Unions Without Borders
At Duro, with CJM support, workers began the effort to change conditions by trying to enforce provisions of the union-protection agreement (and Mexican law) that, at least on paper, guarantee overtime pay, profit-sharing and other rights. As an initial step they expelled the sección's general secretary, José Angel Garcia Garces, whom they viewed as too close to company managers. In his place, the members elected Almaguer.
Duro's vice president of plastics, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day (about $6). A gallon of milk in the supermarket costs 20 pesos--a third of a day's work. According to Consuelo Moreno, a Duro worker, "My daughter had to drop out of school this year, because we didn't have the money for her to continue."
Nevertheless, says Almaguer, "people were willing to work at bad-paying jobs. But not under those conditions." The new leaders brought repeated grievances before the plant's human relations manager, Alejandro de la Rosa. "We'd take [our complaints] to his office, and he'd throw us out," Almaguer says. "The company was in violation of at least 50 percent of the contract." In October 1999 the company fired Almaguer. The union's leaders in Mexico City cooperated, excluding him from union membership. Police and guards were called into the plant. But after three days of turmoil, workers forced Almaguer's reinstatement as general secretary. Then, on April 14, 400 workers refused to go to work as a protest against abusive treatment, and were later joined by 800 more.
This past spring the contract at Duro expired, and workers drew up a list of demands for a new agreement. They asked for two pairs of safety shoes each year, work clothes, contributions to a savings plan and a doctor at the plant to take care of injuries. "The company said it owned the factory--they would decide what would be done here," Almaguer recalls.
When workers wouldn't budge, their union's national officials signed a new agreement with the company on June 11, ignoring their demands. By then, workers had decided that enforcing the protection agreement was no longer possible. They struck again. And in front of the factory gates, they began organizing a new, independent and democratic union. "In the past, the company was always able to buy off our union leaders. Always," Moreno emphasizes. "And we paid the price. We can only change things if we have a union the company can't control."
In the face of fierce opposition, CJM helped even the odds for the workers. The coalition assisted the strikers at Duro as they chased Tamaulipas's governor, Tomás Yarrington, around the state for two months. Whenever he appeared in public, workers unfurled banners demanding Libertad Sindical (the right to belong to a union of their own choosing). Meanwhile, determined women, often with their children beside them, confronted police outside the plant and camped out in Rio Bravo's main plaza. CJM activists were arrested with the strikers and unleashed a flood of letters and faxes about Yarrington and company officials.
Cooperating with the CJM, Francisco Hernández Juárez of the National Workers Union (UNT), Mexico's new independent union federation, organized a public protest in August, bringing to the town of Reynosa hundreds of advocates of independent unionism from Mexico and the United States. In the face of such pressure the Tamaulipas labor board finally granted the Duro union legal status. Workers have yet to negotiate a new contract, and 150 remain fired. Almaguer's house, made of shipping pallets and cardboard, was burned down in an arson attack on October 31, a crime local police refuse to investigate. "This fire was intentional," he says. "They were trying to wipe us off the map, and now my home is just ashes."
The UNT, which is a growing presence on the border today, estimates that only 50,000 of the country's 650,000 union contracts are actually negotiated with worker participation. "The rest are simply protection agreements," explains UNT vice president José Luis Hernández. "The people who benefit from these contracts are a kind of mafia. To get rid of them is going to require a virtual war."
Feeling the threat, employers and those union leaders who stand to lose their protected status accuse Duro workers of being pawns manipulated by US unions and the CJM. The El Bravo newspaper refers to Martha Ojeda as a professional agitator and accused Almaguer of being paid to organize the work stoppage. Tamaulipas CTM leader Leocadio Mendoza Reyes accused Ojeda of mounting a "dirty war" against the union confederation to "destabilize" the maquiladoras and scare companies into relocating jobs to the United States.