December 14, 2001

U.S. Recession Fallout - Mexico's Border Workers Rebel

By David Bacon

MONTERREY, NUEVO LEON — The U.S. recession is wreaking havoc in Mexico, especially along the border, where the struggle for survival in the face of job loss and low wages may be fueling a labor war.

Front-line staff at humanitarian, religious and labor organizations has seen renewed protest among men and women who work long hours for little money in maquiladoras, assembly plants run by U.S. and global companies.

The economic situation has challenged many Mexican families. A survey this spring by SEDEPAC, a barrio organization in Torreon and Ciudad Acuña, found it takes $150 a week to provide food, housing and transportation for a family of four. A typical maquiladora worker makes just $32 to $35 pesos a week.

"We asked people, `How do you survive when there's such a huge gap?'" says organizer Betty Robles. "Many told us that two and three families share a couple of rooms, pooling income to cover rent and basic needs.

"In our communities, the whole family works," Robles says. "You see kids 9 or 10 years old bagging groceries in supermarkets or washing cars on the corners. The daughter of one of our activists was 13 when she went to work in the factory."

America is the market for most of the clothing, electronics and other products of maquiladoras. Since the U.S. economic downturn, the omnipresent signs soliciting workers on factory gates in border industrial parks have disappeared. And greater competition among workers for the available jobs is pushing wages down.

Economists estimate half a million workers have been laid off since Mexican President Vicente Fox took office. The workplace rules and regulations of NAFTA are providing no safety net for the workers, as some hoped they would.

The pressures have fueled a wave of industrial unrest this year in factories all along the border, from Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico to La Paz at the tip of the Baja California peninsula.

Border workers have tried to organize independent unions, free of control by a government that seeks to use their low wages to attract foreign investors. Many hoped Fox would support that right.

"To win votes, (Fox) made the famous '20 commitments,' which included union democracy," says Hector de la Cueva, who directs Mexico City's Center for Labor Research.

One of Fox's promises was to allow workers to vote by secret ballot in union elections. Traditionally, public voting has enabled the older, official unions favored by maquiladora owners to identify supporters of the newer unions. Following a string of incidents in which independent union supporters in Tijuana and Mexico City were threatened, fired and even beaten for their choices, Mexico agreed to allow voting by secret ballot.

Fox's promise was put to the test this spring at the Duro Bag plant in Rio Bravo, just across the river from Texas. Workers trying to form an independent labor union there were forced to vote openly, in front of plant managers and officials of the company-favored union. Before voting took place, employees reported seeing guns being brought into the plant in an apparent attempt at intimidation. One whole shift of workers was held captive in the factory and kept from the polls. Many others who had been fired for independent union activity weren't permitted to vote at all.

Predictably, the independent union lost.

"The Duro election strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights," said Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

But labor unrest and organizing has continued. This spring, Torreon's streets filled with women chanting and shouting demands for a return to a standard of living capable of providing something more than cardboard houses and communities without sewers, electricity and running water. At the city's annual May Day parade, more than 2,000 women shouted "We won't be quiet anymore!" and "We want a decent life!"

Further north on the border in Ciudad Acuña, women marched with bags over their heads to hide their identity, presumably protecting themselves from firings and retaliations.

While labor unrest is most vigorous in the north, it is not limited to border regions. Workers at the Kukdong maquiladora in the central Mexican town of Atlixco, Puebla, organized an independent union and on Sept. 21 won the first contract in a garment maquiladora in a decade. Kukdong workers used the power of the growing anti-sweatshop movement in the United States, connecting to U.S. activists through the Mexico City office of the AFL-CIO. United Students Against Sweatshops organized picket lines at universities around the United States to publicize firings at the plant, and the fact that Nike and Reebok sportswear was being sewn there.

Garment workers in one of the most remote corners of Mexico, on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, also faced firings in their efforts to organize an independent union. Workers at the California Connections and Pung Kook factories won legal status for their independent union in 1999.

Nevertheless, every worker named as a union officer on the legal documents has been fired.

To make matters worse, in May the World Bank recommended overhauling Mexico's labor law to eliminate severance pay, the 40-hour week, limits on part-time employment, permanent employment status after 90 days, bans on strikebreaking, and constitutional guarantees of job training, health care and housing.

Mexican workers have some new political allies, however, including the new chief of the Mexico City labor board, Jesus Campos Linas. Campos Linas rejects the argument that the proposed changes to the labor law will create more jobs. "Mexico already has one of the lowest wage levels in the world," he said. In the capital, minimum wage is about $4 a day. "No one can live on this. And we've lost 400,000 jobs since January alone. Gutting the labor law will not solve this problem."

A battle is brewing in Mexico. If the Fox government's national labor policy is based mainly on attracting and holding onto foreign investment, the battle will get even hotter.

David Bacon ( writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

Return to the Frontpage