Comité Fronterizo
de Obrer@s


For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers

Spanish Version



The Emergence of Cross Border Labor Solidarity


Multinationals have internationalized their operations at a much quicker pace than U.S. unions. The debate over NAFTA had one silver lining: it compelled some U.S. unions to establish international alliances.

NACLA Report on the Americas

By Robin Alexander and Peter Gilmore

For six years Fernando Castro had responsibility for the management of chemicals at a motor plant owned by General Electric (GE) in the Mexican border city of Juarez . Last November he was fired for union organizing, a relatively common occurrence in Mexico .

But this time, things were different. In the shadow of the NAFTA debate, a spotlight was cast on the dismissals at this GE plant. By early February, the soft-spoken technician was on tour in the United States , stressing to North American audiences the importance of the assistance that the Mexican workers and their union had received from trade unionists north of the border.

"I want to tell workers here," Castro said, "that some of us who have been fired are continuing to organize from the outside, together with workers on the inside. I am here to make a commitment to those who are supporting our efforts that we will not stop until we have succeeded in organizing the plant."

The GE motor plant, Compafifa Armadora or CASA, employs approximately 950 workers and 100 supervisory staff. It produced 35,000 small motors in 1993up from 24,000 the previous year. Work at the plant largely came here from a Decatur , Indiana plant closed in 1989, which had been represented by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE). The hourly wage of GE workers in Decatur-approximately $13.50-was more than twice the daily wage of their Mexican counterparts in Juarez .

"Workers in the United States and Canada share a common interest in ensuring that Mexican workers are successful in organizing democratic unions and improving wages and benefits," says UE Secretary-Treasurer Amy Newell. "If they fail, we share a future of common misery. I prefer to think of a future where we sit together at the bargaining table with trade unionists from Mexico and Canada , and together take on transnational corporations such as General Electric and Honeywell."

For these reasons, explains Newell, UE and Mexico 's only independent labor federation, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), created a Strategic Organizing Alliance two years ago. "We believe it is imperative that we develop a new kind of international solidarity-one which is focused on organizing."

In this alliance, FAT agreed to target transnational companies in the maquiladora zone that have a bargaining relationship with UE in the United States . Since last summer, UE and STIMAHCS, the metal workers' union affiliated with FAT, have targeted the Juarez plant. UE has also established a solidarity fund; and recently launched a sponsor-an-organizer campaign to encourage unions, individuals, and other concerned organizations to contribute a fixed amount each month for a year. This will enable FAT to finance its budget and to put some of the fired workers back to work as organizers.

From November 4 to 7, 1993, a delegation composed of General Electric workers from UE Locals 506, 731 and 1010 met with workers from Compaiifa Armadora engaged in organizing. The U.S. delegation toured the neighborhood where the majority of Mexican

GE workers live, and discussed ways in which GE workers in the United States could support the efforts of the Mexican workers to organize a union. A Mac-Neil/Lehrernews team filming a story on cross-border organizing accompanied the delegation during part of its trip.'

Fired for union organizing, Mexican workers demonstrate outside the GE plant in Jurez to demand theirjobs back and the right to unionize.

Revelations that GE management had actively obstructed union-organizing efforts outraged (but did not surprise ) the UE members. They learned, for example, that the company now requires buses to drop workers off inside company property, so as to prevent them from receiving union literature. In other instances, managers snatched union literature out of workers' hands.

More serious, last fall GE terminated or pressured into "voluntary" resignations more than 100 Mexican She gave the company until December 10, the date of workers, including a woman who attended the UE convention last August in Cleveland. This was widely perceived as an effort by GE to rid itself of senior workers, of workers who speak up or complain about shop conditions, and of union activists. Because the economic pressure most of them leave quietly and do not challenge the company's actions.

Striking U.S. workers at the GE plant in Decatur, Indiana in 1974. GE closed this plant in 1989, and shifted production to Juarez.

