May 2001   

For a Class-Struggle Fight to Unionize the Maquiladoras!

The following article is translated from El Internacionalista/edición México No. 1, May 2001, published by the Grupo Internacionalista/México, section of the League for the Fourth International.

The demise of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime, formally certified in the elections of 2 July 2000, has raised unwarranted hopes in various sectors, including layers of the working class. For more than half a century, the PRI’s domination was based on iron-fisted control of the proletariat by its corporatist “union” apparatus, above all the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). At the end of the 1940s the PRI completed the incorporation of the CTM industrial unions into the machinery of the bonapartist (and later semi-bonapartist) regime through the imposition of charro1 leaders. They were officially constituted as the “labor sector” of the PRI and subjugated to the discipline of this bourgeois party. Ever since the charro coup, Mexico has seen the flourishing of “protection contracts,” armies of thugs and gunmen, forced attendance at government rallies and other techniques which were the trademark of the all-powerful state party. The central objective was to prevent at all costs the rise of an independent and combative workers movement that could threaten Mexican capitalism, both the domestic bosses and their imperialist masters.

During its long-drawn-out decline, the heavy-handed PRI apparatus repeatedly provoked outbursts of rebellion among the workers. These outbreaks were quelled by a combination of ferocious repression and the creation of new charro labor federations in order to divert the workers’ combativity into manageable channels. Recent PRI administrations have seen the appearance on a large scale of maquiladora factories, free trade zone plants exempted from tariffs which take imported components and raw material and turn them into products for export. Their main attraction for investors are the rock-bottom labor costs. The maquiladora workforce has grown to well over a million workers, mainly young women who have migrated from the countryside of the central and southern states. Working in modern industrial parks scattered along the border with the United States, from Matamoros in the east to Tijuana in the west, the workers live in indescribable poverty. And in every plant, almost without exception, there is a local of the CTM, whose task is to suppress any outbreak of dissent and to prevent the organization of genuine unions. Contratos de protección (protection contracts) are often signed even before the workforce is hired. In many cases the workers don’t even know of the existence of the supposed “union.”

Following last July’s elections, many workers in the maquiladoras thought that the defeat of the PRI meant that – finally! – they could throw off the dead hand of the corporatist apparatus which condemned them to poverty wages. Yet this has not changed up to this point. The CTM pseudo-unions continue to be PRI organizations, albeit lacking the decisive backing of the federal treasury. As a result, as good “institutional” leaders (as the top boss of the CTM and the Congress of Labor [CT], Ricardo Rodríguez Alcaine, put it) they offered their services to the new president, right-wing businessman Vicente Fox. In those states where the PRI dinosaurios2 still run the show, the disintegrating CTM has been replaced by another corporatist federation, the Revolutionary Federation of Workers and Peasants (CROC). In the PRI primary elections of 1999, the CROC supported Puebla governor Manuel Bartlett, notorious for his authoritarian methods and for engineering the “crash” of the electoral commission computers on election night in 1988, which produced the presidency of Carlos Salinas. Nevertheless, today the CTM, the CT and the CROC are all under fire.

Thus the stage has been set for an upsurge of fierce, and possibly bloody, struggles. The most recent case is the militant protest action by the women workers of the Covarra textile company in the central state of Morelos, just south of Mexico City, which produces fabrics for export. In April the bosses claimed they had to close the plant due to financial difficulties. The only way to avoid this would be firing part of the workers and slashing the wages of those who remained. The contract is held by the manufacturing industry “union” affiliated with the CTM. After meetings between the bosses and “union” leaders (who until then were unknown to the workers) an “agreement” was reached: 200 of the 600 workers would be fired and the wages of the rest (already barely above the state minimum wage, which is lower than in Mexico City) would be cut by 30 percent. After this episode, the women workers decided to form a union that would represent their interests instead of acting as an arm of the bosses to give a “legal” cover for attacks on the workers.

