By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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In April, employees stopped work to demand changes, and 100 were fired. Two months later, the CTM signed a new agreement with the company, ignoring demands for basic improvements — safety shoes, work clothes, and a company doctor on the premises. Duro workers began organizing an independent union in response.
“In the past, the company was always able to buy off our union leaders,” says Moreno. “Always. And we paid the price. We can only change things if we have a union the company can’t control.”
Throughout this period, Almaguer says, his family was repeatedly threatened, starting when he began pressuring the company for changes. After he was elected local-union leader, a man followed them home, saying management had paid him to do so. The same man later came to their home at night and offered money.
“He told me to slow down and tell the workers not to go against the National Paperworkers Union and Duro, or else I would pay the consequences. That night, [he and others] came back at 1 a.m. and scared my daughter by knocking and kicking the door, trying to open it,” Almaguer recalls.
Forstrom says only a minority of the plant’s workers are involved in the protests. Although he admits that some workers have been injured, he claims they’ve taken the guards off the machines themselves. Conditions are better in Rio Bravo, he says, than at some of the company’s seven U.S. plants, and while relations with the CTM are good, they are not pushovers. On the other hand, “Almaguer has had an agenda different from the company and the majority of employees,” Forstrom says. “I think he has something to gain personally. It’s fairly obvious — a job, money, status.”
Facing the company’s evident disdain, Duro workers have had help from the north to even the odds — the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), based in San Antonio, Texas, a group of unions, churches and community organizations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Coalition activists helped workers follow Tamaulipas’ governor, Tomas Yarrington, as he made appearances during the national election campaign last spring. They told Yarrington they wouldn’t let up until the state labor board granted the union legal recognition. CJM members were arrested with the strikers, who mobilized a flood of letters and faxes to Yarrington and company officials.
Border employers watching the Duro fight clearly felt threatened, as did CTM leaders who stand to lose their protected status. But instead of changing the conditions that had provoked the rebellion, they accused Almaguer and the Duro workers of being pawns manipulated by U.S. unions.
After the turmoil began, El Bravo, a newspaper in Rio Bravo, referred to coalition director Marta Ojeda as a professional agitator and accused Almaguer of being paid to organize the work stoppage. Tamaulipas CTM leader Leocadio Mendoza Reyes accused Ojeda of mounting a “dirty war” to “destabilize” the maquiladoras and scare companies into relocating jobs to the U.S. Cesar Treviño Saenz, president of the maquiladora employers association, Canacintra, alleged that a campaign was being directed from Texas to undermine maquiladora development.
If maquiladoras leave Mexico, however, it’s likely to be for havens in Indonesia and China — where workers are paid even less — instead of the U.S. Forstrom admits that while Duro’s automated operations remain north of the border, its labor-intensive operations are concentrated in Rio Bravo. “We’re in Mexico to take advantage of inexpensive labor,” he says.
Ojeda, a Mexican citizen, led a movement in 1994 to democratize a union at Nuevo Laredo’s huge Sony plant, where she was a worker and union leader. She agrees that union members and activists in the U.S. and Canada support the Duro workers, but says that support is based on the idea of international solidarity, not self-interest. “The attacks on us come from fear,” she declares. “The people who have benefited from this system are losing control.”
Help has also come from the south — from Mexico’s new independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City. The national union organized a public protest last August, attracting hundreds of advocates of independent unionism from Mexico and the U.S. Under pressure, the Tamaulipas labor board finally gave in, granting the Duro union legal status.
UNT General Secretary Francisco Hernandez Juarez believes workers will organize more independent unions, especially if Duro workers win a better contract with higher wages. That, he predicts, will create a crisis for Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox.
Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) is pro-business and wants to encourage foreign investment. In states such as Baja California, where it has been in power for a decade, the party has fought efforts to organize independent unions. Strikes in Tijuana have been broken and court orders ignored in that effort, leading to criticism that PAN policies have undermined the rule of law.
Duro is just one of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, which employ over 1.2 million Mexican workers, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. If more of these workers run their own unions, negotiate their own contracts and raise wages, it will be very costly to the foreign corporations that operate maquiladoras all along the border.