For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers
Reaching Across the Rio
By Mary E. Tong
They have been workers, and women, a world away, who had “stolen our jobs,” somehow partly to blame for the ever more desperate circumstances so many of their listeners faced.
But when they rose to speak in eastern Tennessee’s union halls, churches, and public forums, when they told of their fight for a decent life and what it cost them, barriers of language and border began to weaken, animosity gave ground to admiration, resentment to respect, suspicion to solidarity.
They said their typical sister worker began work as early as 13, supports her family, earns 75 cents an hour, and works 48 hours a week. She is routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other hazardous conditions, they said, until she is replaced at 24 or 25 when she falls prey to severe headaches or skin diseases, or her eyesight or lungs fail due to the strain and constant exposure to soldering fumes, solvents, and other chemicals. She is most often from a rural area and the first person in her family to hold an industrial job.
One of the speakers has herself worked for 75 cents an hour assisting the production supervisor at a Reynosa GM plant where she was responsible for seeing supplies were provided to work stations and the assembly line kept moving. She was fired for asking too many questions. The other has threaded wire used for auto flasher assembly at a Matamoros maquila, earning $1.10 an hour, with $6 deducted weekly for transportation.
What follows is their stories, the story of the worker exchanges they helped inspire, of the organizations that help make them possible, and of the promise of what they have done and continue to do to build the cross border alliances so long in coming, so long overdue.
A decade ago, when the Maquiladoras Project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) took up the challenge of teaching maquiladoras workers their rights and how to demand their enforcement, workers who participated in the consciousness-raising sessions formed Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), The Border Women Workers Committee. By holding weekly meetings and conducting training sessions for workers, says AFSC’s Ed Krueger, CFO generated volunteers for action inside the factories.
Mexican law is far more favorable to workers that the U.S.’s guaranteeing a minimum wage, an eight-hour day, the right to strike (except for public employees), severance pay, overtime pay, worker’s compensation, and liberal maternity-leave benefits.
Armed with this law, CFO quiet, low-profile, but firm way, to defend themselves – a method supervisors found extremely difficult to react negatively to. For thousands of CFO members in over 100 chapters, the complacent, easily victimized worker became a relic of the past.
CFO came to work closely with the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), an alliance of labor, religious, environmental, and community groups devoted to publicizing and improving conditions in maquila areas. The Coalition developed Standards of Conduct, a document calling all U.S. corporations operating subsidiaries, having affiliates or using contractors or shelter plants in Mexico to standards of a safe workplace, environmental protection, human rights, and economic justice on both sides of the border. To date, industry trade journals, have responded defensively, claming the industry is “clean” and a blessing for Mexican workers. The Coalition hopes trade talks will nevertheless provide an opportunity to develop binational policies incorporating the Standards as part of an enforceable social charter.
It was two CFO organizers, Theresa Hernández and Olga Jiménez, who came to Tennessee in February 1991 at the request of Frances Lee Ansley, an associate professor at University of Tennessee College of Law with a research interest in plant closings and maquiladoras.
As a board member of the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), Ansley’s interest was more than academic. TIRN, a coalition of workers, unions, community organizations, church groups, and concerned citizens – formed in 1989 to organize and participate in finding solutions to plant closings – teaches workers to take action to prevent closings and lessen their impact. (See Labor Imprint, page 9, for a review of TIRN’s Taking Charge: A Hands-On Guide to Dealing with the Threat of Plant Closings and Supporting Laid-Off Workers. TIRN is a local affiliate of Federation for Industrial Renewal and Retention (FIRR), a nationwide grouping of grassroots organizations that oppose plant closings and runaway shops. Affiliates engage in solidarity activities of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and FIRR advises them on organizational methods and resources. FIRR also assists organizations with workers exchanges.
Susan Williams of the Highlander Center, a member organization of TIRN, coordinated funding and preparation for the exchange. For 60 years, Highlander has made grassroots leadership development its objective. One of the most important training grounds for union organizers in the ‘30s it focus shifted in the ‘50s to civil rights, influencing such Highlander participants as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, and inspiring Septima Clark’s “citizenship schools” that taught thousands of African Americans to read and write so they could vote. Center workshops bring together grassroots organizers dealing with labor, community, and environmental concerns to share their experiences and visions with other leaders, analyze their work, and determine ways to help each other. Highlander also works with local organizations to conduct schools in communities across the country.
