Date: Wed, 12 Mar 97 17:20:08 CST
From: rich%pencil@YaleVM.CIS.Yale.Edu (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NAFTA: Labor Rebellion On The Border

/** 402.0 **/
** Topic: Labor Rebellion On The Border **
** Written 5:10 PM Mar 11, 1997 by labornews in **
From: Institute for Global Communications <>

Workers in maquiladoras from Tijuana to Juarez are fighting back against NAFTA-driven exploitation

By David Bacon, in SF Bay Guardian, 5 March, 1997.

WHEN IT RAINS on downtown San Diego or its middle-class suburbs, the asphalt streets almost shine. The runoff is swiftly channeled down storm drains that spill out into the Pacific Ocean.

On the mesas of Tijuana, just a few miles south, the rain creates a particularly sticky kind of mud called barra. Huge clumps stick to your feet. Cars traveling down the little dirt streets where a million Tijuanecos live are immobilized when everything dries out.

The rain does not stop tens of thousands of workers who pour into factories and maquiladoras (assembly plants) every day. They begin their trip to work with a long trek through the mud to the nearest paved road for a bus up the hill, or an even longer walk all the way to the factory. Most workers don't have cars.

"A worker in Tijuana earns the same in a whole day's work that even an undocumented worker earns in an hour just a few miles north," says Eduardo Badillo of the Border Region Workers' Support Committee (CAFOR).

That wage difference, and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have inspired a maquiladora building boom along the border. Tijuana feels like Detroit in its heyday. Signs advertise for workers on the gate of every plant.

As maquiladora workers from Tijuana to Juarez have begun to fight for better conditions, they've found friends and allies to the north. In the world of NAFTA, a significant and growing number of unions and workers in both countries are beginning to build a network to confront their common corporate employers.

'Enough to eat, nothing more'

Francisco Ortiz works at Ken-Mex, a medical products plant built in Tijuana a decade ago by Kendall International, which makes Curad bandages and Curity medical supplies. He lives in a small house in a neighborhood below Otay Mesa, an industrial zone in Tijuana where factories occupy the high points of the mesas and worker neighborhoods spread down the slopes into the valley below.

The main structure of Francisco's tiny house is made of cinder blocks, but in front and behind, other rooms have been added on with whatever material comes in handy. In this workers' barrio, ingenuity is the main building principle.

Francisco shares the three-room house with his three sons, who live with him in the front room, and with his uncle, his uncle's wife, and their children, and with his mother and grandmother.

"The wage I make isn't enough to support my family," Francisco complains bitterly. His income alone isn't enough to cover clothes or shoes. "It's just enough to eat, nothing more. We can barely afford to buy milk, and we only eat meat once or twice a month."

A gallon of milk costs 17.50 pesos, about a third of a day's work for him. A kilo of beans costs 9 pesos. One dollar equals 7.75 pesos.

Since the December 1994 devaluation of the peso, prices for groceries and basic services have climbed steeply for maquiladora workers. A whole chicken, for instance, went from 4 pesos to 10.

But the same process that made groceries more expensive made the labor of Ken-Mex workers cheaper for the company. When the peso was devalued, companies could pay the same wages with fewer dollars. Victor Diaz, the plant's manager, called the devaluation sad for the workers but good for maquiladoras.

"Costs of operating here became much less," Diaz says. Because it pays workers in pesos and sells its products in the United States for dollars, Kendall's profits have increased significantly.

In 1994 Kendall International merged into the giant Tyco conglomerate. Today Tyco's Kendall operation accounts for more than half of Tyco profits -- $261 million out of $514 million in 1995. The Tijuana plant employs about 15 percent of Kendall's workforce. It makes bandages, bags of saline solution, gloves, and supplies for operating rooms.

