which give them a
feeling of self-respect,” Robles explains. “They get very depressed, so we talk
a lot about self-worth, to raise their expectations for better treatment and
respect at work, and to get them to demand their rights.” Women in the
committees in turn are linked to organizations in the poor communities around
the plants, which fight for elemental services like sewers, water lines, paved
streets, and electricity.

This spring workers
at another maquiladora—Kukdong—in the central Mexican town of Atlixco, Puebla,
also organized an independent union. On September 21, they won a contract—the
first such agreement in a garment maquila- dora in a decade. The new collective
agreement was signed by the company, which changed its name to Mex Mode, and the
independent union, now known as SITEMEX. Of the 450 workers currently employed
at the factory, 399 signed the application for the independent union.

After protesting
broken promises of wage raises, bad food in the company cafeteria, and the
firing of a group of supervisors, workers occupied the Kukdong plant for three
days in January. They were beaten and evicted by local police. But Kukdong
workers were able to use the power of the growing anti-sweatshop movement in the
U.S. They contacted the Mexico City office of the AFL-CIO, whose representative,
Jeff Hermanson, was formerly the organizing director for the International
Ladies Garment Workers Union (now the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textile Employees, UNITE). Herman- son has a long history of developing ties
between U.S. garment workers and their colleagues in other countries, and he
helped Kukdong workers publicize their case on U.S. campuses. United Students
Against Sweatshops took up their cause and mounted picketlines at universities
around the country to publicize the fact that Nike and Reebok sportswear was
being sewn in the plant.

In response to
exposes of terrible working conditions in Nike contract plants in Indonesia and
southeast Asia, the company developed a code of conduct, which, at least on
paper, calls for respect for labor rights. U.S. protests focused on the
violation of those self-imposed standards, and the pressure forced Nike to send
inspectors to Kukdong to take a look. That led eventually to the recognition of
the independent union.

In 1998, Leonel
Cota, a PRD candidate, was elected governor of Baja California Sur. Because he
therefore controlled the state labor board, workers at the California
Connections and Pung Kook factories won legal status for their independent union
in 1999.

eight days after that decision, every worker named as a union officer on the
legal documents was fired. “We’ve been fighting for the right to negotiate ever
since,” said union president Raquel Espinoza. As in Coahuila, union organizing
in the factories remained clandestine.

If attracting and
holding onto foreign investment is the key consideration determining the Fox
government’s national labor policy that war will get even hotter. Fox, a former
Coca-Cola executive, shows every sign of catering more to investors than minimum
wage maquila workers.

In May, the World
Bank released a series of recommendations to the new Mexican administration. The
bank recommended rewriting Mexico’s Constitution and Federal Labor Law,
eliminating protections in place since the 1920s. Those include giving up
requirements that companies pay severance pay when they lay off workers, that
they negotiate over the closure of factories, that they give workers permanent
status after 90 days and that they limit part time work and abide by the 40-hour
week. The bank recommended other changes that would weaken the ability of unions
to represent workers and bargain, including eliminating the historical ban on
strikebreaking. Mexico’s guarantees of job training, health care and housing,
paid by employers, would be scrapped as well.

Fox embraced the
report, calling it “very much in line with what we have contemplated,” and
necessary to “really enter into a process of sustainable development.”

recommendations were so extreme that even a leading association of employers
condemned them. Claudio X. Gonzales, head of the Managerial Coordinating
Council, called the report “over the top,” noting the bank didn’t dare to make
such proposals in developed countries. “Why are they then being recommended for
the emerging countries?” he asked.

In Mexico City,
Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexico’s labor lawyers, was appointed to head
the local labor board by left-wing mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador. Campos Linas
rejects Fox’s argument that gutting worker protections will make the economy
more competitive, attract greater investment, and create more jobs. “Mexico
already has one of the lowest wage levels in the world,” he charges, “yet
there’s still this cry for more flexibility. The minimum wage in Mexico City is
40.35 pesos a day—no one can live on this. Now we’ve lost 400,000 jobs since
January alone. Changing the labor law will not solve this problem.”

Campos Linas’s
first act was to promise that even if the federal government wouldn’t enforce
secret ballot elections, he would. In addition, he announced he would make
public all the sweetheart protection contracts between the old unions and
employers. There are 70-80,000 sweetheart agreements, whose existence is usually
unknown to the million workers covered by them.

A battle is
brewing over which direction Mexico will take. Unlike its revolution at the turn
of the century, it will not be fought by farmers with guns. In large part, it
will take place on the floors of the maquila plants, which have spread far
beyond the border to encompass cities all over Mexico.

For 40 years,
maquiladora workers have been viewed—indeed have viewed themselves—as
inhabitants of the country’s fringe—geographically, politically and socially.
But today these workers are no longer content to live on the margin. They’ve
become the key to Mexico’s economy and finally, the independent union movement
is beginning to recognize their existence and their needs. It’s in their
interest to do so. Real unions in Mexico won’t survive at all if maquila workers
remain marginal- ized. Without independent unions as a base, the country’s hope
for greater democracy will never be fulfilled.

contracts exist in all parts of the economy, not just on the border,” reminds de
la Cueva, “and gutting the labor law is not a problem of central Mexico, nor
just of workers who belong to the old unions. Everyone is affected by the same
problems. They are forcing us all together, like it or not.”

David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.