Unions Without Borders
by David Bacon


In the dusty border town of Rio Bravo, just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas, the Duro Bag factory churns out the chichi paper bags sold for a buck at suburban shopping malls throughout the United States.

Eluid Almaguer, an intense, stocky labor activist in his 30s, got a job at the plant in 1998. There he says he saw people lose fingers in machines cutting the cardboard used to stiffen the bottoms of the bags. Safety guards, he explains, were removed from the rollers that imprint designs on the paper lining--the extra time required to clean them was treated as needless lost production. Almaguer recalls that solvent containers didn't carry proper danger warnings, and while workers got dust masks, they were useless for filtering out toxic chemical fumes.

"In terms of safety, well, there just wasn't any," he remembers bitterly.

No help was forthcoming from the union at Duro, a sección, or local, of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union. The sección--part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since the 1930s--has a contract with the company, a protection agreement in which government-affiliated union leaders are paid to guarantee labor peace. But Duro workers did find assistance abroad, in a nascent cross-border solidarity movement that is emerging as labor's answer to the globalization of capital.

The battle to change conditions in this plant is one of many labor conflicts that have erupted in the past decade from one end of the border to the other. Duro is just one of 3,611 foreign-owned factories employing more than 1.3 million people in Mexico, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. In cities like Rio Bravo, Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, hundreds of thousands of workers stream through plant gates at each shift change--a human wave pouring into communities of cardboard houses and dirt streets.

As maquiladora-style production has transformed the Mexican economy, it has provided a proving ground as well for a new model of international relationships between workers and unions. This cross-border solidarity movement has created new leverage against employers and has energized the rank-and-file union base in Mexico, Canada and the United States, while providing immediate material support for embattled workers like those at Duro. Five years ago the AFL-CIO administration of John Sweeney broke, in many ways, from the old cold war policy of former AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland, which defended free trade, corporate interests and US foreign policy. Yet the newest vision of what an international labor movement could become--based on solidarity from below--is being born not in an office in Washington but in shantytowns here along the border.

For Duro workers, this support network is partly based in the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), which brings together unions, churches and community organizations in Mexico, Canada and the United States. For more than a decade, the coalition has functioned as a resource for Mexican workers trying to fight an economic policy that uses their low wages to encourage further maquiladora investment.

Four years ago the organization became even more threatening to investors and the political apparatus that protects them when it elected Martha Ojeda as its new director. In one of the first independent union efforts after the passage of NAFTA, Ojeda had led a movement to reform the CTM-affiliated union at the Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo, where she had been a worker and union leader. On April 14, 1994, after Sony fired three union reform activists, thousands of their workmates sat down in the road leading to the plant gate. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them and forced them to return to their jobs. Ojeda fled into political exile in Texas. Until charges were dropped years later, she faced arrest and prison if she returned to Mexico.

The Sony campaign was one of the first to receive the support of a broad movement of US workers, union activists, church and shareholder campaigners, and political and community leaders in the wake of NAFTA. Today, the CJM starts health and safety groups in maquiladoras, trains workers to exercise their rights and helps them democratize their unions and organize independent ones. The coalition maintains a trinational network of activists who bring pressure to bear on employers when plant struggles break out.

At Duro, with CJM support, workers began the effort to change conditions by trying to enforce provisions of the union-protection agreement (and Mexican law) that, at least on paper, guarantee overtime pay, profit-sharing and other rights. As an initial step they expelled the sección's general secretary, José Angel Garcia Garces, whom they viewed as too close to company managers. In his place, the members elected Almaguer.

Duro's vice president of plastics, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day (about $6). A gallon of milk in the supermarket costs 20 pesos--a third of a day's work. 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."

Nevertheless, says Almaguer, "people were willing to work at bad-paying jobs. But not under those conditions." The new leaders 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." In October 1999 the company fired Almaguer. The union's leaders in Mexico City cooperated, excluding him from union membership. Police and guards were called into the plant. But after three days of turmoil, workers forced Almaguer's reinstatement as general secretary. Then, on April 14, 400 workers refused to go to work as a protest against abusive treatment, and were later joined by 800 more.

This past spring the contract at Duro expired, and workers drew up a list of demands for a new agreement. They asked for two pairs of safety shoes each year, work clothes, contributions to a savings plan and a doctor at the plant to take care of injuries. "The company said it owned the factory--they would decide what would be done here," Almaguer recalls.