The Mexican GE workers revealed that the company uses chemicals which have been banned at U.S. GE facilities. They described a variety of other violations, including failure to: pay overtime properly; give light work to pregnant women; provide adequate protective equipment and properly ventilated work areas; comply with health and safety requirements; and properly test workers who may have been exposed to chemicals or inform them of the results of these exams. The U.S. and Mexican workers also discovered that they were subject to the same unacceptable company practices-such as providing pizza, in lieu of compensation, to workers who meet major production goals. Out of these conversations, the workers began to develop plans for future communication and support.

Upon their return to the United States , two UE Locals immediately shipped a typewriter and health and safety information to STIMAHCS in Juarez . On November 22, UE leader Amy Newell wrote to the U.S. headquarters of General Electric outlining the types of labor-law violations described by the Mexican GE workers, and requested a company investigation and corrective action. An article about the trip was published in the November 19 edition of the UE NEWS.

Then the reprisals began. Over the course of the next two weeks, GE fired ten Mexican workers, all for spurious reasons related to union activity and what the company called "insubordination." Most had attended the UE delegation. Among those fired were two the man who hosted the gathering with UE, and a worker interviewed on MacNeil/Lehrer .

As news reached UE's Pittsburgh headquarters, Newell wrote a series of letters to General Electric. She gave the company until December 10, the date of a previously scheduled Conference Board meeting of UE leaders from GE plants, to correct the situation. When the board convened, delegates instructed Newell to inform President Clinton about the firings. They stressed the need for prompt action in light of the promises to protect labor rights made during the NAFTA debate.

On December 22, General Electric advised UE that it had offered to reinstate six of the ten fired workers. GE sent form letters to those people who inquired about the Juarez firings, declaring that all of the workers in question had accepted statutory severance pay.

In fact several of the fired workers-one of them Fernando Castro-have refused all deals, and are demanding their jobs back.

Meanwhile, at Honeywell's Chihuahua plant-a second factory targeted by the Strategic Organizing Alliance-low pay, lack of protective equipment, and poor treatment by management had convinced workers to organize as a local of STIMAHCS, the metal workers' union. The company responded viciously, coercing 20 women into signing statements that said they were voluntarily resigning. Management interrogated the women individually for up to four hours, in some cases offering them money if they revealed the names of those responsible for the organizing effort.

The Honeywell management offered in-shop organizer Ofelia Medrano a deal: if she signed a statement assuming responsibility for the organizing campaign and pledging to abandon the campaign, the company would guarantee her continued employment at the plant. After hours of harassment, Medrano eventually signed the statement, but was fired anyway. The Teamsters union, which represents many organized Honeywell workers in the United States , took the initiative in developing the U.S. support effort for the Mexican workers. The Teamsters encouraged concerned trade unionists to write protest letters to the company and President Clinton.

Dissatisfied with the responses of GE and Honeywell, and with the failure of President Clinton to even answer their correspondence, UE and the Teamsters took further action. On February 14, the two U.S. unions-with the full support of FAT--filed the first two complaints under the labor side agreement of NAFTA, with the U.S. National Administrative Office (USNAO), a small agency housed in the U.S. Department of Labor. 2 The unions requested that the USNAO initiate an investigation, and hold hearings on the mass firings and numerous labor-rights violations committed by GE and Honeywell in response to organizing campaigns at their Juarez and Chihuahua plants. UE and the Teamsters also asked the USNAO to examine the failure of the Mexican authorities to enforce Mexican and international laws protecting organizational and labor rights.

The two unions also organized a 13-city tour by fired GE worker Fernando Castro, fired Honeywell worker Ofelia Medrano Sánchez, and STIMAHCS General Secretary Benedicto Martinez, to publicize the violation of workers' rights in Mexico . The tour included rallies, press conferences, and meetings with members of Congress and a wide variety of groups. The tour was supported at the local level by various unions, Jobs with Justice Chapters, and fair-trades campaigns.

Official and Independent

Mexican workers, whose newly developed labor movement had radical socialist and anarchist leadership, played a major role in the Mexican revolution of 1910. The pact between the Constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza and the anarchist House of the Workers of the World was the beginning of what is rhetorically known in Mexico as the "historic relationship between the working class and the State."

