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Home> CFO in the Media 2002
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LOSING THE WHOLE WORLD AND FINDING EACH OTHER
Mexicans Struggle for Justice in Alcoa and Learn the Meaning of Solidarity

LA VOZ DE LA ESPERANZA
December 2002

By Judith Rosenberg

The day after the elections and the Republicans’ victorious sweep, I went into work and encountered in the break room a colleague in despair. Eileen is a Yankee, as I am, and I enjoy her combination of book- and street-smarts and her life long interest in politics. Even so, we’re not on the same page. To feel so low, she had to have had a lot at stake in the national elections. My activism however distracts me from the elections and even from the administration’s insistence on war which, as I write, is not yet in full swing. I do keep an eye on the war and it does look dangerous. But I always remind myself that one purpose of the US war on the Iraqis is to distract us from the administration’s war on us. My commitment as an activist is to keep the war that rages at home in the forefront of my vision and work.

Since I came to Texas I have channeled my activism through Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ATCF) which formed three years ago out of the realization that very near by, in Mexico, a social and economic system was proliferating based on ruthless economic and social oppression of working people; that U.S. corporations were perpetrators and beneficiaries; and that we don’t know nearly enough about it.

ATCF began taking delegations to border cities to find out about this system, the maquiladora system. We went to listen to the people who work inside the maquiladoras. Media and policy makers never do that. The workers’ voice is always the last voice heard. Austin Tan Cerca began working with a Mexican group called the Comité Fronterizo de Obrera/os (CFO), which organizes workers to advocate for themselves. The CFO is active in six border cities and centered in Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, three and a half hours from Austin by car, closer to San Antonio. Through the CFO, we hear the workers' voice.

We found that because of our struggle for a human relationship between our U.S. and Mexican groups, our lives and identities were changing; our own voices were different and so was our the way we understood the world and our everyday lives. We have struggled to find how solidarity can work between us and find the forms of a relationship between people separated by many borders of inequality and many histories of exploitation and distrust.

In the summer of 2001, I had time off and I volunteered to work for the CFO in Piedras Negras and nearby Ciudad Acuña for four weeks. They said come to Piedras and we will figure out how you can contribute. When I got there we sat around a table—their small staff increased by volunteers who happened to be there that afternoon, local people like like Amparo Reyes, also Juan Gabriel and Atanacio who had just arrived from Reynosa. Everyone who works for the CFO, as staff or volunteer, is a current or former maquiladora worker. They decided they would like me to teach English to their children and that I might accompany the organizers as they investigated the factories that were closing at the time; that was before 9/11 but the recession had already started. Some of these factories were literally stealing off in the night, without paying owed wages or severance, and absconding with raw materials and inventories that legally belong to the workers until others debts are settled.

With Juany Lopez, Margarita Ramirez, and Amparo, I traveled to Ciudad Acuña to attend weekly Saturday meetings of Alcoa workers—in the Alcoa company park; not much of a park: tree-shaded dusty ground near a lagoon, posted all around with signs that said (in Spanish)"This is your park. Keep it clean." No place to sit, people stood in a circle for hours. When the breeze blew from the direction of the lagoon, you smelled sewage. This actually was the subject of subtle humor. When a puff of wind came by, a few wits would lean back, pull a long face, and leer at their neighbors, suggesting the smell came from them. Then a chuckle would pass around the circle, like another wind rustling, a comedy break and a comment on Alcoa's idea of a park.

Alcoa is the biggest producer of aluminum in the world. Their automotive division in Mexico assembles electrical harnesses or distribution systems. Famous in Texas as the state’s biggest polluter, they burn lignite coal at their Rockdale smelter, Alcoa is also known for their arrogance in every community they touch. Acuña is no exception.

The gist of the discussions at those Saturday meetings was that the workers had myriad and detailed grievances that troubled them, especially since they had no grievance procedure. The previous October, with guidance from the CFO, a few hundred activists had won a 33 percent increase in compensation for themselves but also for Alcoa’s 12,000 employees in Acuña, an historic achievement. Each worker still had to fend for her or himself though. No unions of any kind exist in Acuña by special arrangement of city government, intending to make the place more attractive to foreign investment and deliver to it inexpensive and defenseless labor. In the past 10 years migration from the south has doubled Acuña’s population. Since the maquila’s pay no local taxes, the city can’t provide infrastructure for the new inhabitants, a rampant case of un-development. In their meetings under the tree, Alcoa workers were struggling for a remedy to their grievances in the form of a workers' committee which local management recognized sporadically, on whim. Management's unpredictability constitutes a special kind of disrespect; a particularly devious way of keeping the workers guessing about any commitment they make.

The first grievance I heard about had something to do with a supervisor accusing workers who were doing maintenance of stealing plastic garbage bags that had the Alcoa logo on it. A repeating theme, though, was harassment of women and pressure on pregnant workers. Men were the strongest speakers to this offence, even single men, like Enares who was a popular speaker and had a particular eloquence. He was so present; he seemed to find his words only as he said them. Hector Reyes was spoke frequently too. He always announced his name proudly, for the pleasure of it, even though everyone knew who he was. Cheerful and dapper, dressed in pleated slacks, he usually spoke with one hand in his pocket, the other gesturing.

For me the meetings had a sacred quality. They were a sustained form of collective searching and knowing which, despite my many years in graduate school, I had never before witnessed. The workers had great pride in coming together and being with each other, a company of saints, actors in history, changing the world by their love for one another, and by their patience and determination to see and act.