In addition to sending two organizers to Tennessee, CFO agreed to host a workers delegation from Tennessee. Many more Tennessee workers signed up to go than would be accommodated, so those most directly hurt by the emerging changes in the global economy were chosen. All had been involved in efforts around plant closures and were committed to take action in the interest of workers on both sides of the border upon their return. Besides Frances Ansley and Susan Williams, the delegation included a Palm Beach Company garment worker and six workers who lost jobs to Mexico: two from Magnavox, two from GE, one from Allied-Bendix Safety Restrains Division, and one from North American Phillips.
TIRN member Shirley Reinhardt participated because she lost her job when a GE plant moved to Mexico. Despite many months of looking for work, she only found temporary jobs, doing the same tasks as full-time workers for a fraction of the pay, with no benefits. (An article on her efforts to organize the Committee Against Temporary Services (CTAS) appeared in Beyond Borders Winter ’92 Issue.) She reported to other TIRN members that a GE supervisor sent to Nogales, Mexico to train employees to replace their U.S. counterparts returned horrified that the plant was working children at incredible low wages and using candy as a bonus rather than money.
At another Tennessee plant, the manager came to production workers after most of their work was transferred to Mexico and told them they had one year to convince management the Tennessee plant was important to the company’s future. Workers called it “economic blackmail” but didn’t know how to resist and found themselves discussing concessions rather than gains. One of the trip’s objectives was to use the lessons they gained to turn the situation around.
Before the trip, participants learned how the U.S. established its maquiladora policy in the 1960s when the bracero program, which encouraged Mexican to migrate to work in U.S. agriculture, ended. Touted as a remedy for massive unemployment, rapid maquiladora emergence provoked a sudden migration to the border area. With no housing available, shantytowns, known as colonias sprang up- often without running water and public services.
When the nine women arrived in Matamoros, they saw not only what attracts U.S. plants to Mexico, but what Mexican border workers are doing about it. Workers in Matamoros –the most advanced area of CFO organizing – know enough about labor law that if they are laid off or fired, they are most often able to get the indemnity funds or severance pay to which they are entitled. When unjustly fired, workers can now get before an arbitration and conciliation panel to place their demand or lawsuit.
CFO members have consistently pressed their unions. Almost all maquiladora workers are members of unions belonging to the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), which is generally considered to be government run. Matamoros is known by many as a “labor town” with 35,000 maquiladora worker members of Sindicato Jornaleros Obreros Industriales (SJOI), the Union Journeymen and Industrial Workers. Founded by Agapito Gonzalez Cavazos over 50 years ago, SJOI is known for its tough, nationalistic stance. Local sources credit Gonzalez’ personal aggressiveness in confronting the maquiladora owners as the reason Matamoros workers boast wages 50% above their counterparts in other areas of Mexico.
But last fall, with Mexico’s election and contract negotiations coming up, government and corporate forces seemed determined to reduce Matamoros’ wages by one-half to four fifths to match Reynosa or Rio Bravo.
Gonzalez had to pay a bond for his release and could still be re-imprisoned at any time. At the time of this writing contracts are being negotiated without Gonzalez. Meanwhile, in an attempt to reduce the average wage, plants have been laying off workers and directing to go to another factory where they will start over. CFO has responded with stepped-up training.
The Tennessee contingent attended CFO’s semiannual meeting. They heard delegates from CFO chapters in many border cities report on their success and plans. Said Maria Guadalupe Torres, Regional Coordinator of CFO, “We discussed why here in Matamoros we have influenced many unions to bring change. We have the highest wages and least hours per week – 40 instead of 48. In other places they tell workers that if they don’t work overtime, they won’t work at all. This is a way of oppressing us, making us work 2, 3, 4 double shifts each week.”
Through CFO, workers have their own counselors to provide protection against attorneys too eager to settle with the company. Workers threatened with firing know they are entitled to demand a written letter of dismissal. Such a request is usually enough to force rescindment of the firing. In many plants the supervisor or manager must now fear the law rather than intimidate workers by breaking it. Members discussed how hundreds of these workers have avoided firing, having shifts changed or other corporate impositions regarding their work and defended themselves against sexual harassment by abusive supervisors through using their skills. They know how to run work stoppages if goggles are not provided when needed, or if an extractor or exhaust fan is not working.