Article 123 of the new post-revolution Constitution enumerated a series of labor rights and protections: it guaranteed the right to organize unions and to strike; it established the eight-hour workday, and minimum-wage and over-time standards; it protected the rights of women and children; it mandated health and safety protections; and it declared that workers must share in industry's profits.

The Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) was founded in the 1930s. With the backing of President Lázaro Cardenas, it quickly became the dominant labor federation in Mexico . Fidel Velásquez was the first organizational secretary of the CTM; in 1940, he became general secretary, a post he has held ever since. To limit the power of the CTM and strengthen government control over the unions, Cárdenas oversaw the creation of apart from the CTM-a mixed organization of farm workers and small property owners called the National Confederation of Cooperatives (CNC), and an organization of public-sector workers, the Federation of Unions of Workers at the Service of the State (FSTSE).

He made the CTM, CNC, and FSTSE official affiliates of the Mexican ruling party, the PRI. As a result, most union members were until very recently required to join the PRI. In many cases, dues were automatically deducted from workers' pay for both the union and the party. Unions of this type have become known as "official" unions, because of their direct relationship with the PRI.

The PRI-CTM links are especially tight. Many CTM leaders are important PRI politicians, often controlling the PRI machine at the local level. These politicians/union bureaucrats control vast amounts of patronage, and have the police at their disposal. The official unions lack democratic procedures such as membership meetings and secret- ballot elections.

In addition to the official unions, there are the sindicatos blancos (white unions), which are company unions that are not independent in any real sense. These unions are particularly prevalent in Monterrey , the base for two sindicato blanco federations. Even more pernicious is the practice of

Many in the U.S. union movement have begun to question the AFL-CIO's exclusive relationship with the corrupt, government dominated confederation of Mexican Workers.

The efforts of UE, the Teamsters, and FAT, through STIMAHCS, to organize GE's Juárez plant and Honeywell's Chihuahua plant are two examples of what has become known as cross-border labor organizing. The global reach of this type of organizing mirrors the rapid globalization of the world economy and the increasing mobility of international capital.

The Mexican government under President Carlos Salinas has enthusiastically implemented a neoliberal "modernization" program which has decimated real wages, cut social services, privatized much of the state, and opened the country to foreign investment. In the fire sale of state companies to private business overseen by Salinas , the government savaged collective-bargaining agreements, slashed wages, laid off thousands of workers, and destroyed job-security guarantees. The PRI's development strategy culminated with the implementation of NAFTA on New Year's Day.

A centerpiece of the drive to attract foreign investment is the maquiladora program. The maquiladoras, with foreign ownership, produce goods for export, largely to the United States . Today, half a million workers toil in some 2,000 maquiladora factories. While once restricted to Mexico 's northern border, maquiladoras are now appearing in the interior as well. The maquiladora work force is overwhelmingly women and poorly paid.

Over eight million Mexican workers are unionized. The vast majority, however, belong to unions tied directly to the "official" or government-dominated federations [see "Official and Independent Unions Angle for Power" p. 44]. It is extremely difficult to organize independent, democratic unions. "When we begin an organizing campaign," says Benedicto Martinez, one of FAT's national officers, "it is with the knowledge that we are taking on not only the company, but the government and official unions as well."

In general, unions within the AFL-CIO have been both reluctant and unable to establish meaningful relationships with independent unionists in Mexico . In part this is because the AFL-CIO has a historic relationship with the corrupt, government-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The reluctance is also, in part, a consequence of protectionist and xenophobic cultural traditions within the United States and the trade-union movement. The changing economic reality-reflected in the loss of thousands of high-wage jobs in the United States as U.S. corporations move to Mexico to take advantage of low-wage labor and slack environmental controls-is prompting U.S. unions to change their tune. 3 The debate around NAFTA has caused many in the U.S. union movement to question the AFL-CIO's exclusive relationship with the CTM and to explore the meaning of international Many in the U.S. labor solidarity.

