By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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The strike marks the culmination of a yearlong effort by Han Young workers to organize an independent union and win bargaining rights from their employer. Han Young is a contract plant whose 100 employees weld truck chassis for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing complex in Tijuana. According to plant manager Pablo Kang, "We pay higher wages than any other maquiladora in Tijuana."
Nevertheless, workers complain the plant has a high industrial-accident rate, and that they can't live on its wages. Striker Miguel Angel Solorzano, who earns 64 pesos (about $8) daily, says he has to spend 28 pesos just on breakfast and lunch. "I have a physically exhausting job," he explains, "and I'm always tired because I just can't afford to eat enough." He rolls up his sleeves to show poorly healed fractures in his right forearm, the result of an industrial accident. "They only gave me 10 days off when it happened," he recalls bitterly, "and then I was forced to come back to work, even though I couldn't even close my fist. My arm still hurts."
Solorzano was among a dozen supporters of the independent union fired by Reyes earlier this spring. He's filed legal motions to return to his job.
When workers demanded that the company recognize their independent union last June, Han Young's owner, Young Lee, informed them that the plant already had a contract with another union, closely allied to Tijuana's political establishment.
Such agreements, arrangements of mutual convenience between government-affiliated unions, foreign owners and the government itself, are commonly called "protection contracts" and prevail at thousands of plants and factories across Mexico. "The government basically uses these labor federations to get votes during elections," says Jesus Campos Linas, a leading Mexican labor lawyer. "Companies make hefty regular payments to union leaders under these contracts and, in return, get labor peace."
Last summer, Han Young workers formally petitioned Tijuana's labor board for the right to form their own union, and joined one of Mexico's national independent unions, the Union of Workers in the Metal, Steel, Iron and Connected Industries.
In October, they forced the labor board to hold an election, marred by accusations that the company brought in ineligible voters. The independent union won nevertheless. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Administrative Office, charged with hearing complaints under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, concluded last month that the Mexican government had permitted gross irregularities.
The labor board refused to recognize the election results, but further work stoppages and a hunger strike forced a second election in December, with the same result. The labor board finally granted recognition and bargaining rights to the independent union, but Han Young refused to bargain, claiming that another, government-affiliated union had asserted jurisdiction over the plant. The Han Young workers answered by going on strike.
On May 27, the labor board staged yet another election. This time, 52 workers voted to continue the strike, and 64 voted against it - a total of 118 votes cast.
The board also ruled the strike was "nonexistent" because the strike flags were put up 15 minutes too early. It then took out a full-page advertisement in Tijuana's leading newspaper to announce its decision.
Hernandez and union attorney Jose Penaflor, however, alleged that most of those voting against the strike had been hired after the union gave its strike notice, or had never worked at the company at all. "They were recruiting voters at the flea market the day before the election," Hernandez charges, adding that there were never 118 workers at the factory.
On Friday, May 29, the board held a second election, in front of the plant. This time the vote swung back in favor of the independent union, 74-65. Still, no one was asked to provide proof of his employment status.
The irregularities proved to be too much for Judge Maria Lourdes Villagomez Guillon of the federal 5th District Court. Hours after the voting concluded, Villagomez suspended all of the board's actions against the strike and the independent union, and set a June 18 date to hear evidence on the issues. Meanwhile, the strike continues. Han Young plant manager Pablo Kang says the company lost $40,000 during the strike's first week.