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New Neighborhood: UE members Mary Crippen and Marianne Hart (at right) visit the site of a new working-class neighborhood in the Mexican City of Leon with Teresa Gonzalez and Rosa Maria Ibarra Perez. Teresa works for the FAT, especially with the Leon women's center CODIM; Rosa recently bought a sewing machine on loan. She and her two children produce 100 pairs of shoes in a 12-hour day, each earning approximately $8.50 a day.

March 19, 1998

Two UE members discover that the bonds of sisterhood are far stronger than the borders that separate their countries ... and find that Mexico's FAT is more than a federation of progressive unions.

Meanwhile, activists are hoping that a new Mexican Labor Federation will mean greater labor independence and militancy in that country.

The 35 hour work week? Even as U.S. workers lean to endure longer hours, the shorter work week may become a reality in France ... part of our World of Work news roundup.

UE Activists Discover
Union Sisterhood
Is Powerful,
Despite Borders

To most UE members who recognize the Spanish abbreviation, the "FAT" is an independent federation of fighting, democratic unions much like their own. But Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front is not only a labor federation.

To two rank-and-file UE members who visited Mexico last year, the FAT is also an organization that gives women the space and support to realize their own worth.

The exchanges with their FAT sisters had particular impact on Marianne Hart of Local 1421 and Mary Crippen of Local 896, who were accompanied by Robin Alexander, UE international labor affairs director. They visited the city of Leon and Mexico City in late November as part of the UE-FAT worker-to-worker exchange program.

In Leon, some 200 miles northwest of Mexico City, the UE members met with some 15 members of El CODIM in the FAT’s offices. From the 15 or so women of diverse ages who gathered in the union office, the UE members learned each woman’s story and more about the work of the organization, a FAT affiliate.


"The women told us of how the group had helped them to realize their own strength and even their humanity," says Crippen. "Several told us how they had lived their lives feeling like objects, and were grateful to the FAT women’s group for helping them find their voices and individual strengths."

"They spent a lifetime oppressed and abused," Hart says. Many of those in the union office were older women who described a serious problem of discrimination in the workplace by age and gender.

The FAT’s women’s group operates "like a community support group for women," helping working-class women overcome these problems, says Hart. "But they are able to use their talents, resources, experiences through the FAT, in spite of the system, to bring this knowledge of their worth and recognition of their abilities into the bigger community of women in Leon."

"They do outreach work in the community on issues like housing, childcare and jobs. They take their growth and give it back to other women in the community."

While in Leon, the UE members attended a community meeting of single mothers and went to the opening of a new women’s center for democracy and human rights. The UE delegation’s visit coincided with an international day in opposition to violence against women; the women’s center presented short videos on domestic violence. The women who run the center are not affiliated with the FAT, but work in conjunction with the FAT on various projects.


Thanks to the CODIM connection, Marianne Hart appeared on a special two-hour morning local television program as part of a panel discussion on domestic violence. For her it was neither an easy nor a boring topic. "I lived this life, for 15 years of abuse and broken bones," she says. Although her experiences were difficult to talk about, Hart says, "I felt it needed to be said. The thing I learned from it was that silence is complicity. What I regret the most is that I didn’t tell anybody."

As she told her Mexican TV audience, Hart says "part of my development was with the union, which gave me a sense of accomplishment and self-worth."

Also appearing on TV as part of the panel was Angeles Lopez, representing the FAT, as well as representatives of the major political parties, the Roman Catholic Church and social service agencies. (One of the local FAT leaders who organized the UE delegation’s visit to Leon, Lopez had traveled to the U.S. earlier in the month as part of the UE-FAT exchanges.)

Also in Leon, the UE duo addressed two classes at a local university, at the invitation of instructor (and FAT organizer/lawyer) Felipe Ortuρo, who had met UE members in Ohio and Pennsylvania the month before, and met with an official at the state office on human rights (what he advises immigrants newly arrived in Mexico is much like what Local 1421 tells immigrant workers in California, Hart discovered).