At 6 p.m. on April 2, the workers began blocking the highway between the state capital of Cuernavaca and the town of Cuautla. Their basic demands were: reinstate the fired compañeras, return to the wage rate in force before the sudden pay cut, and legal recognition of the new union organization they were setting up. That night, the interior minister of Morelos (a member of Fox’s National Action Party [PAN]) threatened to bust up the sit-in blocking the highway. A little before midnight, state riot police together with judicial police began brutally attacking the women workers. First they surrounded them, then pushed them off the road. The women workers dug in on the other side of a retaining wall and tried to go back and occupy the highway lanes. At that point, the cops lobbed dozens of tear gas canisters at them. The few images that were broadcast on the evening news were like scenes out of Dante’s Inferno. Dozens of women workers were beaten. In the face of superior force, they were compelled to return to work.

Another struggle currently under way is that of the workers at the Kuk Dong factory, located in Atlixco, in the state of Puebla. The sportswear company’s main customer is Nike, and it also makes products for leading U.S. universities. The conflict began last December with the firing of five workers (while another 20 were forced to leave “voluntarily”) for leading a protest against bad food in the cafeteria, poverty wages ($30 a week) and the failure to pay the Christmas bonus. On January 9, more than 850 Kuk Dong workers stopped work, occupied the plant and set up guards at the gates. On January 11 they were attacked by a gang of thugs from the CROC, together with 300 granaderos (riot cops) who took orders directly from the head of the corporatist pseudo-union, René Sánchez Juárez. The workers were required to run a gauntlet of cops, who beat them savagely. Fifteen injured strikers had to go to the hospital. Although the company later signed an agreement with the Coalition of Kuk Dong Workers permitting the return of the workers, the most prominent activists have been denied entry to the plant.

Kuk Dong had already been targeted by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a university coalition organized to protest against the miserable working conditions in the sweatshops where Nike clothing is made, and of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which has drawn up a set of standards to regulate superexploitation. Under international pressure, at the end of February the Puebla company agreed again to take back all the workers, and to hold a (non-secret) vote on union representation. Nevertheless, up to this point only half the workforce has returned, many of whom have been illegally “rehired” in order to eliminate their seniority rights. At least 70 were kept out for refusing to sign a statement of support for the CROC. On March 18, the workers held an assembly in which they decided to form an independent union, the SITEKIM. Nevertheless, the CROC continues to use the resources of the company, harassing and intimidating the workers.

Imperialist spokesmen like the New York Times have cited the Kuk Dong plant as an example of a “victory” for the WRC, since Nike asked its subcontractor to rehire the workers. In Mexico, left groups like the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (League of Workers for Socialism) have played up the USAS action as solidarity with the workers. But despite the fact that a delegation of students and professors that visited the plant in Atlixco concluded that “the wages Kuk Dong pays are, by far, insufficient to support a family of three,” the WRC’s recommendations were limited to retracting the firings, without a word about wages. Moreover, in its “Model Code of Conduct,” this consortium that claims to defend workers’ rights only calls for a 48-hour workweek and a “dignified living wage” sufficient to “provide for the basic needs” of a family in the garment industry.

This is no accident, but part of a whole operation. A recent article about maquiladora plants in El Salvador (which a USAS delegation visited previously) reports that under pressure from university “monitors,” the “pioneer” company in the industry, Gap, required that its subcontractor improve the cafeteria and ventilation, while it continues paying the same poverty wages (New York Times, 24 April). These bourgeois liberals don’t seek to eliminate superexploitation, or even to substantially diminish it, but only to regulate it. At bottom they propose a trade-off: in exchange for some superficial improvements, so that the plants don’t give the impression of being “sweatshops,” students (many of whom sincerely want to help the workers) will be given the impression that they have done a good deed and the supposed defenders of labor rights will give their seal of approval, thus helping the imperialist companies clean up their image. In other words, they’re prettifying the maquiladoras.