Making Mexico attractive to foreign investors like Tyco and Kendall is now the policy of both the Mexican and U.S. governments. There are more than 2,000 plants like Ken-Mex along the border, employing more than 900,000 people. In the first three months of 1996, 134 new factories began production, a rate of 1.5 every day. They employed 10,336 new workers and represented a total investment of $126 million, according to Mexico's Secretariat of Commerce and Industrial Development.

"Maquiladoras furnish the second largest source of foreign exchange for the Mexican economy," says UC Berkeley education professor Harley Shaiken. "This has created a culture in which anything favoring maquiladora production is emphasized, while the human cost is not addressed."

NAFTA was part of a process that was designed to make it easier than ever for foreign companies to move money and goods across the border.

Help from the north

In the midst of growing labor abuses resulting from NAFTA, Ortiz and his coworkers have found people in both Mexico and the United States to help them. They are part of a growing movement to win better economic conditions and enforce the rights of workers along the border.

In 1993 workers began trying to form an independent, democratic union at the Plasticos Bajacal factory, a maquiladora producing garment-industry coat hangers for Carlisle Plastics of Boston. However, the workers discovered they already belonged to a company union. Eventually they forced the government to hold an election to decide between the two unions. Voting took place in the street in front of the plant, under the watchful eyes of company managers and representatives of the company union, and the independent union lost.

Although their effort was defeated, it marked the first joint effort between Tijuana workers and the San Diego-based Committee to Support Maquiladora Workers. Through a joint U.S.-Mexico effort, the committee collected enough money to make up the lost wages of 12 workers who were fired during their effort to organize other employees in the months prior to the election.

Some workers who supported the union were blacklisted from Tijuana's other factories.

"Especially since the Plasticos election, maquiladora workers in Tijuana are afraid to organize independent unions openly," says Mary Tong, who heads the committee. "They know they'll be fired immediately, and blacklisted."

The committee went on to support workers at another factory belonging to National O-Ring, whose plant was closed after they filed sexual harassment charges against its owner. When National O-Ring workers lost their jobs, they did something new. They filed suit in Superior Court in Los Angeles, alleging that they had been sexually harassed and punished after they protested. In an unprecedented move, the judge accepted jurisdiction, and National O-Ring settled out of court.

Jobs that make you sick

Today, the San Diego committee cooperates with CAFOR to conduct health and safety training for maquiladora workers, helped by Garrett Brown, a health and safety expert from UC Berkeley. Instead of openly organizing a union, they hope that workers can conduct a semi-clandestine struggle to end some of the worst problems of exposure to toxic chemicals on the factory floors. The organizations hold meetings in communities in the factory zones.

At the Sanyo maquiladora, one of Tijuana's largest, many of the children of the women in the plant have serious health problems, which they attribute to exposure to chemicals while they were pregnant.

After attending the training meetings, one of the workers brought a booklet to work called "Is Your Job Making You Sick?" Together, she and her coworkers surveyed the plant to identify possible sources of toxic exposure. They left a copy of the booklet and their survey anonymously on the desk of the plant manager. He called a meeting and asked the names of the people responsible. No one ratted. Then he said there wasn't enough money to build a ventilation system, as the survey demanded. One worker spoke up and suggested writing a letter to the parent company in Japan.

The manager backed down, and eventually a ventilation system was installed.

CAFOR also organizes in the neighborhoods around the factories, some of whose residents are in as much danger as workers in the plants themselves. One focus has been Chilpancingo, a community below Otay Mesa.

In 1993 in this small barrio six children were born without brains, a condition called anencephaly. In 1994, 13 children were born with the same terrible defect. The local political boss threatened CAFOR activists and kept them from making a new count for 1995.

On the mesa above Chilpancingo sits a closed battery-recycling plant. Tong says that lead and heavy metal deposits have been measured in the soil at concentrations 40,000 times above safe levels.

"We of course blame the companies for this," Badillo says, "but we don't hold them alone responsible. Our own government shares the responsibility for these conditions, because it doesn't insist that the factories abide by the laws and regulations which already exist."

