TIJUANA, Baja California – As dawn broke over Tijuana on May 22, dozens of rough-clad workers began gathering in a narrow road facing an old industrial building, high on one of the mesas surrounding the city. An undercurrent of tension and anticipation filled the dusty street in front of the Han Young factory as they awaited the beginning of the first legal strike by an independent maquiladora union.

From inside the plant, the would-be strikers could hear the boom and clang of machinery operated by a work force of three dozen laborers hired by the company over the previous two weeks. As 8 o'clock approached, the hour at which their work shift would normally have started, Han Young's regular workers filed into the factory, not to turn their machines on, but to turn them off.

Once they were inside, shouting matches broke out. Around the welding machines in the plant's dim, cavernous interior, the regular workers confronted the new hires and the company's human-relations director, Magdaleno Reyes. They demanded that everyone comply with Mexican labor law and leave. Mexican labor law bars a company from continuing operations during a legal strike. All personnel must leave the premises, and the doors must be locked.

Reyes refused to order the new workers to get out, or to go himself. Instead, he got into a shoving match and, according to the workers, struck several of them. Reyes later refused to be interviewed.

Finally, the regular workers left. Once outside in the street, they strung the traditional red-and-black strike banners across the entrances. As the day wore on, the new hires trickled out of the factory, complaining that production wasn't really possible without the skilled labor of the regular workers. By evening, the plant was dark and deserted.

Since then, Han Young strikers have lived in the street outside the factory, day and night, parking their vehicles in front of its huge corrugated-iron doors. No one has entered.

In the 10 days since it started, the city's entire political establishment has mobilized to declare the strike illegal and discredit the strikers. The city's local Conciliation and Arbitration Board took out a full-page ad in El Mexicano, Tijuana's largest newspaper, saying the strike was “nonexistent” in Mexican legal terms, and in a speech before a prominent business group, the state's director of labor and social services warned that it was “provoked by foreign unions” who want to discourage investment in Mexico. But at the last minute, a federal judge suspended intervention by the labor board and prevented the strike from being legally suppressed.

The implications of a successful strike reach far beyond Tijuana's industrial zone. More than 2,700 maquiladora plants line the border all the way to Texas, employing about a million workers – a fifth of the Mexican work force – in the manufacture and assembly of export goods ranging from bathing suits to TV sets. Key to the success of the maquiladoras has been proximity to U.S. markets, cheap labor – wage rates are the lowest in industrial Latin America – and labor peace.

The action at Han Young could change that formula. “If we win, there are workers in hundreds of maquiladoras who will try to form their own unions, so they can get better wages and conditions,” says Enrique Hernandez, who represents the independent union. “That challenges government policy, which relies on maintaining low wages as an attraction for foreign investment. So the government, its affiliated unions and the employers' association have all allied themselves against us.”

U.S. government officials are paying attention as well. In Washington, congressional minority whip David Bonior has declared, “Han Young management, the Tijuana labor board and the Mexican government are engaged in a systematic effort to deny Han Young workers their right to an independent union through harassment, intimidation and fraud.” And U.S. Labor Department spokesperson Bob Zachariasiewicz said the department was “monitoring developments very closely.”

Last fall, Bonior won Democratic votes in Congress against the Clinton administration proposal for fast-track authority to expand NAFTA by using the Han Young conflict as an example of the agreement's failure to address the so-called side issues of labor and environment. Fast-track was defeated but is likely to resurface after the November election. Bonior is calling Han Young a test case with “long-term implications for U.S. trade policy.”

Han Young workers have received support from the San Diego Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, and during a hunger strike by four independent-union members in December, supporters leafleted at more than 25 Hyundai car dealerships in the U.S. and Canada every Saturday. Support Committee executive director Mary Tong has been told by the Mexican government ministry that she will be deported if she tries to attend any activity involving the Han Young workers in Mexico.

“The government accuses us of weakening our country,” says strike leader Miguel Angel Sanchez. “But they're protecting foreign investors who are here exploiting us and violating our laws, when they should be protecting us and enforcing the law. If it's okay for the companies to cross the border to do this, I think it's not only right for workers to support each other across the same border, it's necessary.”

The strike marks the culmination of a yearlong effort by Han Young workers to organize an independent union and win bargaining rights from their employer. Han Young is a contract plant whose 100 employees weld truck chassis for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing complex in Tijuana. According to plant manager Pablo Kang, “We pay higher wages than any other maquiladora in Tijuana.”

Nevertheless, workers complain the plant has a high industrial-accident rate, and that they can't live on its wages. Striker Miguel Angel Solorzano, who earns 64 pesos (about $8) daily, says he has to spend 28 pesos just on breakfast and lunch. “I have a physically exhausting job,” he explains, “and I'm always tired because I just can't afford to eat enough.” He rolls up his sleeves to show poorly healed fractures in his right forearm, the result of an industrial accident. “They only gave me 10 days off when it happened,” he recalls bitterly, “and then I was forced to come back to work, even though I couldn't even close my fist. My arm still hurts.”

Solorzano was among a dozen supporters of the independent union fired by Reyes earlier this spring. He's filed legal motions to return to his job.

When workers demanded that the company recognize their independent union last June, Han Young's owner, Young Lee, informed them that the plant already had a contract with another union, closely allied to Tijuana's political establishment.

Such agreements, arrangements of mutual convenience between government-affiliated unions, foreign owners and the government itself, are commonly called “protection contracts” and prevail at thousands of plants and factories across Mexico. “The government basically uses these labor federations to get votes during elections,” says Jesus Campos Linas, a leading Mexican labor lawyer. “Companies make hefty regular payments to union leaders under these contracts and, in return, get labor peace.”

Last summer, Han Young workers formally petitioned Tijuana's labor board for the right to form their own union, and joined one of Mexico's national independent unions, the Union of Workers in the Metal, Steel, Iron and Connected Industries.

In October, they forced the labor board to hold an election, marred by accusations that the company brought in ineligible voters. The independent union won nevertheless. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Administrative Office, charged with hearing complaints under the labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, concluded last month that the Mexican government had permitted gross irregularities.

The labor board refused to recognize the election results, but further work stoppages and a hunger strike forced a second election in December, with the same result. The labor board finally granted recognition and bargaining rights to the independent union, but Han Young refused to bargain, claiming that another, government-affiliated union had asserted jurisdiction over the plant. The Han Young workers answered by going on strike.

On May 27, the labor board staged yet another election. This time, 52 workers voted to continue the strike, and 64 voted against it – a total of 118 votes cast.

The board also ruled the strike was “nonexistent” because the strike flags were put up 15 minutes too early. It then took out a full-page advertisement in Tijuana's leading newspaper to announce its decision.

Hernandez and union attorney Jose Penaflor, however, alleged that most of those voting against the strike had been hired after the union gave its strike notice, or had never worked at the company at all. “They were recruiting voters at the flea market the day before the election,” Hernandez charges, adding that there were never 118 workers at the factory.

On Friday, May 29, the board held a second election, in front of the plant. This time the vote swung back in favor of the independent union, 74-65. Still, no one was asked to provide proof of his employment status.

The irregularities proved to be too much for Judge Maria Lourdes Villagomez Guillon of the federal 5th District Court. Hours after the voting concluded, Villagomez suspended all of the board's actions against the strike and the independent union, and set a June 18 date to hear evidence on the issues. Meanwhile, the strike continues. Han Young plant manager Pablo Kang says the company lost $40,000 during the strike's first week.

LA Weekly