Showdown in Río Bravo

Of all the current conflicts, the most dramatic is the struggle of the workers at the Duro Bag Manufacturing Company in Río Bravo, in the border state of Tamaulipas. The plant is located near the city of Reynosa, one of the centers of the maquiladora industry and the birthplace of workers resistance in the border region, which goes back to the Zenith strike of 1983. The Duro factory, owned by a U.S. company with headquarters in Kentucky, specializes in the manufacture of gift bags for top-of-the-line companies like Hallmark Cards and the luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus. Even before setting up the factory, Duro signed a contract with a CTM “union,” which dutifully agreed to the terrible wages (currently $30 a week). The workforce is overwhelmingly made up of women workers, many of them single mothers. In autumn 1999, they rebelled against the straitjacket of CTM control, voting to throw out the boss of the local and replace him with Eluid Almaguer. The company’s response was immediate: they fired Almaguer, with the consent of the CTM, which struck him from its list of personnel under the provisions of the cláusula de exclusión (exclusion clause).

But even this was not enough to suppress the workers’ rebellion. In mid-April of last year some 400 workers led a work stoppage against abusive treatment by the bosses, which was then joined by an additional 800 workers. On June 11, on the eve of the Mexican presidential elections, the national leadership of the corporatist federation agreed to an extension of the contract, ignoring the workers’ demands for shoes, work clothes, company contributions to a savings plan, the presence of a doctor in the plant and a substantial wage increase. The angry response of the workers wasn’t long in coming. One week later the strike broke out: on the night of June 18, workers put up the red-and-black flags (the traditional symbol for a strike in Mexico) and occupied the plant with the aim of setting up their own union. But in the early morning hours, 13 police cars pulled up to the factory. Brandishing weapons, they tried to intimidate the strikers. When the workers refused to leave, the beatings began. One woman who was eight months pregnant was hospitalized because of the blows she received. The workers immediately began a sit-in in the zócalo (central plaza) of Río Bravo, where they remain to this day.

This took place at the height of the election campaign, and to avoid problems at the voting booths, the PRI governor Thomas Yarrington assured the strikers that their independent union would registered. But after July 2 (election day), the government started backpedaling, declaring the strike illegal while the company circulated a “blacklist” of strikers. However, when an international forum was held in Reynosa on “the right of association” – attended, among others, by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, based in San Antonio, Texas, and leaders of the National Workers Union (UNT) who traveled from Mexico City – and in the face of the general discrediting of the PRI after its electoral fiasco, Yarrington gave in and the independent union was registered. Nevertheless, this only led to the next in the labyrinth of obstacles to the formation of workers unions free from the direct control of the bourgeois state.

At the end of October 2000, the state authorities were presented with a list of more than 400 signatures of Duro workers in favor of an independent union. The response: on October 31, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, unknown persons burned Eluid Almaguer’s home to the ground. CROC thugs were brought in from Mexico City to intimidate the strikers carrying out the sit-in at Río Bravo, while the head of the CTM “union” for this sector tried to bribe them with empty promises of better pay and conditions. When this got nowhere, the Federal Mediation and Arbitration Board (JFCyA) finally agreed to hold a vote count on union affiliation on March 2. But that only led to an intensification of the intimidation. The more than 150 Duro workers who had been fired from the plant for union activity were kept out. During the following days, more than 100 CROC goons hired by the company and brought in from outside prowled the area. A day before the voting, they brought high-caliber automatic weapons into the plant in full view of the union activists outside the front gate.

Having thus set the stage, they carried out their pseudo-democratic farce. The “vote” was carried out inside the plant, not on neutral ground. Each worker was given a blue ballot (for the CROC) and required to verbally state his or her affiliation in front of representatives of management and of the CROC (to which the CTM had by this time turned over the contract) seated at the table. The night shift was kept in the plant under lock and key to prevent them from talking with union activists outside. In the early morning you could hear shouts of “Let usout!” During the voting a car full of thugs drove out of the plant and hit one of the women strikers. The strikers stopped the car and when they opened the trunk they found leaflets and banners of the independent union that the CROC thugs had torn down. Finally, the federal mediation board announced the results of the vote count: 497 for the CROC, 4 for the independent union – just like the “good old days” of the PRI’s carro completo (clean sweep).

