By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The Tamaulipas labor board, when it denied workers a secret ballot, specifically violated an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico under NAFTA's labor side agreement. Since the treaty went into effect in January 1995, more than 20 complaints over violations like those at Duro have been filed, with few discernible results. "The Duro election strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect worker rights. The side agreement is bankrupt," declared Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a San Antonio, Texasbased group of unions, churches and community organizations from the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Ojeda's view is shared by Robin Alexander, director for international relations of the U.S.-based United Electrical Workers. "When the chips are down, both the U.S. and Mexican governments are more interested in promoting investment than implementing any commitments about labor rights," said Alexander. "Workers in the U.S. can't maintain decent standards here if a company like Duro can go across the river and violate the rights of workers in order to pay low wages."
Kentucky-based Duro also operates seven, much smaller, U.S. plants. Duro's Mexican workers have received help in their organizing efforts from U.S. labor unions and Mexico's new independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City. Key support has also come from the Coalition for Justice. Mexican employers have responded by charging that U.S. unions are trying to chase work back into U.S. plants.
Such assertions are ridiculous, said Rick de la Cruz, vice president of a local of the U.S. Paper, Atomic, Chemical and Energy Workers (which represents three Duro plants in the U.S.). "If that work leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the U.S.," said de la Cruz. "It's going somewhere workers have even fewer rights."
PRESIDENT FOX HAS DECIDED TO FOLLOW the playbook of factory owners and U.S. investors. And so has President Bush. When Duro workers tried to file a complaint under NAFTA's labor side agreement, alleging that the Mexican government had violated their right to a secret ballot, the U.S. Department of Labor refused even to review it. The Bush administration seems more heedless of worker rights than even the Clinton administration, which pushed NAFTA through Congress in the first place. Now it's Bush's turn to negotiate an even broader trade deal. And his allies include Jane Harman, a South Bay Democrat who turned against organized labor when she voted to let Bush make trade agreements that could not be amended by Congress.
Harman and the 26 centrist Democrats who voted with her (Bush prevailed in the House by a margin of three votes) have said they believe in free trade because it creates jobs. That contention itself is suspect, because the Department of Labor has documented more than 500,000 U.S. jobs that have departed for Mexico in the years since NAFTA went into effect. But much less discussed is the fate of those who wound up filling those jobs in Mexico, in plants like Duro Bag.
For its part, the Fox government also is paying little heed to these workers. It recently announced support for recommendations from the World Bank to scrap most of Mexico's Federal Labor Law, eliminating mandatory severance pay, for example, and the 40-hour week. Mexico's historical (though not always enforced) ban on strikebreaking and guarantees of health care and housing would be gutted as well.
The recommendations were so extreme that even the head of a business association, Claudio X. Gonzales, called them "over the top," charging that the World Bank wouldn't dare make such proposals for a developed nation.
"Mexico already has one of the lowest wage levels in the world," said Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexico's labor lawyers, and now head of the country's most important labor board in Mexico City. He rejects Fox's argument that gutting worker protections would make the economy more competitive and create more jobs. "The minimum wage in Mexico City is 40.35 pesos a day. No one can live on this. Yet we've lost 400,000 jobs since January alone. Changing the labor law will not solve this problem.
"The bankers don't understand that it took a revolution -- a million people died -- to get our constitution and labor law," Campos Linas emphasized. "Our problem isn't that we need a new law. It's to enforce the ones we have."
WEB EXTRA: David Bacon describes how activist workers, with the help of Southern California labor unions, are challenging Mexico's economic elite, with mixed results.