Some U.S. unionists have begun to envision a future that includes not only cross-border organizing, but coordinated bargaining, strikes, and political action. Progressives see similarities in the struggles that U.S. and Mexican workers face. The labor laws in Mexico are, ironically, much better than those in the United States , but enforcement of these laws is a major problem in both countries. Organizing is tough in Mexico , but is hardly easy in the United States . Trade unionists generally agree that U.S. unions should not organize in Mexico ; rather, they argue, U.S. unions should help provide resources and create the conditions--through pressure on the U.S. government and U.S.-based transnationals-to enable Mexican trade unionists to organize in Mexico .

"We need an organizing response, not a political response," says Baldemar Velasquez, the president of the U.S. Farm Labor Organizing Committee. "We must fashion a union with workers in alliance, state by state, country by country. We must insist that workers' rights to wages and benefits such as health, education, and environmental safety be protected everywhere. As Americans and Mexicans alike, we are now less citizens of the nation in which we are born, and more citizens of the company for whom we work. This makes us equal. We must insist that this equality be reflected in our paychecks, our work conditions, our living conditions, our environmental conditions--for which the common company is responsible. This should impact the security of our jobs here and in Mexico ."

FAT national officer Benedicto Martinez delivers a letter to management on behalf of fired workers at GE's plant in Judrez. The company security guard (in foreground) refused to accept the letter.

U.S. progressives within the labor movement have responded to the crisis of labor rights in Mexico with a wide range of solidarity actions. These efforts have taken four forms: worker-to-worker interchanges, ranging from exchanges of information to financial or other kinds of aid; general support for independent organizing efforts; relationships between unions, ranging from exchanges of information to joint organizing projects; and efforts to spotlight poor environmental and working conditions, especially in the maquiladora sector.

One of the most interesting relationships was spearheaded by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 879, where Ford workers from Minneapolis joined with Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) members to provide support for Ford workers in Cuadtitlan. Unionists from all three countries have met on several occasions. In a symbolic gesture of solidarity, they have worn black arm bands to commemorate the death of Cleto Nigmo, a Ford worker killed by CTM goons. The UAW local has also initiated several innovative campaigns to provide financial assistance, among them an adopt-an-organizer campaign in which the local has pledged $300 a month for the Ford Democratic Movement.5 Workers who contribute receive an international organizers' jacket patch.

Other efforts have focused on unorganized workers. Mujer a Mujer is an organization based in San Antonio , Mexico City and Toronto which facilitates contacts among women workers in Mexico , the United States and Canada . It has organized tours, enabling rank-and-file and unorganized women-especially garment workers from Mexico and the southern United States -to begin a dialogue.

Labor Notes, a monthly publication of the Labor Education and Research Project, and the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE) have also organized conferences and delegations in an effort to foster a dialogue between both unionized and rank-and-file workers, generally on an industry-wide basis. TIE has helped organize several trinational auto workers' conferences in Mexico , which were attended by both union leaders and rank-and-file members. It also helped coordinate a telecommunication workers' conference in Mexico in February, which was attended by members of CAW, the Canadian Communication, Energy and Paperworkers' Union and three Mexican telephone workers' unions. This conference focused on changes in technology in the telecommunications industry, and the unions' response. Participants agreed to exchange information on a continuing basis via electronic mail, to summarize collective bargaining agreements, and to create a bilingual compilation of telecommunications terms.

The North American Worker to Worker Network (NAWWN), a newer coalition based in North Carolina , serves as an informational clearinghouse. It sponsors tours of activists, and is developing an emergency-response network for labor-rights violations in Mexico .

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has also brought workers and union officials together in a variety of forums. It places greater emphasis on dealing with representatives of Mexico 's official unions. AFSC also provides financial and other support to the Border Committee of Workers (CFO), an independent organization of women workers in the maquiladora industry. CFO is composed of women workers from a variety of plants, who meet together in their neighborhoods to learn about their rights under Mexican labor law, and to develop tactics to enable them to assert these rights without jeopardizing their jobs. CFO representatives have attended two annual Zenith shareholders' meetings to talk about low wages, long shifts, and exposure to hazardous substances at the Reynosa plant.

