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Educating and Counseling
In a Border Metropolis

In Juárez, 'Workers are subjected to frequently unhealthy conditions, a lack of protective equipment, and supervisors who harass, manipulate and humiliate ...'
A UE women’s delegation experienced life on the border in July, visiting both Juárez, Mexico (above and below) and El Paso, Texas. They also attended the Midwest School for Women Workers in Kansas City. From left, Mary McElroy, Karen Hardin, Rebecca Klug and Willar Royal.

‘Mexican 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.


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 solidarity day.

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 none.

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 discrimination.

"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 sonogram."

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 anti-union specialists.


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 factories.


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.


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 as well.

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 896.)

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

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