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The Push for a Living Wage in Mexico 

Independent unions challenge economic elite, but victories are rare and hard-fought

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002
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The wrecked election at Duro Bag hasn’t stopped a wave of efforts in Mexico to organize independent unions. Nor has it halted the support coming from U.S. unions. A number of U.S. unions now belong to a network called Enlace (which means "links" in Spanish), and last year they sent organizers to help sustain a living-wage campaign in Torreon by SEDEPAC, an organization that advocates for worker rights. Southern California unions that participated included Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, Local 1877 of the Service Employees, which represents janitors, and locals of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In May, the streets of Torreon, which is a three-hour drive from the Texas border, were filled with women chanting and shouting "We won’t be quiet anymore!" and "We want a decent life!" They demanded wages that would provide something better than cardboard houses and communities without sewers, electricity and running water. In Ciudad Acuña, just across the Rio Grande, other women marched with bags over their heads to protect themselves from the kind of firings seen at Duro.

Before the May Day marches, SEDEPAC activists began setting up grassroots committees inside a number of factories, including the huge garment sweatshops run by Sara Lee. Many of those committees are clandestine, because open activity often leads to termination. According to organizer Betty Robles, Sara Lee fired more than 1,000 workers last year, many of whom had been injured on the job, when they made an effort to form an independent union.

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Inside the plants, women activists are called promotoras, because they promote organization among their fellow workers. The promotoras go to workshops for training in identifying health and safety hazards, and in what’s called identidad, or self-identity. "Many of the women are migrants from indigenous communities far away, and feel torn from the cultural roots that give them a feeling of self-respect," Robles explains. "They get very depressed, so we talk a lot about self-worth, to raise their expectations for better treatment and respect at work, and to get them to demand their rights." Women in the committees in turn are linked to organizations in the poor communities around the plants, which fight for elemental services like sewers, water lines, paved streets and electricity.

Another organizing campaign unfolded a year ago, when workers at the Kukdong maquiladora, in the central Mexican town of Atlixco, Puebla, organized an independent union. After protesting broken promises of wage raises, bad food in the company cafeteria and the firing of a group of supervisors, workers occupied the Kukdong plant for three days in January 2001. They were beaten and evicted by local police. But Kukdong workers contacted Jeff Hermanson, director of the Mexico City office of the AFL-CIO. Hermanson and United Students Against Sweatshops took up their cause, and mounted picket lines at universities around the U.S. to publicize the fact that Nike and Reebok sportswear was sewn in the plant. Those protests focused on the violation of Nike’s self-imposed code of conduct, and the pressure forced the company to send inspectors to Kukdong, and eventually led to the recognition of the independent union.

And last September 21, the workers won a contract — the first such agreement in a garment maquiladora in a decade. The company has since changed its name to Mex Mode.

But such positive outcomes are rare, even where conditions appear to favor workers, as in the case of garment workers laboring in a remote corner of Mexico, on the tip of the Baja California peninsula. Workers here were optimistic in 1998 when Leonel Cota, a candidate of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), was elected governor of Baja California Sur. Because Cota controlled the state labor board, workers at the California Connections and Pung Kook factories won legal status for their independent union in 1999. Nevertheless, eight days after that decision, every worker named as a union officer on the legal documents was fired. "We’ve been fighting for the right to negotiate ever since," says union president Raquel Espinoza. "At first Cota supported us, but now the companies say they’ll close the factories if we win bargaining rights. That threat really scares him, especially in the current economic crisis."

Union organizing in the factories often remains clandestine as a result. The closure threat acquired a new reality when the area’s third major maquiladora employer, the Baja West garment factory, announced abruptly that it was going out of business last September 11. Baja West produces clothes for the Los Angeles market under several labels. The company still owed workers two weeks of wages when they were terminated. Delegations called on the governor, who found some subsidies to enable workers to pay immediate bills. But the threat of bad economic conditions is frightening to those who still have jobs in the other plants.

Although the Fox administration has proved a disappointment — or worse — workers have at least one ally who is now affiliated with the government’s labor bureaucracy. Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexico’s labor lawyers, now heads the country’s most important labor board in Mexico City. He was appointed to that position by Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador, who belongs to the left-wing PRD.

Campos Linas promised that even if the federal government wouldn’t enforce secret-ballot elections, he would do so within the environs of Mexico City. In addition, he announced he would make public all the sweetheart protection agreements between the pervasive company-controlled unions and employers. There are about 75,000 such sweetheart contracts nationwide, whose provisions are largely unknown to the millions of workers covered by them.

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