From Texas to California

Since the passage of NAFTA, unions have sought in vain to use its labor side agreement to file complaints about the violations of workers' rights in Mexico. This agreement was a product of the NAFTA debate, written in response to the exposure of the violations of workers' rights in Mexico, especially in maquiladoras. The Clinton administration and advocates of the treaty claimed it would establish a structure for enforcing those rights, but workers are still waiting.

Three years ago one Mexican union, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), formed a strategic alliance with two U.S. unions, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Teamsters. Both U.S. unions contribute money to FAT, which is used to organize workers in maquiladoras belonging to U.S. companies.

In 1994 the UE and FAT gained enough support among workers at a General Electric plant in Juarez to file a petition for a union election.

A number of union supporters were fired after they appeared on PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and demonstrations were organized in GE's U.S. plants to protest. According to UE organizer David Johnson, the company used the firings, and threats to close the Juarez plant and blacklist workers, to frighten people before the election. The union subsequently lost the vote.

FAT also cooperated with the Teamsters in an effort to organize a union at Honeywell's big plant in Chihuahua. Dozens of workers were fired there as well, and no election was ever held.

Together, the UE, the Teamsters, and the FAT filed the first complaint under NAFTA's labor side agreement.

The Labor Department's National Administrative Office (NAO), set up by the treaty to receive complaints, held a hearing. But the NAO recommended no action on the charges in the GE and Honeywell cases.

A second complaint was brought before the NAO in 1995 by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), the American Friends Service Committee, and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers. It was filed on behalf of 18 workers who were fired from their jobs at Sony Corp.'s maquiladora in Nuevo Laredo for trying to run for office in the plant union, a branch of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). After the firings, workers stopped work and blocked the road into the factory. Sony brought in riot police, who beat the workers. Sony refused to recognize the independent union the workers organized afterwards.

A third complaint was filed in Mexico in 1995 against the United States by the Mexican telephone-workers union. It alleged that Sprint Corp. fired more than 200 Latino telemarketers at La Conexion Familiar -- an independent telemarketing company Sprint had taken over -- a week before they were to vote on appointing the Communications Workers of America as their union, a vote the CWA was expected to win.

In both the Sony and Sprint complaints, then-U.S Labor Secretary Robert Reich and then-Mexican Labor Minister Santiago O1ate agreed to meet and discuss violations of labor laws in both countries. Those meetings, however, produced no actual government action as a result. No workers have been rehired. Neither Sprint nor Sony have recognized the union chosen by their workers. CWA recently filed a fourth complaint against Taiwan-owned Maxi-Switch over firings in its Hermosillo, Sonora, plant.

Despite numerous efforts to make it work, NAFTA's labor side agreement has no teeth to enforce any specific action on any government, and no jurisdiction over employers. Nevertheless, this year the Clinton administration is expected to introduce legislation extending NAFTA to Chile and bringing in the countries covered by the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The administration will undoubtedly argue that the labor side agreement will meet concerns over the violations of workers' rights in those countries as well.

On May Day in 1995 angry maquiladora workers took to the streets of Tijuana and other cities along the border. Despite fear of being fired and blacklisted, workers from plants belonging to such companies as Sanyo, KFC Electric, Nypro, Ken-Mex, and Zettler formed a 1,000-strong march from Tijuana's outskirts to downtown.

Company unions were nowhere to be found. While hundreds of workers blocking an intersection in the middle of the business district fell quiet, Blas Manriquez, a labor leader of the 1930s and a prominent figure in the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), in a strong voice belying his aging figure, accused the government and the official unions of "conspiring together to sell Tijuana's workers to foreign companies, and selling us at hunger-level wages to boot."

Except for FAT, Mexican unions, especially those on the border, have been defenders of management and the government's pro-investment policies. But the common front among government, unions, and employers is beginning to fracture. In 1996, 22 unions organized a massive march in Mexico City that brought out more than half a million workers. They then formed a new organization, the Forum for National Unionism, to begin challenging the government's anti-worker policies, to democratize Mexican unions, and to fight the declining living standards of Mexican workers.