They also toured a semi-automated shoe factory — where Hart had problems with working conditions — and visited with women in a poor working-class neighborhood (a colonia).

Speaking of the visit to the colonia Crippen recalls their meeting with Rosa, who had only recently wired her home for electricity, on her own. Rosa introduced them "to some of the other women who are involved in the struggle to fulfill such basic needs as water and sanitation in their neighborhood. And in the midst of that struggle, one woman we met has made the effort to start parenting classes, to teach parents how to raise their children with kindness and respect."

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At the Oaxtepec resort outside Mexico City, the UE pair listened in fascination as delegates to the second FAT Women’s meeting discussed their struggles, organizing challenges, educational programs to develop women as union leaders, and the identity of the organization.


"We were not observers, we were participants wherever we went, which made it very exciting," says Hart. The UE delegation publicly offered a message of solidarity at the Women’s Congress, and then again at the FAT Congress.

Hart, who has served as co-convener of UE Convention Resolutions Committees, was amazed as FAT Congress delegates listened intently to the reading of a 37-page political resolution. "And they took it very seriously," she says.

During the FAT Congress, Mary Crippen says, "we had the opportunity to meet with some of the workers who are in the midst of struggles going on at such plants as Echlin, the Morales print shop and Han Young. Hearing the stories from the workers themselves really brought their struggles home for me, and I look forward to sharing them with people here at home to help solicit more support for the work the FAT is doing.

"The many things I learned on this trip made me genuinely proud to be a member of the UE, and therefore a small contributor to the work that is going on not only here but in Mexico," Crippen observes.

Says Marianne Hart, "The experience was overwhelming... both in terms of what I learned, the breadth of the work the FAT does, and their commitment to organizing. On a personal level I was able to share very personal experiences and feelings with the women from the FAT because they were so open and generous. There were no walls between us. This experience actually made solidarity without borders real for me."

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New Federation Signals
Change In Mexican Labor

The news from Mexico in recent months brings hope that the labor movement is moving in the direction of greater independence, militancy and democracy.

On Nov. 28, 1997, 650 voting delegates from 200 labor and peasant organizations representing 1.5 million workers organized a new federation, the National Workers’ Union (UNT). The largest unions in the UNT are the 350,000-member social security and national health system workers, the 100,000-member university workers’ union, and 53,000-member telephone workers’ union.

Benedicto Martinez, one of the three top leaders of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) is a UNT vice president. The FAT is credited with playing an important role in pressing the UNT to commit to political independence and union democracy. The FAT stressed that the UNT must have a real presence in the workplace, rather than be "another generation of union bureaucrats."

By creating an alternative to the government-dominated CT and CTM federations, the UNT represents an important and progressive step for the Mexican labor movement. However, some of the new federation’s leaders remain members of the ruling party, PRI, and it is not clear how deeply they are committed to political independence and internal union reform. Says veteran journalist Dan La Botz, "The UNT’s greatest test will be its ability to challenge the CT-CTM role in keeping workers’ prisoners in government-controlled unions."

A leader of important recent labor struggles, the FAT held its 11th National Congress in November 1997, which La Botz characterized as "a model of democracy, a new advance for labor feminism, and proved a focus for international labor solidarity from throughout North America and Europe."

At this grassroots convention, rank-and-file workers dominated the discussions and FAT’s top leaders took notes.

UE was represented by Director of International Labor Affairs Robin Alexander, General Executive Board member Marianne Hart and Mary Crippen of Local 896, who chairs the labor solidarity committee at the University of Iowa.


Indicative of the realignment in Mexican labor, AFL-CIO Pres. John J. Sweeney made a historic visit to Mexico in January where he met with leaders of the new UNT and FAT as well as Mexican President Zedillo and officials of the government-dominated CTM.

This is the first such visit by a ranking U.S. labor leader since John L. Lewis of the CIO traveled to Mexico in 1938 and AFL Pres. Samuel Gompers made the trip in 1924.