War on PRI Corporatism and PAN Company Unions!
Throw the Cardenista Bureaucracy Out of the “Independent” Unions!

This farce highlights the key question of the nature of the corporatist CTM and CROC federations. For the workers of the Duro plant, it is very clear: these are “phantom unions” which only exist in the companies’ labor relations offices and their armies of strikebreaking thugs. They are instruments of the PRI (of which they are a part), the state party which ruled this country for over 70 years, for the purpose of preventing the rise of genuine workers unions. Like the “white” (company) unions sponsored by the PAN governments of the northern states, they are not workers organizations but a weapon of the bosses. We Trotskyists of the Grupo Internacionalista, section of the League for the Fourth International, have repeatedly insisted that the struggle for union independence against the corporatist PRI federations and the PAN company unions is a class struggle against the bourgeoisie, its parties and its “labor” organizations.

However, an organization which claims to be Trotskyist, the Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM), has put itself forward in recent years as a staunch supporter of the supposed working-class character of the CTM and the CROC. While the GEM occasionally uses the word corporatist regarding these federations, they have stripped it of any meaning by insisting that they do not recognize “any class distinction between some unions and others” (Espartaco No. 14, Fall-Winter 2000). Thus they seek to give a “working-class” cover to the PRI machinery whose purpose is precisely to incorporate the workers into this bourgeois party. We have on various occasions unmasked the capitulation by the GEM and the International Communist League, of which it is a part, to this bourgeois apparatus which chains and represses the workers. In a subsequent issue we will publish an extensive analysis on the question of corporatism. Here we only want to note that their apologies for the CTM consciously distort the positions of Trotsky.

Insisting on the need to struggle for influence among the workers in a whole range of organizations, including “semi-state organizations” and even “labor organizations created by fascism,” Trotsky never put an equal sign between such apparatuses and workers unions led by pro-capitalist bureaucrats. This is not a sterile terminological dispute, but rather a life-and-death question for maquiladora workers. Obviously one would struggle inside the CTM “unions” precisely in order to break the corporatist stranglehold and to form genuine workers unions. This task requires above all a struggle to forge a revolutionary leadership. Every serious struggle of Mexican workers in recent decades has been against the CTM and similar federations. Duro workers already went through their own experience attempting to defend themselves inside the framework of the CTM, and it was the defeat of this attempt that led them to found an independent union. But for the GEM, the struggle currently being waged in Río Bravo, along with the struggles in Cuernavaca and Puebla, would be a dispute between two unions which are qualitatively the same. With their line they cannot defend the women workers in this struggle.

These “CTM socialists” cynically claim that “there is no qualitative difference between the PRI charros and their ‘democratic’ counterparts,” when what they are actually saying is that there is no qualitative difference between the thugs of the corporatist federations and the women workers of the Duro, Kuk Dong and Covarra factories. But there is. The fact that these professional goons defend the companies against the workers, that they set up squads of strikebreaking thugs, is known to everyone. Now there is additional proof. When one of these gangsters made a formal declaration after running down the worker Consuelo Moreno, he admitted that he had come from the Federal District, where he was hired by the company to watch over the vote count to ensure that the CROC would win. Even the car which the CROC thugs drove into the workers picket line belonged to the company.

The corporatist “unions” of the CTM, the CROC and other federations under the umbrella of the CT serve in reality as company labor organizations. Ultimately they represent the class enemy. This fact makes the role of the bureaucrats who betray the workers struggle from within, tying the workers to “democratic” bourgeois parties, above all Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’ Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), even more pernicious and dangerous. The Duro workers have no illusions about the role of the PRI, but the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), to which the independent union is affiliated, feeds dangerous illusions in the bourgeois “opposition” of the PRD. The FAT is part of the UNT, led by telephone union leader Francisco Hernández Juárez, a former PRI supporter of ex-president Carlos Salinas, who sabotaged the struggle against privatization of the Telmex telephone monopoly in exchange for millions of dollars’ worth of shares in the company now controlled by Carlos Slim. On January 25, Hernández on behalf of the UNT signed an agreement with Amalia García of the PRD for common action with this bourgeois nationalist party.