Jose Delgado, an activist in the local branch of the PRD, hopes "a new labor movement will arise here, which will be more intelligent and more innovative."

"Already people are building independent organizations along the border, making allies with neighborhood groups, with farmers and teachers, and with people on the other side [in the United States]. Neither of our governments has an answer to the demands of our people. We will find the answer for ourselves."

Local guys make bad

TO MANY PEOPLE who live in the Bay Area, Tijuana, Mexico, seems far away. It's a place to go, perhaps, to spend a few wild days -- a city of bars and brothels, or the gateway to the surf on Baja's beaches. For most northern Californians, the idea that their lives are affected by the citizens of this mushrooming city seems improbable.

But Tijuana is California's window into the global economy. It is the new Detroit, whose burgeoning factories have a direct impact on the wages and jobs of thousands of northern Californians.

Some Bay Area companies owe their economic growth directly to Tijuana's low-paid workforce. Unfortunately, that growth has seldom brought good news to the local employees of those companies. More often, it has brought a pink slip.

One San Francisco company, Kransco, grew to become one of the country's most profitable toy-makers using a combined U.S.-Mexico production operation. Kransco started as Wham-O in the 1960s, making familiar toys like hula hoops and Frisbees. It eventually branched out into boogie boards, hacky sacks, and Power Wheels.

Twenty years ago Kransco opened one of Tijuana's first maquiladoras, the foreign-owned assembly plants that began springing up along the border in the '70s. Soon it no longer employed Bay Area production workers, although its headquarters remained in San Francisco.

"The Tijuana plant was one of our big advantages," said Gary Gardner, who oversees manufacturing for Kransco. "It helped build our company and make it profitable."

Plantronics is another northern California company that has pursued this growth strategy. The company ran a factory in Santa Cruz for many years, employing hundreds of workers, who made telephone headsets and other communications equipment. Like Kransco, Plantronics was an early pioneer in building a Tijuana factory, which now employs more than 800 workers.

Since then, Plantronics has constructed a new building in Tijuana, relocating a growing number of operations from Santa Cruz. The company has reaped cost advantages, not only because the wages it pays are between 20 percent and 12 percent of those in the United States, but also because "all overhead, in every aspect, is at a much lower rate," according to Terry Walters, Plantronics' vice president for manufacturing.

"It has been a good experience, and we were lucky to have a first-class facility there when NAFTA and the government reduced restrictions," Walters added.

On Oct. 17, 1994, less than a year after the United States and Mexico approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, the company ended its mass production in the United States.

The effect of maquiladora production on U.S. workers, including those in northern California, is significant. The mere existence of a Tijuana maquiladora can provide leverage for a company bent on extracting concessions from its U.S. workers. In 1984 Diamond Walnut, part of the Sun Diamond Growers cooperative, used that tactic at its Stockton shelling plant, the world's largest. The 40-percent wage cut it forced on its workers eventually became the source of the current plant strike, now in its fifth year. According to UC Berkeley education professor Harley Shaiken, "Since NAFTA was signed, over 200,000 jobs have been eliminated in the U.S. and the production transferred to maquiladoras."


My life in a maquiladora

MARIA IBARRA is a middle-aged Mexican woman who works at Maxell de Mexico, one of Tijuana's largest maquiladoras. The plant manufactures tape cassettes and magnetic disks for computers. Last summer Ibarra described to the Bay Guardian her life as a maquiladora worker:

I've worked in the factory where I am now for three years. Three years is a long time, and what I have to show for this time is very little. You connect all the parts, you do your job, and try to keep up with all the things the company demands. But the benefits are very small, especially in terms of money.

