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Organizing is labor in Mexico: U.S. companies especially resist unions.

U.S. companies especially resist unions

TIJUANA, Mexico -- U.S. corporations south of the border know all the tricks.

One weekend earlier this year, when no one seemed to be looking, Glenn Furniture of Huntington Beach, Calif., decided to quit its Tijuana maquiladora assembly plant, leave without paying the workers, and take its machinery back over the U.S. border -- all in one lightning-swift move.

Alerted Tijuana workers occupied the plant -- legal under Mexican law -- and stayed for weeks in 24-hour shifts, determined to force the company to pay at least the two weeks' back wages it owed.

Finally, the workers were partially successful. They recouped $250,000 when they sold the machinery. At Glenn, a person answering the telephone, when asked to explain Glenn's departure from Tijuana, told NCR, "I cannot discuss that with you." He said the company was no longer in business.

If employment for a maquiladora worker is tentative at best, trying to organize democratic unions to protect those workers requires unusual persistence and risk. Workers suspected of unionizing can be summarily dismissed, as happened to Javier Hernandez Hernandez.

Almost any U.S. plant in Tijuana, facing a work force that is organizing, can "disappear back over the fence in the space of a three-day weekend," said Jelger Kalmijn, of the San Diego and Tijuana-based Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores.

San Diego-based Kalmijn, along with Mary Tong of San Diego's Beyond Borders magazine, typify U.S.-side solidarity with maquila workers all along the U.S-Mexican frontier. Kalmijn and Tong stressed, however, that it is people such as Tijuana-based democratic union organizer Jaime Cota and fired Plasticos Corp. worker, now organizer, Javier Hernandez, who carry the real load.

Democratic union organizers face opposition from the government, as well as from corporations and corrupt unions, explained Cota.

Labor organizers in Mexico always stress the democratic union aspect of their work because, while most Mexican industries are covered by unions -- such as those under the acronym CROM, the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers -- those syndicates usually take their direction from the government or the employers, are antidemocratic, corrupt or a mix of all four.

"Reorganizing (in the Baja California area of Mexico) didn't really start again until this year," explained Cota, because the former governor had "beheaded the student and popular movements" during the 1980s and it had taken time to rebuild. One current focus of Cota's and Hernandez's activities, assisted by a U.S.-side Committee to Support Maquiladora Workers, CSMW, that Kalmijn and Tong organized, is the Plasticos BajaCal plant in Tijuana, a subdivision of U.S.-based Carlisle Plastics, which manufactures coat hangers. Issues at the Plasticos plant, including safety, wage differentials, pay lost during Tijuana's devastating spring floods, and the firing of a pregnant woman, were the topics during interviews this summer in a Tijuana barrio where electricity has not arrived and water is hand-carried.

In a two-room plywood home with a television set attached to two car batteries, current and former Plasticos workers talked about their hopes and the risk of organizing. These workers, who average $6 a day for a six-day week, said that Plasticos might be amenable to union discussions because it is doing too well financially to walk away from its Tijuana assembly plant.

"I don't believe they will do that," said Cota, "because they are making huge amounts of money, and the company feels safe." Hernandez, a Plasticos organizer who survives financially as a CSMW "Adopt an Organizer" campaign recipient, explained, "The workers' situation is very difficult. The women face joblessness (for unionizing), but as soon as we talk to them they realize the necessity for a democratic union."

Meanwhile, one Plasticos official has been quoted as saying the organizers were building up images of labor unrest as part of a campaign against NAFTA.

But U.S.-side solidarity groups, all along the U.S.-Mexican manufacturing border, contend that the complaints against maquiladora working conditions and the environmental hazards that accompany the zone are too consistent for anti-NAFTA sentiment to carry the blame.
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Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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