Cooperative efforts have also been made to provide training and technical assistance to Mexican workers, especially in the areas of health and safety. Last October, AFSC and the American Public Health Association sponsored the creation of a binational network of health and safety experts to provide free counsel for maquiladora workers. In a more problematic example given this union's reputation and top-down organizing approach, the Laborers' International Union of North America recently announced that it intends to begin training Mexican workers in environmental clean-up; the union hopes to receive funding earmarked by the EPA and U.S.AID for this purpose. Labor Notes also recently conducted a cross-border organizers' school which focused on the nuts and bolts of "successful mutual solidarity efforts."

Other efforts have focused on highlighting labor and environmental problems, especially in the maquiladora sector. During the anti-NAFTA campaign, the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund submitted a petition to the U.S. government seeking to expel Mexico from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The petition, drawn up with the assistance of the Mexican National Democratic Lawyers' Association, detailed systematic labor-rights violations in Mexico .

The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), a coalition of labor, religious and community groups initially focused on environmental contamination by U.S.-based transnational corporations.CJM was responsible for much of the media attention during the NAFTA debate on environmental pollution along the Mexico-U.S. border, including reports of the high rate of anencephalic births in the Brownsville/Matamoros area. In coordination with community leaders, CJM targeted specific polluters on "chemical row" in Matamoros . These campaigns led to the closure of two plants, which significantly reduced pollution in the neighboring colonias. More recently, CJM has supported community and worker organizing efforts, both directly and through activity by shareholders. It has begun an initiative to draw attention to the problem of the inadequate translation of warning labels on chemical containers, and has been instrumental in publicizing the recent firings of and police brutality against Sony workers in Nuevo Laredo .

Relationships between unions-generally either industry or company specific-also have beendeveloping for some time. One of the first company-specific relationships was developed by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) with its counterpart SNTOAC, an official farm workers' union which represents Campbell 's workers in Mexico . FLOC president Baldemar Velásquez credits the exchange of information and mutual support with helping SNTOAC get a 17% increase in wages and benefits in its contract at a time when a 10% ceiling was in place.

Ofelia Medrano (center) at a rally, organized by the Teamsters union outside Honeywell world headquarters in Minneapolis this February. Medrano was fired for union organizing at the company's Chihuahua plan

The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) also views work with Mexican workers and unions as a "key strategic front for the American labor movement," according to Jeff Hermanson, the union's director of organizing. It meets with Mexican unionists to provide them with encouragement and assistance in organizing.

Others, such as Eduardo Diaz of the U.S. Postal, Telegraph & Telephone International, views the international secretariats of trade union federations as promising vehicles for furthering international solidarity efforts. Historically, the international labor secretariats functioned primarily to promote their respective capitalist or socialist political programs. With the end of the Cold War, however, some trade secretariats are turning their attention to supporting organizing work by member unions. "It is important to refocus the secretariats away from meetings and resolutions," says Diaz, "and to provide concrete assistance to those who are trying to organize."

The Mexican trade unionists who toured the United States in February received a warm welcome at various union meetings, clearly signaling a greater openness on the part of the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions to expand their support beyond the CTM. This is an important and welcome change which has been developing over time.

 "I give credit to UE for being in the vanguard of efforts to raise living standards in both Mexico and United States ," says Rosemary Trump, international vice-president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "We are working through our international department to encourage the AFL-CIO to follow UE's lead in supporting independent trade unions in Mexico ."

With respect to internationalization, multinationals have been way ahead of the unions. The debate over NAFTA had one silver lining: it forced U.S. unions to reconsider international solidarity. Unionists will encounter innumerable obstacles in their efforts to forge linkages with their counterparts in Mexico , among them differences in language and culture, limited resources, the historical relationship between the AFL-CIO and the CTM, and a strongly ingrained sense of rivalry between U.S. and Mexican workers. It is imperative, however, that unions move forward to establish strategic international alliances. Ultimate success, of course, will require political change, not only in Mexico , but in the United States and Canada as well. But nothing will happen unless workers begin taking what at this point appear to be impossibly small steps.

Robin Alexander is director of international labor affairs at the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE). Peter Gilmore is editor of the UE News .



    is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
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Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México