Maquiladora Organizers Visit U.S. and Canadian Unions

When Enriqueta Bazaldua walked into UAW Local 599's November membership meeting in Flint, Michigan, she heard an angry young part-timer complaining about GM's two-tier wage system. The system denies him union representation and keeps him as a dues payer on a lower wage scale. "The old-timers are too tired to fight. You need us to win these struggles," he maintained.

This situation was all too familiar for Bazaldua. She has worked for 14 years at Deltronicos, an auto parts plant in Matamoros, Mexico. She is among the highest paid workers in Mexico's maquiladora industry, earning $60.00 for a 40-hour work week. Under a contract pushed through a year ago, new workers at her plant earn $35.00 for a 48-hour work week.

Bazaldua wonders, "If I can barely survive on $60.00 per week, how are the new people surviving?"

Bazaldua, along with Ana Maria Hernandez, a textile worker at the Obion Co. in Piedras Negras, and Julia Quiñonez, an ex-maquiladora worker and coordinator of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Border Committee of Women Workers), were there as part of a tour organized by the Transnationals Information Exchange. TIE is an international network aimed at building cross-border solidarity on a grassroots level.

The week-long tour took them to nine meetings with American and Canadian unions in the Great Lakes region.

"It's time we got past feeling sorry for each other," Quiñonez told the Local 599 members. "We're not here for people to say, 'Look at those poor Mexican workers, their wages are so low.' Or, 'Look at those poor U.S. workers, all their jobs are going to Mexico.' We're here to develop effective international strategies so we can overcome these problems."

The CFO has been organizing maquiladora workers for the past 17 years; they currently operate in seven cities and three states along the northern Mexican border. The CFO was originally comprised entirely of women, reflecting the overwhelmingly female majority among maquiladora workers. However, as the number of men in the maquiladora industry has grown, so have their numbers in the CFO.

The committee teaches workers their rights under the law and helps them develop strategies to improve working conditions.

SPECIAL TREATMENT?

Four years ago, for instance, when Ana Maria Hernandez became pregnant, she asked her union steward at why the company did not abide by the law. Mexican labor law requires that pregnant women get a lighter work load after the second trimester.

The union rep yelled at her, "That rule has never been applied here. You're just being lazy. What makes you think you deserve special treatment?"

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So Hernandez organized her coworkers to demand their legal rights, showing the plant director a copy of the federal labor law with their rights highlighted. Ever since then, the company has complied with that law and others affecting pregnant women. The union steward tried unsuccessfully to take credit for the improvement in working conditions.

Much of the CFO's work in the maquiladoras revolves around women's reproductive rights. Negative pregnancy tests are usually a condition of employment, and job interviews routinely include detailed questions about a worker's sexual history. Thanks to the efforts of the CFO and other worker organizations, General Motors ended its practice of requiring pregnancy tests. At Deltronicos in Matamoros, there is now a billboard announcing: "We do not discriminate against pregnant women."

As Bazaldua points out, however, of the 100-plus maquiladoras in Matamoros, the companies that don't discriminate against pregnant women can be counted on one hand.

In Windsor, Ontario, members of Canadian Auto Workers women's network were shocked by the level of discrimination against women in Mexico, but also impressed by some of their accomplishments. At several maquiladora plants, for example, lactation rooms are now available for women to nurse their newborns, and women have won two half-hour breaks in which to do so--a right missing in Canadian and U.S. plants.

"GM and the Big Three say they care about their employees," Theresa DaSilva of CAW Local 240 said about the Mexican workers' stories. "But if we didn't have a strong union, we'd be treated the same way."

UNIONS FALL SHORT

The Comité Fronterizo de Obreras is not a union, finding that there is less repression and it is easier to operate as an informal workers' association. In the cities where it is active, however, unions are taking a more aggressive role in the defense of labor rights.

CFO Coordinator Quiñonez admitted that some Mexican unions see the CFO as competition, but said that was only because the unions weren't doing their job. Recently, in cooperation with allied labor groups, the CFO has begun holding workshops on organizing independent unions and democratic caucuses.

Safer working conditions are another CFO focus. In many instances members have won exhaust vents or safety equipment. Textile workers might decide not to brush off dust and lint for an entire shift, becoming a walking display of the problem. Or they might shame the company into compliance with regulations by equipping a critical mass of workers with safety glasses and gloves.

After meeting with the CFO organizers, the Southeastern Michigan Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health agreed to send a package of safety equipment and educational materials. Information on toxic substances is critical; management in the maquiladoras often translates safety warnings inadequately to trick workers into accepting dangerous conditions.

Many of the U.S. and Canadian workers contacted on the tour--especially those belonging to their local's women's committees--expressed a desire to develop long-term "sister local" relationships. Such contacts offer the best hope for uniting workers across borders in common struggle.