There are innumerable ties between the leaders of the “independent” unions and Cárdenas’ party. UNT vice president Alejandra Barrales, head of the airline flight attendants union, was elected a PRD deputy to the national congress last July. Berta Luján quit her post as a leader of the FAT to become the comptroller of the PRD government of the Federal District under Andrés Manuel López Obrador. UNT co-president Agustín Rodríguez, leader of the National University workers union (STUNAM), is also a prominent PRDer. Since July 2, these “independent” unionists compete with the PRI “institutionals” in offering their services to the new government of Vicente Fox. UNT vice president Roberto Borja participated in Fox’s “transition team.” These ties to the bourgeois “opposition” directly harm the struggle of the oppressed. The PRD government of the Federal District under Cárdenas and then Rosario Robles, former secretary of STUNAM, sent club-wielding Mexico City riot police to repress UNAM student strikers during 1999-2000. Pointing to these examples, the Grupo Internacionalista has repeatedly called to break with the Cárdenas popular front!

In the case of Duro, the pro-capitalist bureaucrats of the UNT and FAT have led the workers’ struggle into going through the channels of the Federal Labor Law, the cornerstone of the system of state labor control which has condemned innumerable workers struggles to defeat. Hernández Juárez himself traveled to Río Bravo in August with this message. The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), which is advising the strikers, described as a “victory” the announcement by the JFCyA of a date for the rigged vote count, which then produced the “triumph” of the CROC. The CJM is tied to the AFL-CIO labor federation in the U.S., as is the UNT, and following the path of submission to capitalist legality they have appealed several cases of discrimination against independent unions in Mexico to a body established under the North American Free Trade Agreement. This amounts to calling for intervention by the United States against Mexico. Every class-conscious worker must reject NAFTA as an instrument of imperialist domination, and refuse to use its mechanisms against a neo-colonial country.

Labor journalist David Bacon has pointed out that “No remedies have ever been imposed which would have required rehiring a single fired worker, nor has a single independent union been able to negotiate a contract, as a result of any ruling in a case under the [NAFTA] treaty” (Mexican Labor News, March 2001). Marta Ojeda of the CJM commented that the Duro election “strips away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers’ rights.” Robin Alexander, director of international affairs for the United Electrical Workers (UE), declares, “Institutions like NAFTA and the WTO [World Trade Organization] will never operate in workers’ interests.” But it is the leaders of the UNT, the CJM and UE themselves who are the architects of the “strategy” which seeks salvation in the institutions and laws of the bourgeoisie. At times, particularly after another defeat, they seek to give themselves a “radical” image, such as during the meeting between the Zapatista delegation and unionists of the UNT in Mexico City on March 15, where they attacked corporatism and “neo-liberalism.” But at the same time they make use of the good offices of imperialism, circulating a letter from Democratic Congressman David Bonior, known for his protectionist positions, in favor of the Duro Bag workers.

Forge a Revolutionary Leadership!

The Grupo Internacionalista insists, with Trotsky, that the only way to achieve union democracy is by fighting for “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.” As the founder of the Fourth International noted in a text written during his Mexican exile and which was in part a response to the effort by President Lázaro Cárdenas to subordinate the CTM to the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM, predecessor of the PRI), “The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of the workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.” This requires a hard-fought struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party against all the bourgeois parties and their lieutenants in the workers movement. As Trotsky observed, “without the political leadership of the Fourth International the independence of the trade unions is impossible.”