When workers wouldn't budge, their union's national officials signed a new agreement with the company on June 11, ignoring their demands. By then, workers had decided that enforcing the protection agreement was no longer possible. They struck again. And in front of the factory gates, they began organizing a new, independent and democratic union. "In the past, the company was always able to buy off our union leaders. Always," Moreno emphasizes. "And we paid the price. We can only change things if we have a union the company can't control."

In the face of fierce opposition, CJM helped even the odds for the workers. The coalition assisted the strikers at Duro as they chased Tamaulipas's governor, Tomás Yarrington, around the state for two months. Whenever he appeared in public, workers unfurled banners demanding Libertad Sindical (the right to belong to a union of their own choosing). Meanwhile, determined women, often with their children beside them, confronted police outside the plant and camped out in Rio Bravo's main plaza. CJM activists were arrested with the strikers and unleashed a flood of letters and faxes about Yarrington and company officials.

Cooperating with the CJM, Francisco Hernández Juárez of the National Workers Union (UNT), Mexico's new independent union federation, organized a public protest in August, bringing to the town of Reynosa hundreds of advocates of independent unionism from Mexico and the United States. In the face of such pressure the Tamaulipas labor board finally granted the Duro union legal status. Workers have yet to negotiate a new contract, and 150 remain fired. Almaguer's house, made of shipping pallets and cardboard, was burned down in an arson attack on October 31, a crime local police refuse to investigate. "This fire was intentional," he says. "They were trying to wipe us off the map, and now my home is just ashes."

The UNT, which is a growing presence on the border today, estimates that only 50,000 of the country's 650,000 union contracts are actually negotiated with worker participation. "The rest are simply protection agreements," explains UNT vice president José Luis Hernández. "The people who benefit from these contracts are a kind of mafia. To get rid of them is going to require a virtual war."

Feeling the threat, employers and those union leaders who stand to lose their protected status accuse Duro workers of being pawns manipulated by US unions and the CJM. The El Bravo newspaper refers to Martha 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" against the union confederation to "destabilize" the maquiladoras and scare companies into relocating jobs to the United States.

Rick de la Cruz, a vice president of Local 4-314 of the US Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers, who went to the Duro protest with a group of fellow workers from his Texas plant, says those charges are ridiculous. "If that work leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the United States--it's going somewhere workers have even fewer rights," he says. "We just think everyone should have human rights, and not just in Mexico--in the US too." (Even Forstrom points out that the Rio Bravo plant's labor-intensive production competes mainly with China and Indonesia. "We're in Mexico to take advantage of inexpensive labor," he says.)

Accusations of foreign interference were likewise employed to suppress an independent union effort that had international support in Tijuana. In June 1997 workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana's huge Hyundai industrial complex, began a campaign to raise wages and eliminate serious safety hazards. They quickly discovered, however, that the company had a protection contract. Supported by the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, the independent October 6 Union for Industry and Commerce won legal status after work stoppages and a hunger strike, during which workers chained themselves to the doors of Tijuana's city hall. The conflict garnered further international attention when US Representative David Bonior used it to help defeat the Clinton Administration's proposal for fast-track authority to negotiate an extension of NAFTA in 1997.

When workers struck over company stonewalling in 1998, however, the Baja California labor board ruled their strike illegal. That decision was overruled three times in Mexican federal court, yet for two years Tijuana and Baja California authorities have called in the police to remove the strikers' picket lines, burn their strike flags and escort strikebreakers into the plant--even though in Mexico, it is illegal for a company to hire and operate with strikebreakers during a legal strike.

Lawlessness reached a new height on June 24, when the Mexican Labor Ministry organized a "Seminar on Union Freedom in Mexico" in part to explain two new agreements it had signed with the US Labor Department in May. The agreements settled a case brought under NAFTA's labor side agreement over the violation of workers' rights at Han Young. Strikers and their supporters went to the meeting, held in Tijuana's swanky Camino Real Hotel. As they quietly walked down the aisle carrying their banners, looking for space to sit, dozens of men in the crowd sprang from their seats. A gang of young toughs affiliated with a government-controlled union beat the vastly outnumbered strikers with fists and feet, driving them out of the hotel.

