A Rank-and-File Approach
TOM DUNNE and ROBIN ALEXANDER
Tom Dunne, Jovita Cruz Aguilar and Modesta Vasquez Lopez show
their support for students at the University of Wisconsin who are
Mexican union members who toured the United States last
month helped put the slogan "Globalize solidarity" into action
as they met workers, students and other concerned citizens in
California, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Representing the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), an
independent Mexican labor federation, allied with UE, a worker fired for
union activity and a striker received enthusiastic receptions as they
told their stories in union halls, universities, churches, community
meetings and private homes. The pair received good news coverage and
appeared on various radio and television shows throughout the trip.
They were joined for part of the trip by Benedicto
Martinez Orozco, one of the top elected leaders of the FAT. The
three were accompanied by Robin Alexander, UE director of
international labor affairs.
ON STRIKE IN MEXICO
Jovita Cruz Aguilar, a 45 year old mother of five,
and a key member of the strike committee at Imprenta Morales Hermanos, a
Mexico City print shop, spoke compellingly about the nearly four year
old strike at her plant. In 1996, the company asked that the local union
engage in a sham strike to provide cover for the company’s failure to
pay state taxes for health care, pensions and housing. When the workers
refused, Imprenta Morales stopped paying them altogether, and on June 4,
1996 refused to allow them to enter the plant. The union responded by
declaring a strike.
The workers at Morales, most of whom are older women,
have stood firm in their resolve, maintaining a 24-hour picket in front
of the company’s two locations and soliciting contributions on buses
and in the Mexico City metro to support their strike.
Their diligence has paid off: They recently won their
case before the Mexican labor board and have requested a final order
instructing the company to turn over its equipment in lieu of back wages
so that they can begin operating as a cooperative. But Cruz is
optimistic: "He (the owner) said we wouldn’t last, that we would
be defeated easily because we are women, but we will hang in there for
however long it takes!"
ORGANIZING IN MEXICO
Modesta Vasquez Lopez faces an even greater
challenge. A 30-year-old mother of three, she was among some 200 workers
fired by Congeladora del Rio (CRISA), a fruit-packing company in
Irapuato, owned by Greenville, S.C. based transnational, Global Trading.
The workers at Congeladora del Rio, mostly women, some as young as 12
years old, were fired when they attempted to form an independent union
with the FAT in June 1999.
The CRISA workers went on strike last July. The company
bused in teenaged girls as replacements. Although intervention by the
state of Guanajuato resulted in an agreement with the company that it
would reinstate the fired workers, management subsequently informed the
FAT that it was not going to honor the agreement. So the 154 of the
workers continue to pursue their claim of wrongful termination and to
Faced with such determination, the company has recently
filed civil actions for approximately $150,000 for damages against four
of the strike leaders and against the FAT’s local organizer, and
criminal complaints alleging approximately $10,000 in damages. But
Vasquez Lopez told American workers, "If the company thinks it will
succeed in intimidating us it is wrong; we have a legal right to choose
our own union, and we are going to keep fighting until we are all
reinstated and our union is recognized!"
Their visit is part of the ongoing worker to worker
exchanges between UE and FAT. Most of the events on the trip were
organized by workers from UE locals where members had participated on
previous exchanges, including UE Locals 1172, 1135, 893 and 896.
STRUGGLES HERE, TOO
The Mexican workers learned that the neo-liberal
policies which have wreaked havoc on workers’ lives in Mexico through
privatization, down-sizing and plant closings also affect workers in the
U.S. They also gained a more realistic understanding of the difficulties
of organizing a union in the U.S., and joined a rally in Milwaukee
against Wal-Mart, spoke to students at Milwaukee Area Technical College
who had been thrown out of work when their plant had closed weeks
earlier, and had dinner in a soup kitchen which serves some five hundred
people a day.
In Iowa City, Martinez, Cruz Aguilar and Vasquez Lopez
conducted press interviews, resulting in a several stories in local
newspapers. They also visited two University of Iowa history classes and
an English class, hosted by UE Local 896-COGS members who are university
instructors, speaking to more than 40 undergraduate students about the
sweatshop conditions they face and their union organizing efforts in
The delegation also met with more than 25 members of
Local 896-COGS to discuss the UE-FAT organizing alliance. And they gave
a two-hour presentation along with COGS member and Students Against
Sweatshops activist Ned Bertz for an audience of 60 community members.
The presentation was recorded and later broadcast for public viewing on
local cable television.
As Local 896-COGS members have learned more about the
UE-FATalliance and met FAT members both on this tour and last year’s
visit to Iowa City, they have committed to supporting its efforts. Last
year, the membership voted to institute a voluntary $1 "extra"
dues check-off which will go into effect this fall. Seventy-five COGS
members have already signed up, and more are expected to do so as the
check-off campaign goes into full swing this fall.
Following a tour of the Everbrite plant in Milwaukee the FAT
delegation received a contribution to support the Mexican union’s
organizing. Everbrite workers, members of UE Local 1172, had been
collecting the funds for weeks. Pictured are Local Vice Pres. Paul
Bergles, Jovita Cruz Aguilar, Modesta Vasquez Lopez and Local Sec.-Treas.
Other highlights of the trip included tours of various
UE plants, several print shops represented by GCIU and a number of
strawberry processing plants in California represented by the Teamsters.
The UE-FAT delegation also participated in activities surrounding the
University and College Labor Education Association (UCLEA) conference
held in Milwaukee. This included a workshop, rally, and a very
successful fund raising dinner sponsored by the Milwaukee County Labor
Council and the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign to support the FAT’s
organizing work. UE Sec.-Treas. Bob Clark and FAT’s Benedicto
Martinez were also speakers at a plenary where they provided an
inspiring example of what solidarity can mean when based on mutual
In Madison, UE and FAT met with some of the 54 students
who were arrested during an anti-sweatshop sit-in at the University of
Wisconsin in February. They also joined in a democracy rally at the UW
campus, where UE announced its endorsement of the Workers’ Rights
Consortium (WRC), developed by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).
The delegation also met with students from universities in Milwaukee,
Iowa City, Stanford and San Francisco.
(Tom Dunne is a member of UE Local 1172 at Everbrite in
Milwaukee. Robin Alexander is UE director of international labor
affairs. Deborah Herman, president of UE Local 896-COGS, contributed to