When two dozen supporters of Baja California’s best-known independent union marched into a meeting organized by government officials at a swanky Tijuana hotel last week, the city‘s long-simmering labor conflict suddenly turned violent.

Three hundred well-dressed listeners had already filled the seats in the main hall of the Camino Real hotel. In front of them sat a panel of Mexican and U.S. government officials. As Mexican Labor Sub-Secretary Javier Moctezuma Barragan began intoning a list of all the government had done for workers, members of the independent October 6 union quietly walked down the aisle. They carried hand-painted banners calling for the right of workers to join the union of their choice, and condemning government attacks on local strikers. When they reached the front of the room, men from both sides of the aisle suddenly jumped from their seats, screaming as they began beating the small group. They especially targeted October 6 General Secretary Enrique Hernandez.

Hernandez took a blow to the side of his head and went down. His companions turned to flee, but the aisle behind them filled with men whose fists were flying. Hernandez made it to his feet, only to be pushed toward a corner of the hall, where he was knocked down again. His head snapped back as heavy shoes kicked his cheek. Other kickers went for the ribs. Pursued by dozens of attackers, the workers were pushed through the hotel lobby and out the main doors.

The police made no arrests; they didn’t even show up. After a few minutes, Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma came out and stood halfway down the lobby stairs. He explained to Hernandez and the others that the problems were due to a “lack of space” in the hall. Then he took a few questions from agitated reporters and returned to the hall, leaving the workers outside as the meeting continued. He did not invite the workers to return. Nor did he make any guarantees that they could do so safely.

This episode would simply have been one more attack on independent unions but for a pitiful irony: The Mexican labor ministry had organized the meeting, a “Seminar on Union Freedom in Mexico,” to explain two new agreements it signed in May, agreements supposed to protect the rights of workers to form independent unions — the rights of the very people who were beaten and expelled from the hall.

In addition, a case that led to one of the two agreements was filed on behalf of the October 6 union itself. Yet inside the hall, during four hours of speeches by numerous labor officials, there was no mention of the October 6 union and its strike against the Han Young factory — as though any acknowledgment of the case had been forbidden.

“They threw us out,” said Enrique Hernandez, “because it was impossible to maintain the pretense that the freedom to organize independent unions exists here while we were present in the room, living evidence of the lie.”

The beatings also underscored the complete ineffectiveness of international agreements that are supposed to protect the rights of workers south of the U.S. border as a condition of unfettered free trade.

“We didn‘t have a problem of physical space in the hall, but of political space in our country,” said Mexican labor leader Jose Luis Hernandez, who is not related to Enrique Hernandez. “The Mexican government signs these agreements to project a certain image, but in reality there’s a lack of political will to enforce them. The government depends on this system . . . to attract foreign investors who want low wages, and because this system supports them politically.”

The beatings, he added, were not only “absolutely absurd,” but an act of treachery.

The beaten workers were among 57 who went on strike against the Han Young factory in 1998. Their walkout was the first by an independent union in the history of the maquiladoras — foreign-owned factories in Mexico. Construction of those factories began in the 1960s along the border, and they have proliferated throughout Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana‘s huge Hyundai industrial complex, have long complained of low wages and serious safety hazards. But when they sought to establish a union, they quickly discovered that there already was a union representing them, one which they knew nothing about. It held no meetings, and no union representative had ever appeared on the job to resolve problems.

Like countless other Mexican workers, the Han Young employees were working under a “protection contract,” an agreement in which the company made monthly payments to a union leader from the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The CROC (its Spanish acronym) is one of Mexico’s principal government-affiliated union federations. In return for the payments, the CROC guaranteed that the company would be able to maintain low wages and poor conditions without labor conflict.


“There are about 650,000 union contracts in Mexico, but only 50,000 of them are real negotiated agreements,” explained Jose Luis Hernandez, vice president of Mexico‘s new National Independent Union Federation. “The rest are simply protection agreements. The people who benefit from them are a kind of Mafia. To get rid of these agreements is going to require a virtual war.”

He isn’t using a figure of speech, as evidenced by the violence at the Camino Real. Most of the 300 well-dressed listeners, including those involved in the beatings, were wearing CROC badges. And they had filled every seat in the hall long before the meeting started, as though they were trying to freeze out the workers for whom the meeting was supposedly intended. The perpetrators of the beatings, according to the local press, were led by an organizer with a CROC youth group that has been linked to the state government in Baja California, which is controlled by the National Action Party (PAN). The hooligans also included CROC-affiliated truckers, according to Enrique Hernandez.

When NAFTA went into effect in January 1994, all three NAFTA countries — Mexico, the United States and Canada — also agreed to another treaty, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. This side agreement committed each nation to enforcing its own labor laws and, in addition, to setting up an international process for hearing complaints regarding labor-rights violations.

In the ensuing years, almost 20 complaints have been filed. Of them, the highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young and at another plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, U.S. and Mexican unions have alleged, workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions. Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico has failed to enforce its health and safety laws at these plants. The ITAPSA complaint charged especially dangerous conditions, with workers routinely exposed to asbestos, a known source of lung cancer.

Under the NAFTA process, the National Administrative Office (NAO) in the U.S. Department of Labor held a series of hearings to collect the extensive testimony of workers and independent-union officials. The NAO concluded that serious violations of Mexican law had occurred at both factories.