I attended with the women from Piedras Negras--Juany, Amparo, Margarita--all women I had known for a few years but had never seen them dress up as they did to accompany their compañeras/os in Acuña. In their good shoes, they would tread the dust, packing along their copies of La Ley Federal de Trabajo, a hefty 1200-page red-covered paperback. I have learned reverence for this book; the workers are using it as a tool to pry loose and gain possession of their inheritance from the Mexican Revolution. Workers and campesinos died for the Revolution in staggering numbers. What they got out of it in return, as I see it, is mostly potential, the hope of realizing the many protections and reforms which are written in to the constitution and the labor law. This is their legacy which Fox, along with Salinas earlier, attack when they chip away, “modernize,” or neo-liberalize Mexico’s laws.

During the meetings, the organizers would huddle on the sidelines and consult one-on-one with a worker who needed legal advice. The last weekend I was there, the workers hosted a visitor, the president of the biggest labor federation in Brazil. They organized an itinerary for him that included speeches, discussions, and meals at places more elegant than Parque Fifi, as the workers have dubbed Alcoa’s park. They planned other stops to
show, rather than tell, the labor leader the conditions of their lives and work.

Prominent on the tour was the house of Hector Reyes, one room he shared with his wife Lucía Santiago and their 8-year-old son. The room was dominated by their double bed, and Lucía lay in it. Hector had set up chairs for visitors at the foot of the bed and an electric floor fan to cool us. He served us Jamaica tea and orange soda in paper cups. He had lost his brightness. Lucía, the center of attention, was the most depressed person I have ever seen; but she had agreed to see us and Hector was eager to tell what had happened. Three days earlier, working on the night shift, Lucía had miscarried. The loss had followed months of tension between herself and her supervisor who had recently, in direct violation of the law, assigned her to a heavier work assignment. At a moment that some young couples would hold as private, Hector and Lucía wanted to give testimony and expose the harassment and the pattern of injustice. I asked Lucía for permission to take a photograph.

That was my last trip to the border that summer. Lucía was so despondent, I wondered if she would ever get out of bed again. She did. A few weeks later, a company
bus hit another pregnant worker, Leona, while she was walking to work, a few minutes late. Leona saved the baby, but sustained an injury to her hip and a permanent disability. No one would take financial responsibility for her injury; no insurance covered her.

For many workers, months of frustration and desperation came to a head. Leona went on a hunger strike in front of one of the Alcoa factories. In a flash, Lucía leapt from prone to upright and joined Leona in the hunger strike. So did Philipa, a worker who had no personal grievance, but who acted on principle. Inside the factory, every worker
participated in controlled work stoppages; line-by-line, they stopped working for a period of time to signal their solidarity with the women outside. The protest was beginning to spread to other Alcoa factories. There are 11 of them in Acuña. Management was horrified and frantic. They rallied the mayor and the chain newspaper to their aid and denounced the workers for "destabilizing the source of employment."

I am going to end the story here, on a note of embattled victory, in a moment of shining solidarity. It is one story out of a long history, which continues. I never saw Lucía and Hector again; I did meet Philipa, a woman with a bright and generous spirit, who helped to host our Austin Tan Cerca delegation in October that year. Following the hunger strike and the work stoppage, the police moved in to help Alcoa fire 186 workers including most of the people that met at one time or another in Parque Fifi. They don’t meet anymore; some who were part of the movement are isolated and bitter now. Some, however, will never lose the sense they gained of losing the whole world and finding each other. They still get excited and their eyes shine when they talk about their rights. For everyone though the mobilization in Acuña did not fail in the sense that everyone carries with them the knowledge of rights and the sense of possibilities, that is, in effect, a new identity.

For me witnessing their solidarity is transforming; I see an enlivening sense of connection that builds slowly then suddenly bursts out to affirm everyone it touches-- explaining or dismissing questions, healing wounds. Solidarity is why the people are strong and why the power of the domination system, that looks so monolithic, is, in fact, a hoax and, as Noam Chomski said when he recently visited Austin, quite fragile.

The focus of the struggle in Alcoa shifted then to Piedras Negras where there is a union, though a grossly ineffective one that represents the company’s interests (the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos or CTM has been known to negotiate lower wages and to recommend that workers accept less than legal severance pay!!), and where workers seeking an independent voice have managed to win two elections, one in each of Alcoa’s Piedras Negras factories. The elections placed pro-worker representatives on the CTM’s union committees. In October, Alcoa fired 20 people for organizing, among them 4 of the 5 new union reps. Not only is Alcoa the world’s biggest producer of aluminum, it’s a Fortune 100 company and its former CEO is Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury. They easily control the media and deny their attacks on workers’ rights because no one ever hears the other side of the story. They are trying to crush a democratic movement for dignity and autonomy. But look out, Alcoa…

La Ley Federal de Trabajo vive! Tienen derechos!

 

WHAT THE LABOR LAW SAYS ABOUT MOTHERS’ RIGHTS
Article 170 of The Mexican Federal Labor Law, my translation:

The women workers will have the following rights:

I. During pregnancy, they will not do work that demands considerable force and significant danger for their health in relation to pregnancy, such as lifting, pulling or pushing heavy weights, such as work that produces vibration, or requires them to stand for long periods of time or work or do work that can alter their physical or mental (nervous) state.

II. They will enjoy a rest of six weeks before and after the birth.

III. The rest period referred to above will be extended as necessary in cases where work is impossible because of the pregnancy or birth.

IV. In the period of lactation, they will take two extra rest periods per day, each of a half hour, to feed their children in a hygienic place set aside by the company.

V. During the period of rest referred to in section II, above, they will receive their whole salary. In extended periods of rest, mentioned in section III, they will have the right to 50% of their salary for a period of no more than 70 days.

VI. To return to the position that they were filling, no more than a year will have elapsed from the date of departure; and .

VII. Both the pre- and post-natal period will count in
the calculation of their seniority.

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Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
Monterrey #1103, Col. Las Fuentes
Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México