Three US Labor Department representatives attended the Tijuana seminar, led by Lewis Karesh, acting secretary of the National Administrative Office. "I'm disappointed to see what happened," he said, adding that "I was glad to see [Mexican Labor Sub-Secretary Javier] Moctezuma come out to talk to the workers." But according to Steve Beckman, a staff member at the international department of the United Auto Workers and a member of the NAO's advisory committee, "The US should have walked out of the Tijuana meeting and called it a disgrace, met with the workers involved, and demanded punishment of those responsible for the beatings." Instead, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman wrote a letter to the United Electrical Workers (UE) and United Steelworkers essentially blaming the strikers for bringing the violence down on their own heads. "Members of the audience asked the representatives to move, but they continued the demonstration," her letter says. Moctezuma himself "reiterated his gov!
ernment's commitment to improving workers' freedom of association rights," Herman declared, concluding that the meeting "was organized in conformity with those commitments."

The incident is an apt metaphor for NAFTA's abysmal record in enforcing workers' rights. Since the treaty went into effect in January 1994, almost twenty labor complaints have been filed on behalf of Mexican workers. The highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young and at another plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, US and Mexican unions alleged that workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions. Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico failed to enforce its health and safety laws at the 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 NAO held a series of hearings and concluded that the Mexican government had failed to enforce its worker protection laws. In May US Labor Secretary Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, settled the cases. Mexico agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better protection for workers organizing independent unions and better enforcement of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the two; another will take place in Mexico City, where ITAPSA is located. But the agreements do not require the Mexican government to do anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant. "We're extremely disappointed," says Robin Alexander, director of international affairs for the United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent Mexican Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in its fight at ITAPSA. "We expected there would be a more significant outcome."

While NAFTA's labor side agreement does not assign penalties for denying workers their right to form independent unions, Mexico could have been fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially huge amount of money, for health and safety violations. With the settlement agreements, that possibility was removed. "Nothing will actually change at ITAPSA," says FAT leader Benedicto Mart ínez. "The Mexican government has a long history of finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers."

As a result of all the complaints filed since 1994, only one of the many workers fired in Mexico for independent union activity has been rehired, and not a single contract has been signed. A small number of cases have been filed over the failure of US labor law to protect workers here as well, with a similar lack of concrete results. Karesh insists that because the treaty is government-to-government, "we can't get a particular worker's job back or try to resolve cases in favor of particular groups of workers."

Despite the beatings (which received almost no coverage in the US press), NAO complaints continue to be filed. A recent one, alleging violations of health and safety as well as labor rights in Breed Technology's Custom Trim/Auto Trim plants, was filed by the CJM and the Comité Fronterizo Obrera (the Border Women Workers Committee) in September. While Mexican organizations believe NAO complaints have limited value, they nevertheless feel they keep their government under pressure and provide a forum for continuing to denounce violations. The root problem with NAFTA and its side agreements, however, remains: Protecting workers' rights requires the US government to promote the very conditions that undermine the profit-making that NAFTA was designed to further, a fundamental conflict that tends to be ignored amid pressure to link trade agreements and labor rights. During the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle (and since), the Clinton Administration praised the NAFTA process, ar!
guing that trade agreements could protect rights while boosting profits--a position intended to get US unions to accept neoliberal economic reforms and the basic trade structure.

One way out of the NAO box is for US, Canadian and Mexican unions to build longer-range relationships, going beyond individual campaigns. The UE and the FAT have a "strategic organizing alliance," in which the two unions have supported each other since their first joint campaign challenged General Electric in Ciudad Juárez in 1994. Both unions root their cross-border relationship among rank-and-file members, who visit one another's plants. The relationship respects the autonomy of each union and its decision-making process, undermining accusations that the Mexican union is simply a tool of US labor.

At ITAPSA, the UE and the FAT initiated an alliance of all the unions representing plants owned by its parent corporation, Echlin Industries, now part of the Dana auto-parts giant. Such alliances are just beginning to take shape, but they hold real promise: If workers had strong, independent unions at all the Mexican, Canadian and US plants of a given company, they could share information about contract terms and wages, and eventually assist one another in bargaining. In the event of a conflict with the parent company, simultaneous job action in all three countries could prevent it from shifting production across borders to defeat unions.

But without a level economic playing field from country to country, corporations will continue to shift production to where wages and costs are lowest. Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch says the US Labor Department has certified that more than 500,000 US workers have lost their jobs because of NAFTA--a vast undercount, in most expert opinion. Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has documented the doubling of instances, since NAFTA passed, in which employers have stifled organizing efforts of US workers by threatening to relocate production.

