Unions Struggle for a Foothold

One hundred metal folding chairs sit in neat rows on the stark, tile floor of the Tucson union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Seventy-nine are empty.
The rest are occupied by a mix of hard-boiled blue-collar workers, aging hippies and a handful of young activists from the local Quaker church.

They've come together on a Saturday in May to hear a lecture by Larry Weiss, a prominent union activist and board member of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. The subject: the new global economy, the maquiladora industry and the ramifications of both for America's labor movement.

A table in back of the hall holds a few bottles of soda, cups, ice, a bowl of chips and a stack of black-and-white pamphlets titled "Maquiladora Organizing Project." The fliers detail efforts by American activists to educate and organize maquiladora workers in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a city of 90,000 inhabitants, 13,000 of whom work in the city's 38 maquilas.

Weiss steps up to the podium. He's thin, with silver hair, wearing black work boots, jeans, and a blue, button-down shirt. Weiss is not a charismatic speaker, but a sense of urgency carries him.

He begins with three anecdotes that appear unrelated:
"The Smith-Corona plant in upstate New York recently closed its doors and shifted production to Mexico," Weiss says. "It was the last place in America to make typewriters."

This January, workers for a small electronics factory in Grover, Minnesota, got together on the weekend with an IBEW organizer to discuss forming a union.

"Just after the meeting began, the plant's human resources director burst into the room and says, 'If you even talk about forming a union, we're moving the plant to Mexico,'" Weiss says. "That's illegal, but she repeated her threat, the workers filed out of the IBEW hall, and the organizing effort was over."

Weiss goes into his third brief story, about a Mexican farming family that worked its land in southern Sonora for generations, but lost it to an agricultural modernization program in 1995.

"So they come to the border, and work in the maquilas for a while. But they decide it doesn't pay enough, so they cross to this country, and make their way to St. Paul, Minnesota," Weiss says.

The husband gets a job washing dishes, and the couple rents a small apartment, and, over time, have two children who, since they were born in the U.S., are U.S. citizens. "One day INS raids the restaurant, and gets the father," says Weiss. "The two kids go into state custody, and their parents are deported, so the family is torn apart."

Weiss holds up a newspaper account of the woeful tale.
"All these things are manifestations of what's being called the globalization of the economy," Weiss says. "And in this new, global economy, corporations scour the planet for the cheapest wages and most lax environmental and labor regulations they can find."

The question--and someone raises his hand to ask it--is, "Why should anyone in America care?"

First of all, Weiss says, it's just plain wrong for anyone to work full-time in a modern factory but sleep in a shack.

Beyond that, Weiss says, there are two reasons Americans--especially middle-class workers--should worry about the emerging trends of the globalized economy:

First, Americans are losing jobs as companies shift production to foreign countries where labor is dirt cheap.

Second, the wide availability of that same labor is driving wages in the U.S. down.

Is Weiss correct?
On the first count, yes.
On the second, perhaps.

The U.S. Department of Labor says 200,000 jobs have shifted from America to Mexico since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The United Auto Workers and IBEW say 500,000 is more accurate.

"It's a myth that the only jobs we're losing to maquiladoras are the ones no one wants," Weiss says.

General Motors is now the largest private employer in Mexico, with 72 maquiladoras. The automaker is also hiring 3,000 Mexican engineers for its new, worldwide design center in Juarez.

"The great majority of all the GM jobs in Mexico would be high-paying in America, and very high-tech on the electronics end," Weiss says.

U.S. unemployment is the lowest it's been in 27 years, but Weiss says that's a deceptive statistic.

"We're seeing a forced migration of U.S. labor from manufacturing to the service sector," he says.

If you lose a $16-an-hour union job making auto parts for GM, and start delivering pizzas, you're employed, but worse off.

The transfer of jobs to Mexico is one of the issues in the United Auto Workers strike against GM, now in its second month.

Here's another stat from the U.S. Department of Labor: Adjusted for inflation, the wages of nonsupervisory workers in the U.S. (75 percent of the work force) have fallen 14 percent in the past 25 years.

When Zenith closed its TV factory in New Jersey--the last in the U.S. to manufacture color TVs--and opened a gargantuan maquila in Agua Prieta, the cause-effect relationship was obvious.

Blaming foreign labor for the decline in U.S. workers' earning power is trickier.

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.

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."

Basically, a "ministerial consultation" means U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman met with her Mexican counterpart, Javier Bonilla, roundly scolded him, then flew home.

"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.


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