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San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 11, 1997
TIJUANA, MEXICO -- Each morning, as the sun rises over Tijuana, thousands of workers stream out of dusty barrios, up the hillsides, and into the industrial parks on the mesas above. They surge into the city's countless assembly plants, or maquiladoras. But on June 2, few workers entered the gates of Han Young de Mexico.
When the plant's 120 employees arrived at the factory, most huddled in knots in the street outside instead of trooping into work, their calls to mobilize for a strike rising loudly in the morning air.
For two days they demanded negotiations -- first with their bosses, then with the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board (Mexico's equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board).
By the end of the second day the company had agreed to negotiate all of the strikers' demands. That was a historic achievement in the maquiladora industry, which has a dark history of denying workers' rights.
Han Young de Mexico is a feeder factory for the huge Korean Hyundai manufacturing complex, one of the largest in Tijuana's vast industrial patchwork.
Its workers build chassis for truck trailers and huge metal shipping containers. The chassis are finished in the main Hyundai plant on the outskirts of Tijuana. Workers said the walkout was incited by low wages and fears that the company would fail to pay the workers the semiannual share of the factory's profits mandated by Mexican law, as it had failed to do in the past. Workers earn between $36 and $48 a week and work under dangerous conditions in a city notorious for workplace accidents.
Han Young workers say they often lack protective masks, gloves, and safety shoes while welding the big metal assemblies. According to a worker who requested anonymity, the plant has no ventilation system, and lead fumes from soldering have caused permanent eye damage to a number of workers.
The strike was different from other economically motivated walkouts that have hit Tijuana's factories in the past. At the heart of the Han Young workers' demands was company recognition of their independent union.
Han Young's managers, like most maquiladora executives in Tijuana, make a regular payment to officials of the company's union, which is part of the Revolutionary Confederation of Mexican Workers. The union never meets, and its representatives rarely if ever visit the plant.
Workers with complaints get no assistance. The company is paying for labor peace, not to settle grievances or resolve problems.
Company unions are the primary protection for foreign corporations that have built factories on the border. They enable owners to pay extremely low wages, even by Mexican standards, and to maintain dangerous and even illegal working conditions without fear of worker resistance.
For years there have been attempts by workers to get out from under company unions.
In 1993 workers at Tijuana's Plasticos Bajacal plant held an unprecedented election, in which they unsuccessfully tried to form an independent union. During a high-profile conflict in 1995 workers at the big Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo were beaten at the plant gates after they tried first to take over the company union, then to form one of their own.
In both cases worker activists were fired and blacklisted from employment at other factories along the border. But the tide may turn at Han Young.
"If workers succeed here, the formation of independent unions could sweep like a wave through the factories of Tijuana, where conditions are much like those at Han Young, and to other cities along the border as well," Enrique Hernandez says. Hernandez is president of the Civic Alliance, a community organization that supports workers and provides legal advice.
The Han Young strike is the latest in a series of battles that has inundated Hyundai's Tijuana operations. Hyundai's labor conflicts are closely tied to the company's effort to expand its factory and warehouse operations onto land on the outskirts of Tijuana. The planned expansions have put the company on a collision course with the people who live on that land, in the community of Maclovio Rojas.
Maclovio Rojas sits on a dry, flat, sandy lowland, surrounded by barren, treeless hills on the eastern edge of Tijuana. Its homes are made of scrap lumber and materials salvaged from maquiladoras: old pallets, unfolded corrugated shipping cartons, and other castoffs.
The land doesn't seem very desirable. But on the other side of thedirt road leading from the main highway looms the Hyundai warehouse. Maclovio Rojas residents believe Hyundai wants their land as well.
The growth of the maquiladora industry is transforming life for the two million people who live in what used to be a small tourist town. There are now 700 maquiladoras in Tijuana. The devaluation of the peso and the signing of NAFTA have inspired a building boom. In the first three months of 1996, 134 new factories began production along the United States-Mexico border. Signs on the gates of almost every plant advertise jobs available.
Maclovio Rojas was settled by people who could find no other place to live in the rapidly expanding city.
"Tijuana was created this way," Eduardo Badillo, general secretary of the Border Workers Regional Support Committee, says. "The government calls these settlements 'invasions,' but whatever you want to call them the law recognizes our right to settle and build homes."
When Hyundai built its factory nearby, a struggle broke out over the land under the settlement. Residents refused to abandon their homes, and in 1995 the barrio's leader, Hortensia Hernandez, was arrested. She spent five months in prison.
Hyundai has been plagued by labor unrest. In the main plant, workers complain of being hit by Korean shop-floor managers. The safety sensors on many machines have been disabled, and in numerous accidents people have lost fingers and hands.
"Based on the numbers on workers' ID cards it appears that in seven years over 7,600 workers have passed through a plant which only employs 1,500," Jaime Cota, of Tijuana's Workers' Information Center, says.
Hyundai has subcontracted out its most problematic operations to companies like Han Young. At one such plant, Daewon, 16 workers were fired in industrial unrest last July. At another, Laymex, 91 workers walked out in August. Laymex and Daewon workers then marched to Hyundai's main factory to call for a raise in pay.
There they were joined by the residents of Maclovio Rojas.
Hernandez and two other barrio leaders, Artemio Ozuna and Juan Regalado, were arrested the following day. "We were imprisoned because we were not only fighting to keep our land but because we supported striking maquiladora workers at a Hyundai contracting plant," Ozuna says. On his release from jail, Ozuna began putting together a workers' center in Maclovio Rojas. Discontented Han Young workers used the center's support to organize their strikes.
The fights in Maclovio Rojas and Han Young were supported by aid from U.S. activists pushing one of the newest tactics in labor's arsenal -- organizing from both sides of the border. San Diego's Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers has mobilized southern California unions to send money, fire off telegrams, and bring observers during the strike. The western region of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers donated $5,000 for a building to house a workers' center, while other support has come from San Diego's janitors' union, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, and unions at UC San Diego.
"We try to even the odds faced by maquiladora workers who get into fights with factory owners and the government," says Mary Tong of the San Diego committee. Tong says that educating people in the United States is also crucial.
"In a global economy, the jobs and livelihood of people north of the border can depend on the outcome of the struggles of workers south of it, at factories like Han Young," she says.
David Bacon is a Bay Area freelance writer and photographer who covers labor issues.
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