When two dozen supporters of Baja Californias best-known independent union marched into a meeting organized by government officials at a swanky Tijuana hotel last week, the citys long-simmering labor conflict suddenly turned violent.
Three hundred well-dressed listeners had already filled the seats in the main hall of the Camino Real hotel. In front of them sat a panel of Mexican and U.S. government officials. As Mexican Labor Sub-Secretary Javier Moctezuma Barragan began intoning a list of all the government had done for workers, members of the independent October 6 union quietly walked down the aisle. They carried hand-painted banners calling for the right of workers to join the union of their choice, and condemning government attacks on local strikers. When they reached the front of the room, men from both sides of the aisle suddenly jumped from their seats, screaming as they began beating the small group. They especially targeted October 6 General Secretary Enrique Hernandez.
Hernandez took a blow to the side of his head and went down. His companions turned to flee, but the aisle behind them filled with men whose fists were flying. Hernandez made it to his feet, only to be pushed toward a corner of the hall, where he was knocked down again. His head snapped back as heavy shoes kicked his cheek. Other kickers went for the ribs. Pursued by dozens of attackers, the workers were pushed through the hotel lobby and out the main doors.
The police made no arrests; they didnt even show up. After a few minutes, Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma came out and stood halfway down the lobby stairs. He explained to Hernandez and the others that the problems were due to a lack of space in the hall. Then he took a few questions from agitated reporters and returned to the hall, leaving the workers outside as the meeting continued. He did not invite the workers to return. Nor did he make any guarantees that they could do so safely.
This episode would simply have been one more attack on independent unions but for a pitiful irony: The Mexican labor ministry had organized the meeting, a Seminar on Union Freedom in Mexico, to explain two new agreements it signed in May, agreements supposed to protect the rights of workers to form independent unions -- the rights of the very people who were beaten and expelled from the hall.
In addition, a case that led to one of the two agreements was filed on behalf of the October 6 union itself. Yet inside the hall, during four hours of speeches by numerous labor officials, there was no mention of the October 6 union and its strike against the Han Young factory -- as though any acknowledgment of the case had been forbidden.
They threw us out, said Enrique Hernandez, because it was impossible to maintain the pretense that the freedom to organize independent unions exists here while we were present in the room, living evidence of the lie.
The beatings also underscored the complete ineffectiveness of international agreements that are supposed to protect the rights of workers south of the U.S. border as a condition of unfettered free trade.
We didnt have a problem of physical space in the hall, but of political space in our country, said Mexican labor leader Jose Luis Hernandez, who is not related to Enrique Hernandez. The Mexican government signs these agreements to project a certain image, but in reality theres a lack of political will to enforce them. The government depends on this system . . . to attract foreign investors who want low wages, and because this system supports them politically.
The beatings, he added, were not only absolutely absurd, but an act of treachery.
The beaten workers were among 57 who went on strike against the Han Young factory in 1998. Their walkout was the first by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras -- foreign-owned factories in Mexico. Construction of those factories began in the 1960s along the border, and they have proliferated throughout Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuanas huge Hyundai industrial complex, have long complained of low wages and serious safety hazards. But when they sought to establish a union, they quickly discovered that there already was a union representing them, one which they knew nothing about. It held no meetings, and no union representative had ever appeared on the job to resolve problems.
Like countless other Mexican workers, the Han Young employees were working under a protection contract, an agreement in which the company made monthly payments to a union leader from the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The CROC (its Spanish acronym) is one of Mexicos principal government-affiliated union federations. In return for the payments, the CROC guaranteed that the company would be able to maintain low wages and poor conditions without labor conflict.