For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers
The CTM and the “Gringo Conspiracy” In the Maquiladoras
Masiosare, La Jornada
According to local leaders of the CTM in Coahuila, “the troublemakers are U.S. unions who want the maquiladoras to leave Mexico.” But union officials at the border who accuse maquiladora organizers of selling out their country seem oblivious of the fact that the CTM and the AFL-CIO signed a 1998 accord pledging to “facilitate cross-border contacts between U.S. and Mexican unions in specific sectors, in coordination with their respective national confederations, for the purpose of strengthening union representation and the enforcement of workers rights, with a focus on Mexican nationals working in the United States and workers employed in the Mexican maquiladoras.”
For years, the CTM has been promoting certain views about worker organizing in the maquiladoras. Such views deserve to be clarified — or perhaps, in the CTM’s own charro jargon, “unmasked.”
For the CTM, if workers fight to earn anything beyond 350 to 700 pesos for a 48-hour week, or to receive the overtime pay they are legally entitled to, or to pressure local union officials to hold regular membership meetings — they must be soft in the head.
That’s why, whenever maquiladora workers stand up either to union leadership or to management to demand their rights, the CTM starts blaming U.S. unions who are “using Mexicans who don’t care about their country to scare away jobs by stirring things up.” The CTM leaders imagine that everyone thinks (as they do) that workers cannot think for themselves. That they never have been and never will be anything but pawns to be manipulated by others.
Union officials, industry groups, and the media have spread such accusations about “outside agitators” actively. They’ve surfaced whenever U.S. unions or social activists have offered their solidarity — which frequently consists only of statements of support — to Mexican organizations that support the rank and file.
The truth, oddly enough, is exactly the opposite. If anyone has defended the indepen¬dence of the CFO from the political agendas of friends, acquaintances, and outsiders from both sides of the border, it’s Julia Quiñonez. It may be hard to understand, but these days it’s difficult, even controversial, for a group founded and led by rank-and-file workers and independent union activists to get a hearing.
Remember how the PRI used to say in the 1980s that Mexico’s activist leaders must be Salvadoran or Nicaraguan? The CTM started spreading the rumor that Julia Quiñonez must be a gringo, which was pretty amusing. Then they said if she wasn’t a gringo, she must be Chilean, or maybe Cuban.
Leocadios at the Border
The full-page ad was an indication of the desperation Leocadio and Rubén were feeling, given their imminent loss of control of the Dimmit local, one of the most important union locals in Piedras Negras, with a membership of more than 1500 workers.
The CTM has made similar accusations in towns like Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Río Bravo, Valle Hermoso, and Matamoros. Around there, another Leocadio — Leocadio Mendoza — has slammed labor activists from both sides of the border. “All this agitation is the work of U.S. unions who want the maquiladoras to leave Mexico.” To go back to the United States, presumably.
Coincidentally, in Tijuana, on the same day the attack ad appeared in Piedras Negras, members of the CROC, another bulwark of company unionism, were beating and kicking the leader and several members of the “October 6” independent union at the Han Young maquiladora. This incident occurred at the Camino Real hotel, just a few yards away from Mexico’s Undersecretary of Labor, Javier Moctezuma, and Louis Karesh, head of the U.S. branch of the National Administrative Office, the trilateral body that oversees NAFTA’s labor side accord. What were they all doing in Tijuana? Attending a seminar on union freedom in Mexico.
In his six years as a CTM official, Leocadio Hernández has done everything in conformance with CTM tradition, which requires union leaders to defend the companies; co-opt and corrupt newly elected local leadership; break strikes and cover it up; undermine rank-and-file struggles; misuse the “exclusionary clause” (you should hear all the workers in Piedras Negras who say, “the union fired me”); drag their feet on grievances; blacklist workers; loot union treasuries; and lie and deceive.
That’s why Leocadio is all washed up. He’s made enemies of the rank and file, of all the other CTM officials he’s betrayed, and of the state government. He’s become indefensible, and there’s a growing consensus that he needs to step down from his post, for the good of all parties.
The next step? The new head of the CTM in Piedras Negras shouldn’t be imposed by higher-ups in Saltillo or Mexico City. There should be an open and democratic process through which the rank and file can decide freely what type of union council they want for their town and who should head it up.
Tereso of Saltillo
At a recent press conference, in front of all the microphones, Tereso explained his version of the lesson in union democracy the CFO and the rank and file delivered to the CTM. “At Dimmit,” he said, “ten fired employees got together with 150 others and took more than 1500 workers for a ride. When the dust settled, Julia Quiñonez shows up to cash in, trafficking in workers at who knows what price. She shouldn’t be allowed to sell out our country like this — it’s an offense against Mexican sovereignty, independence, and justice.”
The CFO responded to Tereso on the radio program Dígalo y Punto (roughly, “spit it out”), which has a large audience in Piedras Negras. “Union leaders who are corrupt sell-outs are the ones destabilizing the maquiladora industry,” we said. “Since they won’t do anything to defend union members, but instead try to undermine them, all they accom¬plish is to increase dissatisfaction among workers and inhibit communication with management, which ultimately leads to protests.” This must be the “new culture of work” promoted by Tereso Medina. But if that’s how he plans to clean up the CTM’s image in Coahuila, he may end up as the next Leocadio. He’s already losing the support of other CTM officials in the state.
The CTM is like a sinking ship with a leaky roof. Its top levels in Mexico City are visibly disintegrating. Among the rank and file, its lousy reputation is often the most serious disincentive to the exercise of labor rights. At times, it becomes the workers’ main enemy.
