By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by David Bacon|
RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS -- TWO YEARS AGO last April, Consuelo Moreno and 150 other women were fired from their jobs at the Duro Bag plant, a maquiladora just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas. Their transgression: organizing an independent labor union at the plant, in defiance of company management and colluding labor officials.
Moreno and her colleagues did everything Mexican law requires to regain their jobs, and then some. They scrupulously filed every motion the legal process demanded. They also pitched tents in the Rio Bravo city plaza, where they took up residence and demonstrated repeatedly against management and corrupt union officials. And they tried to vote in a rigged union election. Along the way, the home of one of their leaders was mysteriously burned to the ground.
When the Tamaulipas state labor board finally told the workers that they would be getting their jobs back, they felt vindicated. Two years, after all, is a long time to wait.
But at 5 p.m. on May 27, when they went to reclaim their jobs, the plant manager bluntly called Moreno and the others troublemakers, said they remained on a blacklist, and forcibly expelled them from the factory. When the labor board did nothing, they sat in at its offices but were only given a date for yet another hearing.
"We can only change things if we have a union the company can't control," said Moreno. And Mexican law gives them that right. The 2 million workers who labor in Mexico's maquiladoras have extensive rights on paper, but the legal system refuses to enforce them. All along the border, the rule of law has become hollow as authorities avoid anything that they perceive would discourage U.S. investors, including enforcing Mexican law.
Duro, based in Ludlow, Kentucky, produces chichi paper bags for Hallmark Expressions, Neiman Marcus and other upscale clients.
It's not just an issue for Mexico. President George W. Bush is pushing to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994, to include all of North America and South America in what would be called the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bush got closer to this goal this month, when members of Congress, by a narrow margin, gave him the authority to negotiate trade agreements without intervention by Congress. As a result, the experience of the Duro Bag workers could be duplicated over and over again, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. Nowhere are the rules of the global economy -- which supersede even the rule of law -- more apparent than on the U.S.-Mexico border.
A MAQUILADORA WORKER LABORS ALMOST an hour to earn enough money to buy a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice. In L.A., even an undocumented worker has to toil only 12 minutes for that rice, and a San Pedro longshoreman would log three minutes, according to a recent survey by the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, a faith-based social-research organization. Maquiladora workers in the barrios of Torreon, a three-hour drive from the Texas border, need about 1,500 pesos a week to provide for a family of four. Yet a full-time factory worker takes home only 320 to 350 pesos. "In our communities, you see kids 9 or 10 years old bagging groceries in supermarkets or washing cars on the corners" to make ends meet, said Betty Robles, an organizer for SEDEPAC, which advocates for workers' rights in Torreon.
Low wages for workers mean higher profits -- a recipe for confrontation. Duro is just one of 3,450 foreign-owned factories, employing more than 1.2 million Mexican workers, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras, an organization representing owners. If maquiladora workers run their own unions, negotiate their own contracts and raise wages, it would be very costly to these foreign owners. Consequently, a wave of industrial unrest is sweeping through the factories.
Mexican President Vicente Fox's election campaign appealed to that unrest, promising a rising standard of living and greater democracy. But the economic downturn in the U.S. -- the market for most of what the maquiladoras produce -- has cost the jobs of more than half a million Mexicans since he took office. Many workers hoped Fox would support their right to choose independent unions freely by secret ballot. Traditionally, because voting in union elections has been public, the old official unions favored by maquiladora owners have been able to identify and punish supporters of the new independent ones. Following a string of incidents in which independent union supporters in Tijuana and Mexico City were fired and even beaten for their choices, the Mexican government promised to allow voting by secret ballot instead.
That commitment was put to the test last year at the Duro Bag plant. When voting began in the factory on the morning of March 2, two unions were on the ballot -- the independent Union of Duro Bag Workers and the company-controlled Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), which is affiliated with Mexico's former ruling party.
The day before, observers watched as automatic weapons were unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. When voting started the next morning, workers from the swing shift and graveyard shift were prevented from going home. Instead, they were held behind doors blocked with metal sheets and the huge rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line. Observers heard cries of "Let us out!" -- until company managers began playing music at deafening volume on the plant speaker system. CROC organizers escorted arriving day-shift workers in small groups into the polling place. There, labor-board representatives asked each voter to declare aloud her or his choice. Company foremen and government-affiliated union representatives took down notes as the voting took place. Only 502 workers voted, in a work force the company says numbers more than 1,400. And, not surprisingly, only four workers openly declared their support for the independent union, while 498 voted for the CROC.