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Unions Without Borders | The Nation

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Unions Without Borders

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In the dusty border town of Rio Bravo, just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas, the Duro Bag factory churns out the chichi paper bags sold for a buck at suburban shopping malls throughout the United States.

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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Eluid Almaguer, an intense, stocky labor activist in his 30s, got a job at the plant in 1998. There he says he saw people lose fingers in machines cutting the cardboard used to stiffen the bottoms of the bags. Safety guards, he explains, were removed from the rollers that imprint designs on the paper lining--the extra time required to clean them was treated as needless lost production. Almaguer recalls that solvent containers didn't carry proper danger warnings, and while workers got dust masks, they were useless for filtering out toxic chemical fumes.

"In terms of safety, well, there just wasn't any," he remembers bitterly.

No help was forthcoming from the union at Duro, a sección, or local, of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union. The sección--part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since the 1930s--has a contract with the company, a protection agreement in which government-affiliated union leaders are paid to guarantee labor peace. But Duro workers did find assistance abroad, in a nascent cross-border solidarity movement that is emerging as labor's answer to the globalization of capital.

The battle to change conditions in this plant is one of many labor conflicts that have erupted in the past decade from one end of the border to the other. Duro is just one of 3,611 foreign-owned factories employing more than 1.3 million people in Mexico, according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. In cities like Rio Bravo, Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, hundreds of thousands of workers stream through plant gates at each shift change--a human wave pouring into communities of cardboard houses and dirt streets.

As maquiladora-style production has transformed the Mexican economy, it has provided a proving ground as well for a new model of international relationships between workers and unions. This cross-border solidarity movement has created new leverage against employers and has energized the rank-and-file union base in Mexico, Canada and the United States, while providing immediate material support for embattled workers like those at Duro. Five years ago the AFL-CIO administration of John Sweeney broke, in many ways, from the old cold war policy of former AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland, which defended free trade, corporate interests and US foreign policy. Yet the newest vision of what an international labor movement could become--based on solidarity from below--is being born not in an office in Washington but in shantytowns here along the border.

For Duro workers, this support network is partly based in the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), which brings together unions, churches and community organizations in Mexico, Canada and the United States. For more than a decade, the coalition has functioned as a resource for Mexican workers trying to fight an economic policy that uses their low wages to encourage further maquiladora investment.

Four years ago the organization became even more threatening to investors and the political apparatus that protects them when it elected Martha Ojeda as its new director. In one of the first independent union efforts after the passage of NAFTA, Ojeda had led a movement to reform the CTM-affiliated union at the Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo, where she had been a worker and union leader. On April 14, 1994, after Sony fired three union reform activists, thousands of their workmates sat down in the road leading to the plant gate. Sony brought in riot police, who beat them and forced them to return to their jobs. Ojeda fled into political exile in Texas. Until charges were dropped years later, she faced arrest and prison if she returned to Mexico.

The Sony campaign was one of the first to receive the support of a broad movement of US workers, union activists, church and shareholder campaigners, and political and community leaders in the wake of NAFTA. Today, the CJM starts health and safety groups in maquiladoras, trains workers to exercise their rights and helps them democratize their unions and organize independent ones. The coalition maintains a trinational network of activists who bring pressure to bear on employers when plant struggles break out.

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