By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
TIJUANA, Baja California - As dawn broke over Tijuana on May 22, dozens of rough-clad workers began gathering in a narrow road facing an old industrial building, high on one of the mesas surrounding the city. An undercurrent of tension and anticipation filled the dusty street in front of the Han Young factory as they awaited the beginning of the first legal strike by an independent maquiladora union.
From inside the plant, the would-be strikers could hear the boom and clang of machinery operated by a work force of three dozen laborers hired by the company over the previous two weeks. As 8 o'clock approached, the hour at which their work shift would normally have started, Han Young's regular workers filed into the factory, not to turn their machines on, but to turn them off.
Once they were inside, shouting matches broke out. Around the welding machines in the plant's dim, cavernous interior, the regular workers confronted the new hires and the company's human-relations director, Magdaleno Reyes. They demanded that everyone comply with Mexican labor law and leave. Mexican labor law bars a company from continuing operations during a legal strike. All personnel must leave the premises, and the doors must be locked.
Reyes refused to order the new workers to get out, or to go himself. Instead, he got into a shoving match and, according to the workers, struck several of them. Reyes later refused to be interviewed.
Finally, the regular workers left. Once outside in the street, they strung the traditional red-and-black strike banners across the entrances. As the day wore on, the new hires trickled out of the factory, complaining that production wasn't really possible without the skilled labor of the regular workers. By evening, the plant was dark and deserted.
Since then, Han Young strikers have lived in the street outside the factory, day and night, parking their vehicles in front of its huge corrugated-iron doors. No one has entered.
In the 10 days since it started, the city's entire political establishment has mobilized to declare the strike illegal and discredit the strikers. The city's local Conciliation and Arbitration Board took out a full-page ad in El Mexicano, Tijuana's largest newspaper, saying the strike was "nonexistent" in Mexican legal terms, and in a speech before a prominent business group, the state's director of labor and social services warned that it was "provoked by foreign unions" who want to discourage investment in Mexico. But at the last minute, a federal judge suspended intervention by the labor board and prevented the strike from being legally suppressed.
The implications of a successful strike reach far beyond Tijuana's industrial zone. More than 2,700 maquiladora plants line the border all the way to Texas, employing about a million workers - a fifth of the Mexican work force - in the manufacture and assembly of export goods ranging from bathing suits to TV sets. Key to the success of the maquiladoras has been proximity to U.S. markets, cheap labor - wage rates are the lowest in industrial Latin America - and labor peace.
The action at Han Young could change that formula. "If we win, there are workers in hundreds of maquiladoras who will try to form their own unions, so they can get better wages and conditions," says Enrique Hernandez, who represents the independent union. "That challenges government policy, which relies on maintaining low wages as an attraction for foreign investment. So the government, its affiliated unions and the employers' association have all allied themselves against us."
U.S. government officials are paying attention as well. In Washington, congressional minority whip David Bonior has declared, "Han Young management, the Tijuana labor board and the Mexican government are engaged in a systematic effort to deny Han Young workers their right to an independent union through harassment, intimidation and fraud." And U.S. Labor Department spokesperson Bob Zachariasiewicz said the department was "monitoring developments very closely."
Last fall, Bonior won Democratic votes in Congress against the Clinton administration proposal for fast-track authority to expand NAFTA by using the Han Young conflict as an example of the agreement's failure to address the so-called side issues of labor and environment. Fast-track was defeated but is likely to resurface after the November election. Bonior is calling Han Young a test case with "long-term implications for U.S. trade policy."
Han Young workers have received support from the San Diego Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, and during a hunger strike by four independent-union members in December, supporters leafleted at more than 25 Hyundai car dealerships in the U.S. and Canada every Saturday. Support Committee executive director Mary Tong has been told by the Mexican government ministry that she will be deported if she tries to attend any activity involving the Han Young workers in Mexico.
"The government accuses us of weakening our country," says strike leader Miguel Angel Sanchez. "But they're protecting foreign investors who are here exploiting us and violating our laws, when they should be protecting us and enforcing the law. If it's okay for the companies to cross the border to do this, I think it's not only right for workers to support each other across the same border, it's necessary."