By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
He isn’t using a figure of speech, as evidenced by the violence at the Camino Real. Most of the 300 well-dressed listeners, including those involved in the beatings, were wearing CROC badges. And they had filled every seat in the hall long before the meeting started, as though they were trying to freeze out the workers for whom the meeting was supposedly intended. The perpetrators of the beatings, according to the local press, were led by an organizer with a CROC youth group that has been linked to the state government in Baja California, which is controlled by the National Action Party (PAN). The hooligans also included CROC-affiliated truckers, according to Enrique Hernandez.
When NAFTA went into effect in January 1994, all three NAFTA countries -- Mexico, the United States and Canada -- also agreed to another treaty, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. This side agreement committed each nation to enforcing its own labor laws and, in addition, to setting up an international process for hearing complaints regarding labor-rights violations.
In the ensuing years, almost 20 complaints have been filed. Of them, the highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young and at another plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, U.S. and Mexican unions have alleged, workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions. Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico has failed to enforce its health and safety laws at these plants. The ITAPSA complaint charged especially dangerous conditions, with workers routinely exposed to asbestos, a known source of lung cancer.
Under the NAFTA process, the National Administrative Office (NAO) in the U.S. Department of Labor held a series of hearings to collect the extensive testimony of workers and independent-union officials. The NAO concluded that serious violations of Mexican law had occurred at both factories.
In May, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, signed agreements to settle the Han Young and ITAPSA cases, but the outcome wasn‘t of much solace to workers. Mexico merely agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better protection for workers organizing independent unions, and strict enforcement of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the two.
The agreements do not require the Mexican government or the two companies to do anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant. “We’re extremely disappointed,” said Robin Alexander, an official with the United Electrical Workers, a U.S. union supporting the independent Mexican union organizing workers at ITAPSA. “We expected there would be a more significant outcome.”
For the health and safety violations, Mexico could have been fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially staggering amount of money. But the settlement agreements removed that possibility.
“Nothing will actually change at ITAPSA,” said a disappointed Benedicto Martinez, who is co-president of Mexico‘s independent Authentic Labor Front (FAT). “The Mexican government has a long history of finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers.”
Two and a half years ago, the independent October 6 union won the right to represent Han Young workers. The plant’s owners were then legally required to negotiate a contract, but have yet to do so. When workers struck in 1998, the industry-controlled Baja California labor board ruled the strike illegal.
The Mexican 15th District Federal Court has overruled that decision three times, the last time in April. The court also ordered the labor board to protect the workers‘ right to strike -- all to no effect. Instead, Tijuana and Baja California authorities have called in police to break up picket lines, burn strike flags and escort strikebreakers into the plant. In Mexico, it is illegal for a company to operate with strikebreakers during a legal strike.
In addition, strikers such as Julian Puente discovered that they have been blacklisted by other factory operators. “I went to Hyundai’s main plant and got hired,” he said. Hyundai was offering 69 pesos a day, about $7, for skilled welders. “But then one of their foremen recognized me as a striker. The human-relations manager told me there was no work for me there.” Like other strikers, he can only find occasional work on local construction projects.
“The settlements haven‘t remedied our situation at all,” said Jose Peñaflor, the lawyer for October 6. “The violence [at the hotel] has its roots in efforts by corrupt union leaders to hold onto their protection contracts. The problem is the enforcement of the law. Despite what the government says in meetings like the one today, Mexico’s labor policy is actually hardening. It‘s clearer than ever that it won’t permit any kind of independent union on the border.”
For the U.S. Department of Labor, the Camino Real travesty has to be a substantial embarrassment. Four DoL representatives attended the seminar, led by Lewis Karesh, the acting head of the NAO, the agency that had concluded there were serious violations of law by Han Young and ITAPSA management. Karesh offered a hopeful spin. “I‘m disappointed to see what happened,” he said, but “I was glad to see Moctezuma came out to talk to the workers.”
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