Since the Tennessee workers did not speak Spanish and few CFO members spoke English, a skit was chosen as the best way to convey the Tennessee delegation’s objectives. After drawing on each other’s experiences and knowledge of the maquiladoras, the travelers rehearsed their collaborative effort at overnight hotel stops on the way to Mexico. Their play, depicting U.S. workers concerns on an off job and why they chose to make the trip, was well received by the gathering; who joined in singing a rousing Solidarity Forever in Spanish.
The exchange of performances and real-life concerns, fears, and hopes for the future forged a resolve toward action that all worker participants agree would have been impossible without the trip.
CFO and CJM organizer took the delegation through a neighborhood between two chemical plants with a chain link fence on one side and a concrete wall on the other. Behind the wall was an open chemical vat. After experiencing chemical contamination following a 1983 plant explosion, community residents here organized to protest the constant, unbearable stench and publicize their fear of another explosion at Retzloff, Petrolite or Stepan Chemical. In 1987 they presented a petition with their concerns to the Matamoros mayor, explaining they had faced chemical intoxication and had to flee their homes many times.
“ In 1990 they had a spill where people had to leave their homes for days,” says Barbara Bishop, a member of the delegation. “Any of the animals that didn’t die had to be killed.”
Recalled Jiménez, “There was a very serious accident which was a big leak at the Retzloff plant. A pipe exploded. A big cloud came out of the plant and drifted away in the wind downtown to another maquiladora plant. Through the ventilation system, workers inside this plant started breathing poisonous air. More than 83 workers got sick and started having headaches, but the manager wouldn’t allow the paramedics team in. They would only allow workers into the backyard. It was only when workers started passing out that they would allow doctors in to assist them.” Local newspapers reported the poisonous gas was pentachlorophenol – a wood preservative linked to cancer, birth defects, weakening of the immune system, and blood, liver, and skin diseases.
Since the worker exchange, reports Torres, twenty workers became ill from exposure to another chemical accident involving pentachlorophenol in December 1992.
Retzloff Chemical recently closed as the result of a campaign by the Texas Center on Policy Studies which has, together with CJM and CFO, focused attention in the past few months on the Illinois-based Stepan Chemical Company’s dumping solvents and other chemicals into the canals and grounds of the colonias. (See review of Stepan Chemical, The Poisoning of a Mexican Community on page 10.)
While the Mexican workers welcomed the visitors, management was less friendly. At General Motors’ Deltronic maquiladora in Matamoros, the manager, who said he would arrange their entrance, never returned. Tired of waiting, the workers marched into the lobby and began taking pictures on this plant known locally for its refusal to allow emergency equipment to come in during a large fire in May 1990. Local papers reported ninety women workers suffered intoxication from fumes while Deltronicos denied paramedics entry, claming the situation was under control. The manager, who reappeared and ushered the crew into a conference room, claimed he could not tell the delegation what the average hourly wage at his plant is.
June Hargis reports this factory moved from Kokomo, Indiana. Workers make auto stereos and are paid $35 for a 45 hour week. Seeing the stark reality of these wages amidst prices for goods like those in the U.S. says Hargis, is when she fully realized NAFTA was solely for the interest of the corporations moving to Mexico to increase their profits. “It’s a one-way street. There’s no way at the wages these companies pay Mexican workers that they can afford to buy anything we’d make in the U.S. I believe we’ll never get those jobs back, but if we insist the Mexican people are treated right, the U.S. government and corporations will not be so ready to move, because they won’t be able to get by with paying slave wages.” The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras says GM is in clear violation of environmental laws because of its release of xylene, a toxic chemical.
“ The Mexican workers thought the first thing we would say was we were mad because of all the lost jobs, but we had to realize it is no their fault. The U.S government and the corporations have made slaves out of them, and they face the same threats we do of plants fleeing to other countries if they demand better conditions,” said Hargis.