But the real news was not only the rare attention paid to Mexico by U.S. labor officialdom, but the AFL-CIO president’s willingness to meet with UNT leaders and with Bertha Lujan and Alfredo Dominguez, two of the leaders of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT).

(This article is based on reportage by Dan La Botz and Don Sherman of Mexican Labor News and Analysis. This news service is produced in collaboration with the FAT and UE and can be viewed at UE’s international web site: http://www.ueinternational.org.)

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35 Hour Work-Week
Is Possible in France

From Jeff Apter in Paris
Special to the UE NEWS

FRANCE. A bill to create jobs by establishing a 35-hour week has passed its first reading the French National Assembly (House of Representatives). The bill, which seeks to institute a four-hour reduction in the working week for most employees by the year 2000, is the most important promise of the Socialist-led coalition which unexpectedly won an early congressional election last June. The legislation now goes to the conservative-dominated Senate. When passed, probably this June, the law would make shorter working hours compulsory by 2000 for corporations with more than 20 employees and two years later for small companies.

GERMANY. Unemployment in January, which neared the 5 million mark, showed more people out of work than at any time since the Second World War. Official statistics show unemployment jumped by 301,000 to 4.82 million, or 12.6 percent of the workforce in just one month. For the first time the unemployed staged demonstrations all over the country. "Days of Action" were reported from about 70 cities, especially in eastern Germany where the 21.1 percent unemployment rate is twice the level in western Germany.

SOUTH KOREA. The Korean Federation of Trade Unions has rejected a proposal to facilitate layoffs. The KFTU, which represents 500,000 workers at some of South Korea’s biggest corporations, especially in automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding, had previously signed such an agreement with business and government. The rank-and-file rejected it by 2 to 1. The KFTU threatens a general strike if proposed layoff legislation does not compel the country’s chaebol — the huge conglomerates which dominate the economy — to help overcome the economic problems by means other than by mass layoffs. The KFTU chose the head of its Metalworkers’ Union as its new president. The less militant FKTU is standing by the layoff agreement.

BELGIUM. Louis Schweitzer, the chairman of the giant French automobile manufacturer Renault, has been fined $550,000 by a Belgian court. It was found he did not observe Belgian law when he closed the state-of-the-art car plant in Vilvoorde, Belgium last year. More than 3,000 jobs were lost. In February 1997, Schweitzer announced simultaneously to the workforce and the press that the plant would close the following July. The law stipulates the closure should not have been made public before consultation with a council of employee representatives, which has the right to examine the impact of the closure on job losses. About 40 percent of the 3,097 dismissed employees are still without work.

ROMANIA. The unions are concerned at the probable negative impact of jobs, following the government’s plans to privatize about 1,600 big companies this year.

INDONESIA. The government-sponsored All-Indonesia Workers’ Union estimates that unemployment this year will reach 13.5 million, nearly 15 percent of the workforce, and an increase of more than 50 percent in a year. In addition, the number of underemployed or part-time workers would reach nearly 50 million, or 53 percent of the workforce — a 21 percent rise on 1997. Indonesia has a population of 200 million.

IRELAND. Responding to a grisly series of sectarian murders in Northern Ireland since Jan. 1 which threatened to damage the already tenuous peace talks, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions sponsored peace rallies in Belfast and Derry on Jan. 30. Churches joined unions in sponsoring the rallies which drew thousands. A message from UE, signed by the three national officers, denounced the new spiral of violence as "an assault on the democratic process and on the aspirations of the vast majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland for a negotiated and secure peace."

MEXICO. The aftermath of the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre of 45 Indians — 21 women, 15 children, and 9 men — in the small town of Acteal in the State of Chiapas demonstrates the differences within Mexico’s labor movement. Speaking in Chiapas, the head of the government-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) criticized supporters of the victims. But other unions, especially those independent of the ruling party, have denounced the massacre and condemned the government’s role. The Electrical Workers’ Union (SME) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) are among several unions joining with civic organizations, Indian groups and social movements to demand punishment for those responsible for the massacre and withdrawal of the Mexican Army from Indian communities.

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