The post-NAFTA record in Mexico is even worse. The Mexican government admits the loss of more than a million jobs in 1995 alone. That year's peso devaluation cut the standard of living in half for most workers. Even before NAFTA's passage, the disparity between US and Mexican wages was growing. During the past two decades of economic reforms, the income of Mexican workers has lost 76 percent of its purchasing power. According to economist and former Mexican Senator Rosalbina Garavito, Mexican salaries were a third of those in the United States up to the 1970s. They are now less than an eighth--even a twelfth or fifteenth, depending on the industry.

Mercedes Gema Lopez Lim ón, professor at the University of Baja California in Mexicali, argues that the worsening conditions of Mexican workers are a direct result of the impact of neoliberal economic reforms, especially the privatization of the state sector of the Mexican economy. "Our government and corporations are using privatization to do away with unions entirely," she says. While three-quarters of the Mexican work force belonged to unions three decades ago, less than 30 percent does today. In the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, for instance, union membership still hovers at 72 percent. But as the collateral petrochemical industry was privatized over the past decade and a half, the unionization rate fell to 7 percent. If US unions can't find a way to support Mexican unions battling this wave, there won't be much of a labor movement left to reform.

The cross-border solidarity movement has only begun to tackle this problem. In the early 1990s, when 10,000 Mexico City bus drivers lost their jobs in the privatization of the Route 100 transit system and their leaders were imprisoned on trumped-up fraud charges, leaders of the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union visited them in jail, delivering a check for $5,000. The union also sent delegations to visit Mexican ports, looking for unions and workers interested in mounting a fight to stop port privatization.

Then, in 1999, the AFL-CIO itself supported the copper miners' strike at Cananea, just sixty miles south of the Arizona border. The workers sought to stop massive layoffs several years after the mine had been sold by the state to Grupo Mexico, in partnership with the American Smelting and Refining Company. Led by stateAFL-CIO representative Gerry Acosta, caravans of pickup trucks laden with food and supplies snaked their way from the United States to the tiny mountain town in the Sonora desert, where strikers had occupied the mine. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO's office in Mexico City tried to encourage the union's national leaders to support the fight. In the end, however, the Mexican government sent in troops and, facing the threat of bloodshed, the miners retreated. Hundreds lost their jobs.

Last year the Mexican Electrical Workers, one of the country's oldest and most democratic unions, successfully fought the privatization of the Power and Light Company of central Mexico, collecting more than 2.7 million signatures within three weeks. The new Mexican administration of Vicente Fox, however, whose National Action Party dislodged the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for the first time in seventy-one years, supports further neoliberal reforms. Fox has already announced that electricity privatization is on his agenda.

Mexican unions, especially progressive and independent ones, perceive US pressure behind the IMF loan conditions and their government's neoliberal policies. And while US labor's solidarity work focuses on the growth of US-owned maquiladoras on the border, Mexican unions actually view privatization as a much greater threat. It would therefore be a powerful gesture of solidarity for the US labor federation to call on our government to stop pushing such measures. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney could even go to Mexico City and link arms with Mexican union leaders at the head of their next antiprivatization march. Or, even better, US unions could send delegations of their own, on a continuing basis, at the invitation of their Mexican counterparts.

In 1995, after being elected AFL-CIO secretary treasurer, Rich Trumka called for a different direction for the federation's international relationships. "The cold war has gone," he declared. "It's over. We want to be able to confront multinationals as multinationals ourselves now. If a corporation does business in fifteen countries, we'd like to be able to confront them as labor in fifteen countries. It's not that we need less international involvement, but it should be focused toward building solidarity, helping workers achieve their needs and their goals here at home."

Trumka's statement is not just an expression of good sentiments from an enlightened labor leader but a response to movement from labor's rank and file. Every time a struggle like Duro begins, US labor activists start heading south, while those from Mexico come north. Solidarity has captured the imagination of labor's activist core. It is still very difficult for border workers and their allies to muster sufficient economic pressure in the United States to force major corporations to respect workers' rights, much less change US and Mexican government policies, which deepen poverty and lend the companies political cover. But a new kind of internationalism is beginning to shape labor's political direction in both the United States and Mexico. And that has the potential to give workers the power not only to criticize the new world economic order but to change it.