TIJUANA – When Norberto Cordoba left his home and family to seek steady work, he landed a job at the Han Young plant in Tijuana, making truck chassis for Hyundai Corp. The pay was nearly double what he had made as a welder in his home state of Veracruz, but Cordoba's good fortune was short-lived.

Last June, after just three months on the job, Cordoba joined with Han Young veterans and went on strike in support of an independent union. Although the company made some concessions to the strikers, who wanted Han Young to, among other things, set up a health-and-safety committee as required by Mexican law, it ultimately fired Cordoba and others who walked out. The resulting battle could shape the future of thousands of workers on both sides of the border.

To the company, the issues were clear-cut: “If you want to strike [in Mexico], you're supposed to have permission,” says plant manager Pablo Won Young Kang. “Their work stoppage wasn't legal, so we fired them.” But to union supporters on both sides of the border, the case has come to symbolize the potential for worker abuses embodied in NAFTA.

Since firing Cordoba, the company, with support from the government, has refused to recognize an election held last October by the Mexican labor board in which workers voted decisively to change unions, from the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers (CROC), an organization tightly tied to the country's ruling party with a reputation for being pro-management, to the independent Union for Workers in the Metal, Steel, Iron and Allied Industries (STIMAHCS).

“All the maquiladora owners were worried that an independent union at Han Young would encourage workers to organize at other factories, and drive up wages,” STIMAHCS representative Enrique Hernandez says. The government shared the concern. Despite the majority vote for the independent union, the labor board refused to certify the results.

After the government denied certification last November, several activist organizations filed a complaint with the National Administrative Office (NAO) of the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the Mexican labor board had illegally permitted management personnel to vote and illegally refused to certify the election results.

In the past, the NAO, which investigates complaints that the United States' NAFTA trading partners are failing to enforce their own worker-protection laws, has been slow to take significant action. Since the trade agreement's passage in 1993, five other cases have been heard by the board without producing any significant action on the United States' part. But now, because of events 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., activists are optimistic that the Han Young case could be taken more seriously.

Last November, at around the time the Mexican labor board refused to certify the Han Young election, President Clinton was frantically trying to enlist Democratic supporters for “fast track” legislation, which would have granted the president authority to negotiate future trade agreements – including expansion of NAFTA to other countries – without congressional approval.

But to opponents of the legislation, the events at Han Young provided a disturbing reminder of free trade's potential to create labor abuses. Even as the administration sought to line up votes, Democratic Representatives David Bonior and Richard Gephardt buttonholed Congress members, telling them about the Han Young problems. In the end, even with substantial Republican support, Clinton couldn't come up with the necessary votes and pulled fast track off the floor.

In the aftermath, representatives from Vice President Gore's office reportedly called Bonior to inquire why he opposed the legislation. They got a two-word reply: Han Young.

In the months since, the situation in Tijuana has deteriorated further. Seeing little hope for progress in their talks with the company, a small group of fired Han Young activists started a hunger strike on November 20. In early December, workers struck the plant again, prompting company officials to agree to talk. When the labor board still refused to permit negotiations, the hunger strikers chained themselves to the doors.

As the protests garnered publicity and support, the Mexican and U.S. governments grew desperate to defuse the Han Young issue. Under intense pressure, the Mexican labor board finally agreed to a deal. If the factory's workers voted for the independent union again in a second election, and their supporters withdrew the NAO complaint, the board would certify the results. Han Young would rehire the fired workers, and bargain with STIMAHCS.

On December 4, in front of the factory, 32 workers voted for the independent union for a second time; 27 voted against it.

At first it seemed the deal would hold, and six of the fired workers were rehired. But it quickly started to unravel. A representative of another government-affiliated union, the Vindication Union of the Working Class, began appearing in the factory almost daily. Meanwhile, the company refused to bargain with STIMAHCS representative Hernandez or permit him to enter the plant.

The situation grew more tense in January, when workers struck again for a day to force a government safety inspection. In the wake of the stoppage, the NAO complaint was amended to include supplementary allegations that Mexico was not enforcing health-and-safety laws at Han Young (see sidebar).

The NAO hearing on Han Young, which opened in San Diego on February 18, did not begin auspiciously. Although the NAO had arranged for the workers to attend the hearing, when they presented themselves at the border at 7 a.m., Border Patrol agents wouldn't let them proceed for several hours until NAO Secretary Irasema Garza personally phoned the border station three times.

But activists are somewhat optimistic that the case could have a different outcome from others heard by the NAO. The Clinton administration has announced its intention to reintroduce fast-track legislation this spring, and the NAO's taking action to protect workers could provide needed credibility for NAFTA in Congress.

To labor organizers who have spent years working on the border, there is a certain irony involved. While they strongly hope for a good outcome for Han Young workers, they nearly all oppose NAFTA, and they realize that the administration intends to use the case to advocate for the agreement's expansion.

“There's no question that the purpose of free trade is to create favorable conditions for foreign investment,” says STIMAHCS's Hernandez. “On the border, those conditions include low wages and company unions. So it's hard to give any credibility to the labor side agreement, which was just window dressing to get us to accept NAFTA to begin with. But we have to use the tools that are available to us. If the NAO case helps Han Young workers stabilize their union, and the idea spreads to other workers and plants, then I guess we'll have to pay the price of lending some credibility to a policy we oppose.”

It is still a race against time, however. The steps in the legal process can take more than three years. Meanwhile, Han Young is hiring new workers. Busloads are arriving from Veracruz, where big layoffs in shipyards and oil fields have produced a surplus of unemployed welders. Supporters of the independent STIMAHCS union worry the company will eventually claim once again that a majority of workers oppose the independent union, and push for yet another election.

Since being fired, Norberto Cordoba has worked short jobs in construction, living from day to day, trying to send money home. He wasn't rehired with the others in December, as he had accepted money from the company in exchange for giving up any claim to his job. “I was out of work for a long time, living a thousand miles from my family, who had nothing to support them at home. I didn't know if I would ever see the inside of the plant again. What was I supposed to do?”

But he would very much like his job back, he says, although it remains to be seen whether the NAO can actually help individual workers. “I've been part of all this. I told the company I would even be willing to start as a new worker again, without my seniority.”

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