TIJUANA – The effort to crush an unprecedented strike of Tijuana maquiladora workers is provoking international reaction, and within the city has led to surging voter support for Mexico's leftist opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Statewide elections in Baja California, and municipal elections in Tijuana, are set for Sunday, June 28. PRD support already grew to more than 30 percent before official polls were halted two weeks ago. The party's own current polls now give the PRD a plurality among Tijuana voters.
The conservative National Action Party (PAN), which has ruled Baja California and Tijuana for eight years, was in the high 30s and dropping; Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was a distant third. Although it opposes the PRI in national elections, the PAN shares its policy of encouraging foreign investment, particularly in the maquiladoras.
Many observers credit the growth in PRD strength to its support for workers at the Han Young plant, who have been on strike since May 22. The walkout marked the first legal strike to be staged by an independent union on the Mexican side of the border. Han Young makes truck chassis under contract for the huge Hyundai Corporation manufacturing complex.
Under Mexican labor law, no one is permitted to remove the red and black flags that symbolize a legal strike, or to enter the factory before the dispute is settled. Nevertheless, on June 3 Tijuana authorities moved in force to end the strike. More than 100 members of the city's “Special Forces,” the Mexican equivalent of a SWAT team, marched on the plant, tore down the red and black strike banners and burned them in the middle of the street. Police then opened the factory doors and ushered in a contingent of strikebreakers. State authorities also issued arrest warrants on unspecified charges for Enrique Hernandez, lead organizer of the independent union of Han Young workers, and for Jose Penaflor, the union's attorney.
These actions are all apparent violations of the Mexican Constitution, and of the country's Federal Labor Law.
Reopening the plant capped a weeklong campaign by the labor board and the company to force the strikers back to their jobs. On May 27, the board conducted an election in which a majority of voters cast ballots saying they wanted to return to work. Hernandez and Penaflor charge that few of those voting to end the strike, however, held jobs at Han Young, or that they had been hired just days before the strike started.
Nevertheless, on May 29 the labor board took out full-page ads in almost every newspaper in Tijuana and the state capital, Mexicali, declaring the strike “nonexistent.” On the same day, the labor board held yet another election – this time the strikers prevailed. Hours later, citing extensive irregularities in labor-board procedure, Mexican Federal 5th District Judge Maria Lourdes Villagomez Guillon suspended the board's decision to declare the strike “nonexistent.”
In direct violation of her order, however, the government reopened the plant the following week. At a June 18 hearing, she called the actions of the labor board in reopening the plant serious violations of the law. Production at the plant has slowed drastically, however, as the strikebreaker crew lacks skills and experience.
The left-leaning opposition party, the PRD, has increasingly embraced the cause of maquiladora workers. Jesus Ruiz Barraca, the rector of the city's university and the party's candidate for mayor, met with the strikers in late May. Afterwards, his campaign leafleted the neighborhoods of maquiladora workers, calling for a minimum wage of 100 pesos per day, child-care benefits and profit sharing. Wages at Han Young average 64 pesos daily, and most maquiladora workers earn less.
Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's perennial presidential candidate, held a campaign rally in Tijuana two weeks ago, drawing 2,000 people. He later met with the Han Young strikers and promised he would publicize their strike in the nation's capital.
Labor-board chief Jesus Cosio alluded to the growing PRD presence in the strike when he commented in an interview, “There are political forces among the strikers seeking to use this dispute to their own advantage.” Han Young plant manager Pablo Kang also suggested darkly that there are “political groups” among the strikers, and that their independent union “is not sincere. They want too much money, and we already pay better than anyone else.”
Strikers' charge, however, that they face a cabal between the labor board, the maquiladora owners and government-affiliated unions. “We're challenging the system the government uses to attract foreign investment,” union activist Hernandez says. “They keep wages low by encouraging corrupt unions to sign protection contracts with the maquiladora owners, guaranteeing labor peace. If our strike is successful, thousands of other workers will try to break out of that system.” The strikers are demanding recognition of their independent union, a 35 percent wage increase, and a profit-sharing plan in accordance with Mexican law.
Establishment of an independent maquiladora union could change the shape of commerce on both sides of the post-NAFTA border, and consequently the strike has drawn attention far from Tijuana. More than 500 labor and human-rights leaders in the U.S. and a dozen other countries have signed a letter to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, asking him to act to overrule the actions of the Tijuana authorities.
Han Young parent company Hyundai Corporation has also become a target. When a Hyundai-owned cargo ship pulled up to the docks of Portland, Oregon, on June 13, it was met by a picket line organized by the city's Cross Border Organizing Committee. Prominent in the group were two workers from the Han Young plant, Miguel Sanchez Murillo and Ricardo Hernandez Hernandez.
As members of the local longshoremen union reported to work the ship, the two strikers and their supporters explained the issues. About 15 longshoremen already in the terminal decided to leave, and another dozen refused to cross the picket line when they arrived to work. One picketer was arrested as she sat in the road leading to the docks, and offloading of the Hyundai freight was delayed 24 hours. Other Hyundai shipments to the U.S. are bound for the Port of Los Angeles, where the company has a major facility.
The longshoremen action was followed on June 16 by coordinated demonstrations in 17 U.S. cities. Union federations in Brazil, Spain, Bangladesh, Canada and Mexico also protested the situation in Tijuana directly to the Mexican government.
Meanwhile, the Han Young strikers continue to organize demonstrations and marches throughout the city every day. They've turned the ruling PAN's election slogan “With a heart for Tijuana” into rude chants of “abusing workers with a heart” and “violating labor rights with a heart.” In the working-class neighborhoods of the city, growing crowds answer back with laughter and cheers.