Burn, Baby, Burn 

The dangerous life of a Mexican union organizer

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
Photo by David Bacon

RIO BRAVO, Tamaulipas, Mexico � Since Eliud Almaguer�s home was burned to the ground, he and his wife, Evelia, have been moving from house to house. They rarely sleep more than one night in the same place, fearing that those who burned them out might return to finish the job � hurting them personally, or worse.

�I fear for the life of my family,� he says. �This fire was intentional. They were trying to wipe us off the map, and now my home is just ashes.�

Almaguer says he won�t stop his union work because of the fire. For the last three years he�s led a campaign to organize an independent union at Rio Bravo�s Duro Bag plant, a maquiladora just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas. That�s made him a lot of enemies.

Living on a dirt street in a dusty Rio Bravo barrio, the Almaguers are so poor they used wood for heating and cooking, doing without the illegal electrical and water hookups found in most homes in the neighborhood. The house was made of wooden shipping pallets, with unfolded cardboard boxes stapled onto them for walls.

But modest as it was, the home nevertheless was broken into at least twice before the fire, Almaguer says: �I think they were looking for union documents, since I don�t have anything worth stealing. Fortunately, we keep them in a safe place.�

On the night of the fire, neighbors say, they saw a man in a blue T-shirt running away just before flames engulfed the small dwelling. When they called the police to report the blaze, they were told, �If it�s Eliud�s, then let it burn,� Almaguer reports. When he went himself to make a statement, the police refused to take one or even conduct an investigation. No arrests have been made.

Mexico�s new national government, which took office last Friday, faces one of the most important tests of its commitment to democracy here in Rio Bravo. This challenge comes not from the country�s former governing party, the PRI, which lost control of the presidency last July for the first time in 71 years. It comes from Almaguer and his co-workers, who�ve thrown a spotlight on the denial of their right to form independent unions and thereby raise wages, on the border.

The Duro factory churns out chichi paper bags, sold for a buck at the ubiquitous gift shops that dot suburban shopping malls almost everywhere north of the border. The Duro Bag Manufacturing Co., which operates seven U.S. plants, is based in Ludlow, Kentucky, and makes products for Hallmark Expressions, Neiman Marcus and other upscale clients.

In the spring of 1998, Almaguer, an intense, stocky labor activist in his 30s, got a job at the plant. There, he says, he saw people lose fingers in machines while cutting the cardboard used to stiffen the bottoms of the bags. Safety guards, he claims, were removed from the rollers that imprint designs on the paper lining � the extra time it cost to clean them was treated as needless lost production. Almaguer recalls that solvent containers didn�t carry proper danger warnings, and that while workers did get dust masks, the masks were useless for filtering out toxic chemical fumes.

�In terms of safety, well, there just wasn�t any,� he remembers bitterly.

Duro has a protection contract with a Mexican local of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union, part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which has been a pillar of support for the country�s ruling bureaucracy since the 1940s. With a protection contract, the company pays confederation leaders to guarantee labor peace.

Two years ago, the workers in the Duro plant decided to actually enforce that contract. They elected Almaguer general secretary of their local union and brought repeated grievances before the plant�s human-relations manager, Alejandro de la Rosa. �We�d take our complaints to his office, and he�d throw us out,� Almaguer says. �The company was in violation of at least 50 percent of the contract.�

Duro�s vice president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day (about $6). A gallon of milk in the supermarket costs 20 pesos � one-third of a day�s pay. According to Consuelo Moreno, a Duro worker, �My daughter had to drop out of school this year because we didn�t have the money for her to continue.�

�Wages here are worse than any in the region,� Almaguer declares angrily. �And people were willing to work at bad-paying jobs. But not under those conditions.�

The Duro workers were unsuccessful, however, in getting the CTM to back up their efforts. In October 1999, the company fired Almaguer, and the union in Mexico City cooperated. It invoked the notorious exclusion clause, a regulation used by pro-management union officials to get rid of troublemakers by excluding them from union membership. Police and guards were called into the plant to enforce the firing. After three days of turmoil, workers forced the company and the union to continue recognizing Almaguer as their leader.

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