The struggle to unionize the new layers of the Mexican industrial proletariat goes far beyond a mythical “pure” trade unionism and must confront every form of capitalist oppression. As we emphasized in our article, “Mexican Maquiladora Workers Fight for Their Rights” (Internationalist No. 1, January-February 1997), it “poses the need for a revolutionary leadership that champions the cause of oppressed women workers.” The increasing participation of women in social production has been an important aspect of the economic crisis which has shaken the working class for more than two decades. The percentage of women in the economically active population went from 17 percent in 1976 to 24 percent in 1980, and during the last decade it increased from 32 percent to 37 percent, so that today there are 15 million women workers. To defend and mobilize them as working-class fighters it is necessary to put forward a revolutionary program which directly addresses the various aspects of women’s oppression.

We fight for equal pay for equal work, and to overcome the miserable wages which condemn maquiladora workers to a life of poverty. A class-struggle leadership would also demand free day care centers, paid for by the companies, open 24 hours a day. It must put a stop to the companies’ humiliating demands for proof that women workers are not pregnant, and mobilize union action to win back the job of any woman fired for being pregnant. We also fight for free abortion on demand, in the framework of a free, high-quality medical system accessible to the entire population.

This requires a head-on struggle against reactionary forces like the Catholic church and the clerical-reactionary National Action Party, which in the states it governs has declared abortion illegal under any circumstances. But it’s not only the PAN: the PRI and PRD have also opposed the unrestricted right of a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Shortly after Fox’s election, the state legislature of Guanajuato, dominated by the PAN, proposed outlawing all abortions, including in cases of rape. In response, the head of the PRD government of the Federal District, Rosario Robles, reduced the punishment for certain kinds of abortion. But she emphasized that it would continue to be a crime: “The proposal, Robles specified, is not to legalize abortion” (La Jornada, 15 August 2000).

In opposition to feminism, which envisages a separate struggle by women, we Trotskyists underline the need for a class struggle for the emancipation of women, as part of a struggle for the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed. In the face of massive unemployment, it is necessary to fight for a sliding scale of wages and work hours, demanding jobs for all. In response to attacks by CTM and CROC goons, a revolutionary leadership would sponsor the formation of workers self-defense groups to defend strike pickets against these strikebreaking thugs. We call for working-class mobilization demanding the withdrawal of the Mexican army from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and other states where it is carrying out counterinsurgency operations. In the face of the swindle of supposed Indian autonomy under the military boot, and in contrast with the Zapatista program of simply rolling back Salinas’ agrarian counter-reform (returning to the poverty-stricken ejido3), we must inscribe on the workers’ banners the demand for agrarian revolution and voluntary collectivization of the land.

In the face of the government’s current plans to impose a sales tax on food and medicines, a blatant attack against working and poor people, the workers movement should take the initiative in forming neighborhood committees, with strong participation by housewives, to watch over prices and prevent attempts to charge this vicious tax. Faced by Fox’s threats to privatize energy production (oil, electricity), while many leftists yearn for a return to the previous PRI “model” of a highly statified capitalist economy, the GI fights for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie by a workers and peasants government.

An article by David Bacon in the liberal magazine The Nation (22 January) on the struggle of the Duro Bag workers was titled “Unions Without Borders.” But the reality is that under the pro-capitalist bureaucracies, the unions cannot overcome national boundaries due to their subordination to “their own” bourgeoisies. Behind their empty phrases of “solidarity” one finds, barely disguised, the imperialist protectionism of the AFL-CIO or bourgeois Cárdenas nationalism in the case of the UNT, the FAT and allied unions. Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution is the only one capable of overcoming the capitalist borders, by fighting for workers revolution that extends to the U.S. proletariat, key to achieving socialism on a world scale. Thus the struggle for unionizing the maquiladoras must be placed in the framework of the struggle to reforge a genuinely Trotskyist Fourth International. This is the goal the Grupo Internacionalista fights for. ■ 

1 Literally “cowboys.” Following the bitter defeat of the 1948 railroad workers’ struggle, the government imposed a flunkey who was known for dressing up in Mexican cowboy outfits

2 “Dinosaurs,” the nickname for old-style hard-line PRI party bosses, as opposed to the new generation of free-market “technocrats.

3 Communally held lands, previously guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution. While belonging to Indian communities, they are generally farmed by individual families working on tiny plots of poor land.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com