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.
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 Trevi�o 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.
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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.
Nevertheless, Fox is under enormous pressure to fulfill the expectations for greater democracy that led to his own election. �Millions of people voted for change,� Hernandez Juarez declares. �They voted for democracy, not for protection contracts. They voted for union freedom. What sense does it make that, for the first time in our history, workers can elect a president who�s not from the PRI, and yet they can�t choose the general secretary of their own union?�
In Rio Bravo, however, workers have yet to negotiate a new contract to replace the old protection agreement, and 100 remain fired, including Almaguer. For almost five months, grim-faced and determined women, often with their children beside them, have confronted police outside the plant, and camped out in Rio Bravo�s main plaza.
Their banners, which fly outside the plant every day, demand �libertad sindical,� or the right to belong to a union of their choice.