This understanding spawned another worker exchange between Guatemala maquila workers and CFO members in the summer of ’92. Guatemala, where labor law is also quite favorable to workers but its enforcement weak to nonexistent, has become not only a primary maquila growth area, but one of the most dangerous places in the world for labor organizers. (See “Guatemala: Solidarity Making the Difference,” page 24) CFO organizers compared Guatemalan labor laws with their own to determine ways Guatemalan workers could apply CFO methods to their own defense. They showed the Guatemalans their own approach to skills training through role playing and discussed ways Guatemalans could take low-key but effective action in their plants. Since then, CFO organizers have kept in regular contact with their sister workers in Guatemala’s garment industry. The workers at Phillips-Van Heusen’s subcontractors who visited CFO went on to win union recognition by the Guatemalan government last fall.
These workers have forged the beginnings of a relationship of international solidarity they believe is crucial to their future in the global economy. Remarked Torres, “These workers from Guatemala suffer such oppression, yet they continue. We’ve been building this movement for 10 years through very slow, very discreet, very quiet organizing. In Guatemala they face so much repression that I’m sure our methods will work, but it is important they try. We gave them the materials we could and will keep in contact.”
While concern about job loss and Tennessee’s future propelled the U.S. women to take two rented vans to the Mexican border to visit CFO members, it was a newfound solidarity with the women they befriended that compelled them to make their exchange the launching off point for continuing solidarity efforts. The excursion had changed their lives forever, building relationships and understanding that would reach far beyond themselves and the individuals they met.
After their return, the Tennessee workers presented a slide show of their journey to labor organizations, peace groups, church groups and community organizations throughout the region. “Every time I show it, it's like I go back there. It will always be in my heart and mind hours a day,” says Hergis. A pitch for funds for a CFO van accompanies each presentation.
Exchange participants wrote letters in support of the workers and the surrounding community to companies they saw. Hargis gives an example: “In Matamoros we met with farmers next to a chemical plant. They were told it would be making cosmetics, but when it moved in they found it produced insecticides. Now their crops are half what they had been before the plant came. The company told them, ‘If you don’t like it, you must move.’ The farmers said, ‘We’ve been here 20 years. You move!’ We wrote letters to the company about the farmers’ situation.”
According to Austin, Texas news reports, farmers believe the chemical hydrofluoric acid causes fruit to drop off the trees, leaves never to become green, and their children cough and gasp. An analysis of sorghum and other plants in the area by Dr. Maria de Lourdes de Bauer of the Autonomous University of Chapingo, Mexico confirmed the farmers’ belief showing fluoride content of 40 parts per million in the leaves. This plant is partly owned by Dupont Chemical Company and 85% of its production is sold to a Dupont subsidiary.
Two exchange participants made presentations to INFACT, the international corporate accountability group that won reforms in infant formula marketing through its Nestlé boycott and recently succeeded in moving GE, the most influential nuclear weapons contractor in the United States, out of that business. They stayed on in Washington, DC to lobby Tennessee Congressional people about NAFTA. They also helped to organize a rally last fall against the agreement, joining union, environmental, community and international human rights organizers from throughout Tennessee.
The exchange was featured on the PBS Nova series hosted by Robert Reich in an episode entitled “Made in America – Winners and Losers.” TIRN plans to make a video for use in education and organizing from the leftover footage.
“ One person in our trip said that they should put up a sign by those neighborhoods ‘America Made.’ As long as a live, I will never forget seeing the conditions our own corporations are willing for their Mexican workers to live under.”
“ We are not against increased trade with Mexico. And we are certainly not against Mexican workers having jobs. But we are against blackmail. We are against any kind of system that pits workers against each other on the basis of which one can be forced to take the lowest wage. We are against any system that encourages corporations to go shopping for the lowest wages or the most tax break. But our government seems like it wants a system like that. Its reaction to the global economy is that corporations need more freedom! A visit to the maquiladoras will show you what freedoms without responsibility can mean.”
“ Going to Mexico made me realize what a huge gap there is – in wages, and conditions and law enforcement. Our fight is not about taking jobs from Mexican or U.S. workers. It is not about trying to keep that gap. It is about unity and human dignity.”
Says Torres, “I believe the only way of solving the problems is to continue organizing workers throughout the world, wherever they work. Oppression is the same in different industrial areas, and we must strategize together to confront the problems affecting our lives and culture… that are making us like machines. Together we can organize more each day for respect of human rights, the protection of life, health of women, and an end to violations of women’s rights.”
www.cfomaquiladoras.org is produced in cooperation with the
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)