In May, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, signed agreements to settle the Han Young and ITAPSA cases, but the outcome wasn‘t of much solace to workers. Mexico merely agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better protection for workers organizing independent unions, and strict enforcement of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the two.

The agreements do not require the Mexican government or the two companies to do anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant. “We’re extremely disappointed,” said Robin Alexander, an official with the United Electrical Workers, a U.S. union supporting the independent Mexican union organizing workers at ITAPSA. “We expected there would be a more significant outcome.”

For the health and safety violations, Mexico could have been fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially staggering amount of money. But the settlement agreements removed that possibility.

“Nothing will actually change at ITAPSA,” said a disappointed Benedicto Martinez, who is co-president of Mexico‘s independent Authentic Labor Front (FAT). “The Mexican government has a long history of finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers.”

Two and a half years ago, the independent October 6 union won the right to represent Han Young workers. The plant’s owners were then legally required to negotiate a contract, but have yet to do so. When workers struck in 1998, the industry-controlled Baja California labor board ruled the strike illegal.

The Mexican 15th District Federal Court has overruled that decision three times, the last time in April. The court also ordered the labor board to protect the workers‘ right to strike — all to no effect. Instead, Tijuana and Baja California authorities have called in police to break up picket lines, burn strike flags and escort strikebreakers into the plant. In Mexico, it is illegal for a company to operate with strikebreakers during a legal strike.

In addition, strikers such as Julian Puente discovered that they have been blacklisted by other factory operators. “I went to Hyundai’s main plant and got hired,” he said. Hyundai was offering 69 pesos a day, about $7, for skilled welders. “But then one of their foremen recognized me as a striker. The human-relations manager told me there was no work for me there.” Like other strikers, he can only find occasional work on local construction projects.


“The settlements haven‘t remedied our situation at all,” said Jose Peñaflor, the lawyer for October 6. “The violence [at the hotel] has its roots in efforts by corrupt union leaders to hold onto their protection contracts. The problem is the enforcement of the law. Despite what the government says in meetings like the one today, Mexico’s labor policy is actually hardening. It‘s clearer than ever that it won’t permit any kind of independent union on the border.”

For the U.S. Department of Labor, the Camino Real travesty has to be a substantial embarrassment. Four DoL representatives attended the seminar, led by Lewis Karesh, the acting head of the NAO, the agency that had concluded there were serious violations of law by Han Young and ITAPSA management. Karesh offered a hopeful spin. “I‘m disappointed to see what happened,” he said, but “I was glad to see Moctezuma came out to talk to the workers.”

The Clinton administration’s position linking trade policy and labor rights has placed the NAO and Karesh under a spotlight. In Seattle, the administration argued that free-trade agreements could protect workers‘ rights while boosting profits for large corporations. In the wake of Congress’ vote to upgrade China‘s trading status, presidential candidate Al Gore went even further, claiming that he would guarantee the enforcement of labor rights in future trade negotiations.

At the seminar, Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma held out the same promise to Mexican workers, declaring in his speech Friday that “NAFTA has as a purpose increasing the respect for workers’ rights.” Mexico has developed “a new labor culture of harmony and cooperation between workers and employers” as a result of NAFTA, he added.

The actual record of the side agreement doesn‘t provide much support for that claim. In fact, only one of the many workers fired for independent union activity has been rehired, and not a single contract has been signed with an independent union. NAO Secretary Karesh said that the treaty has no mechanism to “get a particular worker’s job back, or try to resolve cases in favor of particular groups of workers.”

He insisted, however, on the importance of the Mexican government‘s pledge regarding two reforms. One would allow workers to choose a union by secret ballot in future elections, a change from the current procedure, which requires that workers announce their vote in public. And the government also agreed to publish a list of all union contracts, which would make protection contracts public knowledge for the first time, especially to those workers who labor under them.

But will these commitments be enforced? “I believe we will begin to see an impact,” Karesh said, “but will there be immediate change? I don’t think so.”

After the beatings, Mexican union leader Jose Luis Hernandez told Han Young workers that he intended to lay the problem before the AFL-CIO when he meets with U.S. labor leaders next week. “What‘s happening here affects U.S. workers too, since companies are relocating to Mexico to take advantage of our situation,” he said.

For two years, authorities in Tijuana have used nationalist sentiment to slam the Han Young workers for receiving support from U.S. labor. Hernandez, by contrast, emphasizes the groundbreaking importance of such an alliance. “In the last few years, it’s clear to us that the AFL-CIO has a different attitude now toward Mexicans both here and in the U.S. We‘re supporting each other more now, and we’d like to see the AFL-CIO take this case to the U.S. administration.”

Labor attorney Peñaflor, meanwhile, intends to file suit in U.S. courts on behalf of Han Young workers. As precedent, he cites a 1996 sexual-harassment case in which workers at a Tijuana factory claimed protection under U.S. civil rights laws because the maquiladora had U.S. owners and produced goods for a U.S. company.

Whatever the outcome, the lack of results through the NAFTA process demonstrates the fatal flaws in the treaty‘s worker protections, said Robin Alexander, the officer with the electrical workers union. “We need a separate entity, one that has teeth, that has the power to require enforcement,” she said. “We don’t want more meetings and further study. We want real changes.”

That is not the view of Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma. In ending the Tijuana seminar, he complimented his audience — including the attackers — by telling them that “in Baja California, society has a clear democratic mission, characterized by open and frank discussion.”

The workers expelled from the meeting weren‘t in much of a position to argue.

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