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In June 1997, workers for a Korean-owned, Tijuana maquila, Han Young de Mexico, went on strike for one day to protest low wages, hazardous conditions and lack of authentic union representation in the factory, which makes engine chassis and trailer-truck platforms for Hyundai (whose biggest client is the U.S. Marine Corps).
Three months later, a majority of those workers voted to join the anti-NAFTA Authentic Labor Front. It marked the first time maquila workers had elected an independent union since 1979.
Mexico's federal labor office in Tijuana nullified that election. When the workers voted again in December to organize the independent union, the labor office nullified that election as well. Han Young managers refuse to recognize or meet with Labor Front representatives.
In April, the U.S. National Administrative Office, the American agency charged with evaluating possible violations of the NAFTA labor accord, issued a report slamming Mexico's federal labor board for repeatedly violating Mexico's labor laws and assisting Han Young in suppressing the independent union drive.
The report called for the harshest sanction allowed--"ministerial consultations."
"The NAALC has no teeth," says Weiss. "There are no real penalties, so there's no real incentive for reform. It's a joke, and a sick one."
One month after the National Administrative Office issued its report, and shortly before a scheduled third election at the Han Young plant, workers--who feared management had hired enough CTM loyalists to throw the election--struck again, this time indefinitely.
Violent confrontations between scabs and strikers outside the Han Young plant brought Mexican tactical police out in late June. The police broke up the strikers, burned their strike signs and escorted replacement workers into the plant (Mexican labor law clearly prohibits the plant from operating during a strike).
At press time, the Han Young workers were still striking. The Committee for Justice in the Maquiladoras and several other U.S. organizations have filed new complaints with the NAO.
"Most maquila workers feel completely powerless," says Leslie Gates, a member of the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras, which began supporting maquila organizers in 1979. (CFO is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice group affiliated with the Quaker church.)
"They're even marketed as being this docile, cheap work force. But it's not true that maquila workers are docile all the time," says Gates. "What is true is that there are no powerful, confrontational unions in the maquilas."
CFO wants that to change. Its current effort, the Maquiladora Organizing Project, targets the maquila workers of Agua Prieta, which is situated across the border from Douglas, Arizona. CFO is funding one full-time Mexican organizer to recruit workers for house meetings in Mexico. During those meetings, bilingual American activists collect information on labor practices within the maquilas, tell workers their rights under Mexico's labor law and suggest ways to protest violations of those laws. CFO hopes the house meetings will plant the seeds for a labor movement.
Gates says CFO is focusing on Agua Prieta because PRI power brokers are firmly entrenched in Nogales. "PRI doesn't keep as close a watch on Agua Prieta," she says. "Strategically, it just makes more sense."
So far, Gates says, the house meetings have led to only one notable confrontation. Earlier this year, she says, the manager of an Agua Prieta maquila called Breed announced a new policy: Workers could no longer sit on stools. They were to stand so they could work faster.
"Unit by unit, they were taking away the stools," Gates says.
But a worker who had attended several of the house meetings protested.
"She got the rest of the people in her work unit together, and when the supervisor came and told them it was time to stand, they said politely they'd prefer to remain seated, and continued working.
"Word of their action spread, and over the next hour, about half of the 1,300 workers in the plant stopped working, and demanded their stools back. Production was essentially shut down for an hour and a half, until the manager gave the workers back their stools."
The workers then took it one step further, Gates says, and demanded that the managers install a stereo system in the production area, and let them select the music.
Breed managers did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"That may seem like a minor demand, but the fact is, they took action and got what they wanted," Gates says.
"It was a baby step toward liberation.