I make 38 pesos a day [about $5], 264 pesos a week. Our wages are so low the company gives us a weekly bonus of food coupons worth 55 pesos. I have two sons who live with me. My oldest is 19, and the younger one is 16.

My oldest has been working in a maquiladora for four years, since he was ... 15 years old. He couldn't continue going to school because we couldn't get by on what I was earning. He had to go to work. The younger one just started in a small shop, where they're teaching him the job. And because he's still very small and just learning, he's earning enough for his bus fare and his food, and that's all.

As their mother, I felt very bad when they first went to work. Children should be in school. I wanted something so different for them.

When they were babies, I thought they were going to study and become something in life. But the economy failed. Because of our economic need, I was forced to send them to work so that we could survive. I can't say that this really solved anything. It was just so that we could live a little better. And it's not just my children -- they're just two of many others.

So between my oldest son and myself, we bring in about 410 pesos a week. Water is very expensive. Gas [for cooking] is very expensive. Food is very expensive. Better to say that I have to go to all the sales, where everything is the cheapest and on special, so that my paycheck can cover everything. If we want to eat meat, it can't stretch that far. It's more like we eat bones than we eat meat.

At the beginning of the year there's always a general wage increase, but before the increase takes effect, you see the prices going up on everything. Everything. Last January, sugar went up a peso. Milk, which cost 15 pesos, went up to 17.5 pesos. I only make 38 pesos a day, so I work half a day for a gallon of milk. I don't want to gain weight, so I don't drink it. But the kids need it.

When I talk to my friends at work, everywhere it's the same. When people get married, they both have to work. Young couples leave their small children with a neighbor or with their parents. The salary of a single person isn't enough to live on -- the family can't make it.

I have hope that things can change, but I see it as very difficult.

We tried to change things once in my factory. We had a problem -- we didn't have any transportation to work. At first we talked among ourselves, undercover, because we were afraid. Normally the majority of the people don't really participate in anything. We always fear we'll be discovered and fired. Everything has to be done undercover.

But we screwed up our courage and we said, Well, whatever happens, we're going to see what we can do. We got together a group of four or five people who spoke for the rest. And to show the company we weren't just by ourselves, we put it all in writing, and everyone signed what we wrote. We got people together, and we went to the offices of the company and we said we wanted buses. We made ourselves brave, and we talked, and thank god, we got them.

Sincerely, I was afraid that something would happen to me. The company doesn't like this kind of people -- people like us. Crybabies, they call us here. But winning really lifted our spirits, because even though getting a bus is not a lot, it's something. And we save enough at home to buy another container of water or a kilo of tortillas. So we won something real.

I talked to the assistant manager on our shift. I asked him, Why do they pay us so little; why can't they pay a little more? On the other side of the border, people working for the same company earn in an hour what we earn in a day. He told us that we couldn't pressure the owners to pay better. The company came here because we work so cheap. If we pressured them to pay more, he said, they would just take the work somewhere else, and we would be left without jobs. But I think this is really just an excuse, to make us grateful for our jobs.

Still, it's difficult to think about my own future. I'm too old to think about changing jobs. When you get to be older, you have to take care not to lose your job. Once you get to a certain age, they don't want you anymore. My future is very uncertain. I don't know what's going to happen to us.

I've thought about going across the border, but I'm afraid to do it. That's the truth. I'm scared. I have my sons. If I went to the other side as a foreigner, I would be afraid for them, to leave them alone.

If I'm not with them, there's vagrancy, there's delinquency, there are lots of dangers. If I left them by themselves, what would happen to them? It could be even worse. So leave for the other side and leave them alone? No.

But the younger one is desperate, and he says he wants to do it. I tell him he has to be 18 years old to go across. But really, he's free.

How could I stop him? It's very difficult anyway. Here or there, who knows what could happen? And over there, it's very bad. Because of lack of schooling, he doesn't know English. So what would he be going to? To be humiliated? To work? No, no, I tell him, better here. But he just says, Well, maybe later on then.