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Unions Without Borders

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Rick de la Cruz, a vice president of Local 4-314 of the US Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers, who went to the Duro protest with a group of fellow workers from his Texas plant, says those charges are ridiculous. "If that work leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the United States--it's going somewhere workers have even fewer rights," he says. "We just think everyone should have human rights, and not just in Mexico--in the US too." (Even Forstrom points out that the Rio Bravo plant's labor-intensive production competes mainly with China and Indonesia. "We're in Mexico to take advantage of inexpensive labor," he says.)

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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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Accusations of foreign interference were likewise employed to suppress an independent union effort that had international support in Tijuana. In June 1997 workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana's huge Hyundai industrial complex, began a campaign to raise wages and eliminate serious safety hazards. They quickly discovered, however, that the company had a protection contract. Supported by the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, the independent October 6 Union for Industry and Commerce won legal status after work stoppages and a hunger strike, during which workers chained themselves to the doors of Tijuana's city hall. The conflict garnered further international attention when US Representative David Bonior used it to help defeat the Clinton Administration's proposal for fast-track authority to negotiate an extension of NAFTA in 1997.

When workers struck over company stonewalling in 1998, however, the Baja California labor board ruled their strike illegal. That decision was overruled three times in Mexican federal court, yet for two years Tijuana and Baja California authorities have called in the police to remove the strikers' picket lines, burn their strike flags and escort strikebreakers into the plant--even though in Mexico, it is illegal for a company to hire and operate with strikebreakers during a legal strike.

Lawlessness reached a new height on June 24, when the Mexican Labor Ministry organized a "Seminar on Union Freedom in Mexico" in part to explain two new agreements it had signed with the US Labor Department in May. The agreements settled a case brought under NAFTA's labor side agreement over the violation of workers' rights at Han Young. Strikers and their supporters went to the meeting, held in Tijuana's swanky Camino Real Hotel. As they quietly walked down the aisle carrying their banners, looking for space to sit, dozens of men in the crowd sprang from their seats. A gang of young toughs affiliated with a government-controlled union beat the vastly outnumbered strikers with fists and feet, driving them out of the hotel.

Three US Labor Department representatives attended the Tijuana seminar, led by Lewis Karesh, acting secretary of the National Administrative Office. "I'm disappointed to see what happened," he said, adding that "I was glad to see [Mexican Labor Sub-Secretary Javier] Moctezuma come out to talk to the workers." But according to Steve Beckman, a staff member at the international department of the United Auto Workers and a member of the NAO's advisory committee, "The US should have walked out of the Tijuana meeting and called it a disgrace, met with the workers involved, and demanded punishment of those responsible for the beatings." Instead, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman wrote a letter to the United Electrical Workers (UE) and United Steelworkers essentially blaming the strikers for bringing the violence down on their own heads. "Members of the audience asked the representatives to move, but they continued the demonstration," her letter says. Moctezuma himself "reiterated his government's commitment to improving workers' freedom of association rights," Herman declared, concluding that the meeting "was organized in conformity with those commitments."

The incident is an apt metaphor for NAFTA's abysmal record in enforcing workers' rights. Since the treaty went into effect in January 1994, almost twenty labor complaints have been filed on behalf of Mexican workers. The highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young and at another plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, US and Mexican unions alleged that workers were prevented from exercising their legal right to organize independent unions. Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico failed to enforce its health and safety laws at the plants. The ITAPSA complaint charged especially dangerous conditions, with workers routinely exposed to asbestos, a known source of lung cancer.

Under the NAFTA process, the NAO held a series of hearings and concluded that the Mexican government had failed to enforce its worker protection laws. In May US Labor Secretary Herman and her Mexican counterpart, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, settled the cases. Mexico agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better protection for workers organizing independent unions and better enforcement of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the two; another will take place in Mexico City, where ITAPSA is located. But the agreements do not require the Mexican government to do anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant. "We're extremely disappointed," says Robin Alexander, director of international affairs for the United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent Mexican Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in its fight at ITAPSA. "We expected there would be a more significant outcome."

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