Weiss and other union leaders argue it's an instance of one degree of separation: Companies use the threat of closing a plant and opening a maquiladora to sap the strength of organized labor.

"Weak unions drive wages down," he says.
Weiss cites a recent study by a labor economist at Cornell University that showed that since 1994, in more than half of the U.S. manufacturing sector union-organizing drives that reached the point of a vote, the company threatened to close the plant and move to Mexico.

The most vivid example reported in the study is the 1996 case of an auto-parts factory in Michigan, where, on the morning of a union election, employees arriving for work found several major pieces of their plant's machinery outside, on a flatbed truck, with a huge sign that read "Bound for Mexico."

The workers voted not to unionize.
"New Mexican plants achieving U.S. productivity levels at one-tenth the wages offer a powerful incentive for U.S. firms to relocate production or lower their labor costs by threatening to move, or both," says University of California economist Harley Shaiken, a maquiladora critic.

If the Mexican government and maquiladora owners continue to conspire to keep maquila wages down, Shaiken says, it could have a snowballing, negative effect on middle-class Americans.

"If artificially depressed wages prevent Mexican workers from entering the middle class, in an increasingly integrated economy, U.S. workers may get bumped out of the middle class as a result," Shaiken says.

Weiss says the remedy for all these ills is for American unions to devote more time and money to organizing workers in foreign countries.

"We must take this strategy," he told his Tucson audience. "Our eventual, ultimate goal should be contracts that cover workers in multiple countries.

"Companies cross all borders now, and so must we."
In April, the AFL-CIO sponsored a conference in the Dominican Republic that brought maquiladora organizers from all over Mexico to meet with labor leaders from the U.S. and Central America.

"Basically, it kicked off a multicountry, multitiered organizing drive that the AFL-CIO is putting substantial resources into," Weiss says.

"They're hiring an overall coordinator, and a country coordinator for several countries, and a substantial number of full-time organizers in Mexico, just to organize the maquila sector.

"This is the first effort of its kind, so we'll have to wait and see what actually happens."

During an industry conference in May sponsored by the Maquiladora Association of San Luis Rio de Colorado, one maquila adviser warned managers to beware of outside agitators.

"The AFL-CIO is gearing up for a big push in the maquiladoras," said John H. Christman, director of Maquiladora Industry Services for Cimex, a consulting firm based in Pennsylvania. "That's something we have to watch out for."

The percentage of Mexican workers who belong to a union is more than twice as high as the U.S.--36 percent to 14 percent. Most maquiladoras aren't unionized, though, and most of those that are belong to the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico, or CTM.

Mexico's largest union, CTM is generally viewed as a corrupt organ of Mexico's ruling political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. CTM routinely negotiates contracts with maquila management with no input from workers, according to numerous academic studies of Mexican unions.

Maquila employees pay dues to CTM, but there are no union meetings and no election of officers. Maquila employees are rarely informed of the terms of the CTM contracts they work under, the studies say.

"CTM's job is not to represent workers," says Weiss. "CTM's job is to keep the workers passive, and wages low."

Relations between CTM and the maquiladora industry are so cozy that many maquila bosses actually prefer the union's presence in their plants.

"There are no labor unions in Nogales," says Thayne Hardy, financial controller of four maquilas in Sonora. "And speaking as a member of the Maquila Association [of Sonora], our philosophy is, 'Let's treat the employees as good if not better [than] if they had a labor union.'"

On the flip side, Hardy says, when he managed a maquila in Chihuahua two years ago, "We had a labor union there--the big one, CTM--and we had very good labor relations at that plant.

"There were a lot of advantages to having CTM around. The union would screen new hires, they would take care of a lot of complaints, and they would discipline the workers, so they really helped take care of the labor force."

Independent maquila union organizers have several forces working against them: The maquiladora work force is young, apathetic and temporary; because of the legacy of CTM, most workers in Mexico view all unions as corrupt; also, turnover in the maquiladora industry approaches 80 percent per year.

Finally, the Mexican government has a tradition of harassing union organizers and signing off on union elections rigged in CTM's favor.

Under the North American Agreement on Labor Co-Operation, a side agreement to NAFTA, the Mexican government pledged to enforce the country's federal labor laws, which are progressive on paper.

The first true test of that promise, however, has showed it to be less than ironclad.

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