Mexican Rail Workers Strike Against Privatization

In one of the most important labor events in Mexico in recent years, hundreds of railroad workers struck the Pacific North railroad in late February and early March. Beginning as an illegal wildcat, the strike disrupted the operations of some major corporations including the Ford Motor Co.

The underlying issue was privatization of the Mexican rail system, the lay-off of thousands of workers, the termination of the collective bargaining agreement, and the complete alteration of working conditions.

Emplame, Sonora - a town famous for its railroad workers and its baseball players - was the center of the strike. Workers there blocked the railroad yard, stopping trains on February 16. The women of the town organized a "march of the pots and pans" to support the mainly male workers.

Support came from retirees and pensioners, and from a Catholic priest who held mass on the tracks. Protestant churches, student organizations, and Yaqui Indian organizations gave their backing to the strikers as well.

For over two weeks railroad workers and their supporters kept the trains from rolling.

PRIVATIZATION

The reasons for this strike have developed over the last several years as Mexico's state-owned railroad was broken up ionto regional lines that were then sold to private parties. The buyers have been consortiums of Mexican and foreign, usually U.S. companies.

In preparation for the privatization, the railroad's workforce was down-sized, usually by pushing workers into early retirement. In 1988, Mexico employed 100,000 railroad workers; by 1996 there were only 43,000.

In 1996, a consortium which included Kansas City Southern Industries bought the Northeast Railway. The company rehired only 4,500 out of 8,700 workers. The collective bargaining agreement was reduced from 3,045 clauses to 38; the train crews cut from six to three workers; and the maximum continuous service time lengthened from 12 to 25-40 hours.

On March 7, 1997, another private consortium, this one including the Union Pacific, one of the largest U.S. rail companies, bought the Pacific North Line. The new owners said they would terminate the labor agreement and rehire only some of the workers.

Union sources reported that the company was extorting as much as five to ten thousand pesos (625 to 1250 dollars) from workers in exchange for being rehired. Workers who are rehured are required to sign individual 28-day contracts which they are not allowed to read or copy. They do not know what their wages or conditions are.

Fearing the loss of their jobs and their union contract, Local 8 of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union in Empalme voted to stop work on February 16. They demanded that jobs and the collective bargaining agreement be preserved. Mexicans call this a "paro", or work stoppage, because it is not a legally-authorized strike.

After over a week on strike, during which train in the entire region did not move, Mexican federal officials brought felony charges against Local 8 for interfering with major transportation routes. Local 8 felt compelled to end the strike, but Local40 in Benjamin Hill then took it up. The trains continued to sit idle.

ECONOMIC POWER

The railroad workers have real economic power. Northern Mexico, particularly Sonora, has been an important industrial area for more than a hundred years. This has become even more true during the last two decades, largely because of the proximity of the U.S. border and investments by U.S. corporations. There are now not only thousands of maquiladoras along the border, but also major auto plants. Many of these depend on rail transportation.

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Ford's Hermosillo stamping and assembly plant, which annually produces 125,000 Escorts for the U.S. market, was unable to ship cars throughout the strike.

The wildcat also had an impact on workers on other railroads to the east. Trains carrying containers bound for the General Motors plant in Arizpe, Coahuila were temporarily sidelined, and the General Electric plant in Silao was reportedly affected.

After two weeks, Victor Flores, head of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union, took responsibility for the strike, accusing the company of having violated the workers' rights. At this point the strike ceased to be a wildcat and became semi-official, though still illegal under Mexican law because it had not been authorized by the labor board.

In the first week of March, an agreement was reached. The Pacific North agreed to rehire some of the workers and to keep the Empalme shops open with their entire 1,200 person workforce. Many workers, however, had already signed severance and retirement agreements.

Under the deal some maintenance of way workers would be hired by the Tecate=-Nacozari shortline, which would insure continuation of both their employment and the union contract.

The agreement is a very partial victory. Only some jobs have been protected, and even their future is hardly guaranteed.

A GOVERNMENT UNION

But even those partial gains would not have been won if workers had waited for their top leaders to act. For many years, the Mexican Railroad Workers Union has been a creature of the Mexican state and the ruling party, and more recently of multinational concessionaires. It has had a limited interest in and ability to represent railroad workers.

Victor Flores Morales, the union's general secretary, is a member of Congress for the ruling International Revolutionary Party (PRI). He has been a strong supporter of the privatization process, helping the companies force early retirement and layoffs, and has a 100-man goon squad that has broken up meetings and threatened workers.

In 1996, a group of rank and file workers led by Salvador Zarco, former head of Local 15, created the Committee to Defend the Collective Bargaining Agreement. They organized meetings and protests against the privatization process and criticized the union leadership for failing to represent the members.

Last November, after the privatization of the Northeast Line, the Committee organized a caravan of 2,000 workers who traveled throughout the northern and western states, discussing the privatization experience and distributing information.

When the February 16 strike began, the Committee to Defend the Collective Bargaining Agreement coordinated its activity with the strikers, organizing protests and demonstrations in Mexico City and acting as spokesperson for the movement.

The privatization of the railroads continues to produce resistance. On March 11-12, retired railroad workers seized the Mexican National Railway headquarters in Guadalajara to express their concerns that they would no longer be covered by their contractual raises. Another "paro", or illegal work stoppage, was also reported on the Chihuahua-Pacifico line, which is scheduled for privatization.

Efforts are underway to develop solidarity links between rail workers in Mexico and the United States. Rail unions in the two countries are considering the exchange of delegations and a possible U.S. speaking tour by several of the recent strikers.

Dan La Botz is the author of Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today.