Workers’ Struggle to Organize Reminded Me of My Own’
Local 758 Chief Steward
All the literature in the world could not prepare us
for the reality of what we saw. The struggles that the Mexican
people are going through and the abuse that they live with everyday
in these maquillas are just unbelievable.
We had the opportunity to meet and talk with some of
the workers from the maquila that were trying to organize a union.
This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It reminded me of
my own struggle in my local while fighting for a first contract [at
Glastic Corp. in Jefferson, Ohio].
We voted in the union in October of 1998, started
negotiating in November of 1998 and did not get a signed contract
until February of 2001.
One of the main reasons we organized was because of
the verbal abuse the supervisors were inflicting on some of the
women in our plant. We had a supervisor who seemed to enjoy
intimidating some of the women to the point that they would be in
tears. If he was having a bad day, everyone had a bad day.
JAPANESE UNIONS’ SOLIDARITY
When we started our negotiations, we were owned by a
Japanese company called Kobe Steel. During this time the trade
unionists in Japan supported our local by sending letters of protest
to the company. They even went to the corporate headquarters in
Japan in support of our struggle here in the United States.
Then we were sold to a company by the name of
Cambridge Industries. This, like Kobe Steel, was a very large
corporation owning many companies throughout the world. So once
again we reached out to the trade unionists.
We received help from many different unions. They
also sent letters of protest. We worked together and we even had a
While the sale of the company did prolong the
negotiations and it took 26 months to get our contract— all of
this support did make a huge impact on them.
This is why solidarity is so important and not just
here in the United States but internationally as well. These
corporations that are abusing the Mexican workers and employing
these children are the same corporations that we work for. GE, Ford,
Delphi and Lear are just a few; there are many more.
While in Juárez we had the privilege to experience
the phenomenal work that the FAT and the centers that my sisters
talked about are doing (see article below). They are
working hard to educate the children so that they can have a choice.
They counsel the families of the assassinated victims. They fight
everyday for women’s rights and challenge the Government over
these horrific crimes against women. They educate the workers and
help them in their struggle to organize.
Although all the work done through the FAT and these
centers is just incredible, it takes a lot of money and they have
The women on this delegation were so touched and
impressed by the work that was being done in Mexico. We have made it
our personal goal to make a difference. So now we are reaching out
to you in hopes that together we can do just that. We are asking you
to support our brothers and sisters and the tremendous work they are
doing in Mexico. At this time we are going to ask for donations. By
helping them we can only help ourselves.
We won’t use her real name or show you her photo.
Eight years ago her father was fired for meeting with workers from the United
States. We wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to the daughter.
The woman — we’ll call her Gracia — met in July with a
joint women’s delegation from UE and United Students Against Sweatshops.
Gracia has worked at a U.S.-owned plant in Ciudad Juárez for
13 years. This year, with work slow, she said, "the company is basically
using any pretext for firing workers."
Although Gracia has the qualifications, she has been denied
entry into higher-paying jobs. This, it appears, is not an isolated case of
"I was doing heavy work while I was pregnant and asked to
be moved," Gracia said. "The company refused. I became ill, and when
I was taken to a health care facility, they gave me an x-ray instead of a
Gracia remembers the 1994 attempt to organize a General
Electric plant in Juárez. The Authentic Labor Front (FAT) succeeded in
obtaining the first secret-ballot representation election in a maquila (a
Mexican border factory). The company prevailed, however. GE fired a number of
workers, threw parties, and forced small groups to meet with company
After the campaign, the FAT analyzed the reasons for the
defeat and concluded that conditions in Juárez required a long-term approach
to organizing, based on education. The result, in 1996, was the Workers’
Education Center, CETLAC, organized with the help of UE and other unions.
CETLAC offers worker education classes, provides legal counsel and information
about labor rights.
It was at CETLAC that the UE delegation — Karen Hardin,
Local 758, Rebecca Klug, Local 896, Mary McElroy, Local 893, and
Willar Royal, Local 150 — met with Gracia and other workers. Here is
some of what they learned.
Juárez is at the center of the 2,000-mile border between the
U.S. and Mexico, and hulks across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. With a
densely packed population of 1.6 million, it’s the largest metropolitan area
along the border.
The population of Juárez grew rapidly over the past 30 years.
Workers pouring in from the countryside built their own housing out of
whatever materials were available. Many neighborhoods lack paved roads or
basic services — about one-quarter of the inhabitants of Juárez lack water
and sewer services. The city’s economy revolves around the maquilas —
construction, food service, transportation and health care companies are all
structured to serve the needs of the vast complex of predominantly U.S.-owned
With 350 plants employing 250,000 workers, Juárez is home to
the largest concentration of maquila workers in Mexico. Eighty percent of the
maquilas are U.S. owned.
Only 17 percent of maquila workers are organized, and they are
represented by corrupt official unions. Inside the plants, workers are
subjected to frequently unhealthy conditions, a lack of protective equipment,
and supervisors who harass, manipulate and humiliate workers. In many
workplaces, women have to prove they are not pregnant in order to be hired.
The workforce is overwhelmingly young and largely female. The
average age of maquila workers is just 21; boys and girls enter the plants as
young as age 13. Nearly 60 percent of the worforce are women, although the
female majority has been declining as more men find work in the maquilas.
Many women prefer working third shift so that they can be at
home with their children during the day. Juárez lacks child care facilities
or safe places to leave children. But traveling at night places women workers
at risk, as evidenced by a still unsolved series of grisly murders. CETLAC has
been working with women workers, conducting workshops in the colonias (poor
neighborhoods) designed to help them become economically independent and
assert their rights.
Since NAFTA, many workers in other parts of Mexico have lost
their jobs as smaller plants in the countryside were forced to shut down.
Today 40 percent of Juarez residents come from other states, and a majority of
them work in the maquilas.
DAILY FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
Workers face a desperate daily fight for survival due to wages
so low that more than half of daily needs are left unmet. The U.S. delegation
met machine workers from a maquila. The more than 700 people employed there
earn no more than 44 pesos a day. The minimum wage is 40.25 pesos—about$4.25
a day. CETLAC staff pointed out that to survive, workers need an income three
times the amount of the minimum wage.
Take, for example, the cost of the cylinders of gas with which
many working-class families heat and cook. The cost of one cylinder (30 kilos)
is about 75 percent of an average worker’s wage. One cylinder should last a
month, but in winter a cylinder might be used in just 15 days.
The UE members visited Casa Amiga, a women’s crisis center
opened in 1991 to help survivors of violence on the border. Originally opened
to help women who were the victims of rape and the families of the murdered,
Casa Amiga has expanded to assist victims of domestic violence and child abuse
And the U.S. visitors also toured CASA, a youth center
initially formed to combat drug use and gang violence in the colonias. Through
surveys and focus groups, CASA volunteers discovered that the single factor
that young drug users in the colonias had in common was that they had dropped
out of school, often to work in the maquiladoras. CASA now emphasizes
education, helping to dramatically expand the number of young people in high
school and college.
(This article was based on a report by Rebecca Klug, Local
Contributions to support this vital solidarity work can be
sent to the UE-FAT Solidarity Fund, Suite 1400, One Gateway Center, 420 Fort
Duquesne Blvd., Pittsburgh, PA 15222-1416.
UE News - 11/01