Shooting Themselves in the Foot: The CTM/AFL-CIO Joint Declaration
We can’t tell you if anyone was selling Mexico out that day, but we do know that the two confederations reached an accord to establish a joint working group. The written declaration issued after the meeting states that “the AFL-CIO and the CTM will study how to facilitate cross-border contacts between U.S. and Mexican unions in specific sectors, in coordination with their respective national confederations, for the purpose of strengthening union representation and the enforcement of workers rights, with a focus on Mexican nationals working in the United States and workers employed in the Mexican maquiladoras” (emphasis added).
Who says there’s something wrong with developing relationships with U.S. labor unions?
There are also many political ties. Pair by pair, border cities hold ceremonies where the mayors from both sides meet in the middle of the international bridge to embrace each other and make lovely promises. Governors from both sides get together at meetings of border states, and so do national legislators at interparliamentary meetings. Even fire fighters from both sides have pacts of mutual assistance, so that sometimes you will see fire trucks racing from one country to the other to put out foreign fires.
The activities of numerous U.S.-based churches are also very visible. Some establish ministries in Mexican border towns. Others distribute charity, like lunches or used clothes, in poor neighborhoods, or organize groups of volunteers from the other side to build classrooms or housing. The authorities extend a warm welcome to such visitors, and even organize tributes for them.
Neither the CTM nor the maquiladora industry has ever questioned any of these forms of cross-border cooperation.
Workers’ organizations at the border are not going to cut off the relationships of solidarity we are building with individuals, social movements, religious organizations, or unions from all over the world. Isn’t this the era of globalization? Aren’t we living through the total economic integration of Mexico, the United States, and Canada? If borders no longer exist for capital, then they shouldn’t exist for workers, either.
Maquiladora workers don’t want their jobs to leave. But they do want better wages, decent working conditions, the right to organize, and union democracy. The U.S. unions and workers who support them aren’t hoping the maquiladoras will come home to the United States. In fact, through binational exchanges, groups like the CFO are helping U.S. unions and social movements to get past their protectionism, paternalism, and unilateralism, in order to create an authentic international solidarity based in equal relationships and the interests of working people themselves.
A Very Democratic Farewell
Leocadio Hernández and Rubén Aguilar searched in vain throughout Dimmit and all over Piedras Negras for the outside agitators from U.S. unions and the Mexicans who wanted to sell out the workers. The only ones present when Rubén lost the election were Dimmit’s 1500 workers, who used their secret ballots to bid a democratic and permanent farewell to both men.
The rank and file rolled right over Rubén Aguilar. On February 14, 2000, Dimmit workers voted by an overwhelming majority to demand a 10 percent pay increase, in spite of opposition from their local leader and the CTM.
Some months later, the workers moved into action when they staged a work stoppage on June 22. Rubén, the CTM’s man, “applied the statutes” to ten leaders of the rank-and-file action — that is to say, the company fired them at the union’s behest. Both Rubén and the company thought that would calm things down. On learning of the firings, however, 180 workers walked off the line to demand reinstatement of their coworkers. That was easy to handle — the company fired all of them, too. But the protests kept growing, and the company was soon obliged to reinstate all 180, although it refused to do the same for the first 10 workers who were fired.
The trouble didn’t stop there. The workers began stopping production to demand a membership meeting to elect new local leadership, since Rubeé’s term of office was about to end.
The membership meeting finally took place on June 28. Rubén Aguilar won 444 votes from workers at a newly opened plant. His opponent, Julio César Pérez, won 833 votes from workers who had participated in the rank-and-file movement. Julio said that all of the fired workers would be reinstated.
Dimmit is owned by a New York company known as Galey & Lord. It produces denim and manufactures jeans — mainly for Levi Strauss, but also for Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne, and Ralph Lauren. From the point of view of the unions, Dimmit is a key company in Piedras Negras, since its 1500 workers spread among six plants make it one of the two or three largest firms in the city.
Mexican terms used in this article that may be unfamiliar to English-speaking readers are explained below.
Maquiladoras are foreign- (mostly-U.S.-) owned assembly plants that line Mexico’s border with the United States. At latest count, more than 3500 maquiladora firms employed well over a million workers.
The CFO, an autonomous grassroots organization of Mexican maquiladora workers, is AFSC’s grassroots partner at the Mexico-U.S. Border. An explanatory footnote included with the original version of this article notes that the organization has worked for “19 years to educate workers in the maquiladora industry about their rights. It is composed of committees of workers from six border cities in the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Sonora [which border Texas and Arizona]. All its members are maquiladora workers or former maquiladora workers who participate as volunteers.”
The CTM (Confederación de Trabajadores de México – Mexican Workers Federation) is the predominant labor confederation in Mexico, analogous to the AFL-CIO in the United States. Historically it has been closely aligned with the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – Institutional Revolutionary Party), Mexico’s ruling party for more than seven decades, which lost majority status for the first time in the 2000 elections.
The CROC (Confederación Regional de Obreros y Campesinos – Regional Federation of Workers and Peasants) is a smaller, officially oriented labor federation.
Charro is a term used to describe unions or union officials who are corrupt or unrepresentative of the interests of the rank and file.
The “exclusionary clause” in labor contracts allows unions to require employers to fire workers who quit the union. On April 2001, however, Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the clause violated Mexican’s constitutional right to free association. The “exclusionary clause” has been long used by union officials to deter the creation of independent unions.
www.cfomaquiladoras.org is produced in cooperation with the
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)