Empowerment Zones Becoming the Maquiladoras of the North

“Welcome to the Dust.” With those words, a group of foreign visitors was welcomed to Tierra y Sol, one of the many colonias--communities of squatters--built by workers at the maquiladoras in Matamoros, Mexico.

The colonia had been built on a reclaimed garbage dump. The workers had buried all the glass and metal, burned everything else, and built their homes from leftover pallets and boxes the maquiladoras had sold them. But there was nothing to contain the dust--no trees, grass, or even weeds. As the visitors drove in, they had to use the windshield wipers to clear their view from the streams of loose dirt. It cascaded everywhere, and the slightest wind became a formidable dust storm. Respiratory problems were endemic.

The maquiladoras are a windfall for the foreign corporations that build them. Over the last ten years, wages have fallen by 23 percent, while productivity has risen by nearly 30 percent. Over one million Mexican workers are now employed in the maquiladoras, and that number is rising daily. Generous tax breaks and government financed state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure sweeten the deal.

And up north, politicians have seen the future.

One thousand miles from Tierra y Sol, there is dust and dirt in Detroit's Empowerment Zone.

Established by the Clinton administration, Empowerment Zones in Detroit and several other cities are an investor’s dream. There is low-wage labor, disenfranchised and beaten down by decades of economic decay, along with politicians willing to pay any price for new investment. The government gives employers up to $3,000 per worker they hire, along with extensive tax breaks.


The dust and dirt is at its worst at Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives, a plant with less than fifty workers in southwest Detroit. The plant is owned by Paul Tousley, who has operated it for 30 years. The Steelworkers stumbled across the plant as part of their campaign to organize Detroit's Empowerment Zone. They leafleted one day, and within a week over 90 percent of the workers signed union cards.

Peerless produces industrial sand blasting material used to clean bridges and machinery. The plant takes metal shot and separates it according to size by filtering the metal shavings through large metal shakers. To prep the metal for separation, workers “clean” it in large furnaces that burn off all the oil, chemicals, and other impurities.

The plant has five exhaust fans, but every one of them is broken, and the smoke from the furnaces rolls through the building. According to Todd Mireles, one of the Steelworker organizers, "When we first got there, so much black smoke was pouring from the building, that we thought the plant was on fire." The people in the neighborhood say it looks like that every day.

The workers are supposed to use safety glasses and respirators, but they don't. Once in a while they use dust masks. "There's not a respirator in the whole shop," said Frank Johnson, who was fired for union organizing,. "We've never had a single one in the five years I worked there."

The Peerless workers handle dust from carbon, silicon, manganese, and iron. The drums they fill carry labels with the following warning: "Prolonged breathing of dust and fumes generated by improper use can cause irritation to eyes, nose, and throat." Along with the smoke from the furnaces, the workers inhale that dust and fumes every day. The plant is a tremendous health hazard to its workers.

"I spit up some of this black stuff, and they ran some tests on it," said Johnson. "My doctor told me, ‘If you want to live, quit your job.’"




Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

The impact of the plant on the surrounding community is immediately apparent. Every house and car on the block is covered in grime and soot--the closer to the plant, the thicker and browner the residue. It is so dirty, Johnson said, “The kids can’t even come outside to play.”

The Steelworkers did an informal survey of every residence within a three-block radius and found many of the kids in the area were being treated for lead poisoning. There is such a high incidence of respiratory ailments among the children that the neighbors have named them the “Asthma Club” and routinely take turns driving the kids to the hospital.

Linda Nickson, who lives across the street from plant, explained: "There's always a real bad stinky smell, makes you want to throw up. The smoke blows on the house from the factory, then it comes inside." A few weeks ago, when temperatures were in the high nineties, "I had to crack one window open to get some air, but I was afraid to open any more. I have a new baby, and I don't want him to have to breathe in all that." In the three years she has lived there, Nickson says it has always been like that.

Other residents describe how piles of cast iron sometimes spill out into the street and hoses from the plant run the dirt and oil off of them down into the city drain. The oil clogs up the drains and floods the streets with filthy brown water. The city has sent Peerless several letters about this and other environmental problems, but residents believe that “somebody must be getting paid off, since nothing ever gets done.”

Last year, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer criticized new Environmental Protection Agency environmental racism guidelines that would have improved standards in poor and minority communities. The mayor complained that the guidelines would limit business development.

The workers at Peerless start off at $6.50 per hour with limited benefits. As soon as Tousley was aware of the organizing drive, he offered to fix the ventilators and to give everyone raises to $10 per hour if the workers didn’t bring in the union. As Johnson explained, “Some people have worked there for thirty years and don't make $10 per hour. But this isn't all about the union, it's about us having fresh air to breathe and getting to live." The workers are currently awaiting a date for their union election.


Not all the plants in the Empowerment Zone are as blatantly offensive. Hispanic Manufacturing is a modern facility composed of three plants: Uniboring, Gonzales Design and Manufacturing, and Ideal Steel. The three plants make state-of-the-art structural steel, auto parts racks, and other products mostly for the Big Three. GM and two other partners provided $25 million to build the manufacturing center. Unlike Peerless, which has a primarily African-American workforce, Hispanic Manufacturing hires mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants and Xicano workers.

Hispanic Manufacturing has close ties to the GRACE program, which stands for Gang Retirement and Continuing Education. GRACE helps retired gang members get jobs at Hispanic Manufacturing; nearly one-quarter of the workforce at Gonzales Design was recruited through the program. Inside the plant, the company makes it clear who is from GRACE and who isn't. In one incident, the company distributed a letter listing all of the GRACE members so that they could make a donation to a fellow GRACE member under duress. Both GRACE and Hispanic Manufacturing receive Empowerment Zone money for each worker hired, and community members allege that GRACE is pressuring its members to keep out the union.

At Gonzales Design, workers also complain of ventilation problems and forced overtime. Steelworkers organizer Pete Vargas says that mandatory overtime is often announced half an hour before the shift ends and sometimes extends to six days a week. Workers used to start off at $8 per hour but that has jumped to $9 since the union started organizing. Wages remain at less than half the industry norm. OSHA has repeatedly fined the company for serious violations; recently one employee received third-degree burns from hot paint, but no incident report was filed.

Similar conditions prevail at Piston Packaging, which produces paper pallets, corrugated boxes, and set-up boxes for the auto industry. Vinnie Johnson, former Detroit Pistons star, is the principal owner. Workers complain that there are no working water fountains. If they want to drink water, the employees have to bring it from home and hope it doesn't run out.

Wages start at $6.50 and jump up to $8.00 after the probationary period. That is the only raise workers that have been there for two and a half years have ever seen. Lunches, apparently, are at the supervisor's discretion. Vargas said, "One day last week, the workers came out complaining, 'We didn't even get a f... lunch today--they made us work overtime.' The company tried to make it up to the workers the next day by promising to buy them pizza, but as far as I know they still haven't gotten any."

Recently, President Clinton went on a tour to promote Empowerment Zones as the solution for the country's poor. This is the same road taken by Mexico in promoting the maquiladora industry--a volatile, highly mobile industry that pays low wages and depends on tremendous government subsidies and lax environmental and labor regulations.

The maquiladora industry does provide a lot of jobs, but as Martha Ojeda, executive director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, asked in an interview with La Jornada, "At what cost? How many good-paying jobs have been lost due to unequal trade [under NAFTA]? The cost of these jobs is, without a doubt, poverty wages, children with birth defects, and a polluted environment."

The next time politicians are extolling all the new jobs created by the Empowerment Zones, we should ask ourselves if it was worth it.