Testing NAFTA's Labor Side Agreement

September 25, 2007

Norberto Cordoba sacrificed
his job, trying to end condi-
tions in his factory so dan-
gerous that he feared the lives of his
co-workers were at risk.
C6rdoba was employed at the
Han Young plant in Tijuana, making
truck chassis and shipping contain-
ers for the huge Hyundai Corp-
oration industrial complex. Last
June, when his co-workers orga-
nized an independent union and
walked out on strike, he joined them
willingly. He had only been working
there three months. "I have always
been a union man," he says. "In
Veracruz, where I am from, I was a
union leader at all the shops where I
Despite being a skilled welder,
C6rdoba could only make 300 pesos
a week in Veracruz. So he did what
millions of Mexicans have done
over the last few decades-he made
David Bacon is an editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco, and a freelance writer and photographer documenting issues of labor; immigration and interna- tional politics. He was a factory worker and a labor organizer for many years.
the long trek north to the border. At
Han Young, he found a job that paid
him almost twice as much.
Although this company had a
union too, it was not like those he
had known before. "It was a union
that only protected the boss," he
recalls. "It did nothing for us."
Han Young managers were so sur-
prised by the two-day strike that
they made concessions to end it,
finally agreeing to set up the health
and safety committee required by
Mexican law. Despite the fact that
conditions in the plant were fright-
eningly dangerous, the company
union had never insisted.
C6rdoba was chosen by his fellow
workers as one of three representa-
tives from the new independent
union on the safety committee.
Within months, all three were fired,
as Han Young moved to purge the
activists from the plant.
In Mexico, according to Han
Young plant manager Pablo Won
Young Kang, "if you want to strike,
you must get permission first. Their
work stoppage was not legal, so we
fired them."
In late February, C6rdoba's case
was brought before the National
Administrative Office (NAO) of the
U.S. Department of Labor at a hear-
ing in San Diego. The NAO is the
enforcement mechanism in the
United States for the North
American Agreement on Labor
Cooperation, NAFTA's labor side
agreement. It hears allegations that
Mexico or Canada are not enforcing
their own labor-protection laws.
Each of the three NAFTA countries
has such an office to hear com-
plaints about the other two.
C6rdoba's case was included in a
complaint alleging that the Mexican
government had refused to allow
Han Young workers to leave the old
company union and form an inde-
pendent one.
Han Young's original union was
the Revolutionary Confederation of
Workers and Farmers (CROC), an
organization tightly allied to the
country's ruling Institutional Revo-
lutionary Party (PRI). For months
following the June strike, Han
Young workers sought to join the
independent Union for Workers in
The struggle to form an independent union
at the Han Young maquila factory in Tijuana
was met with massive firings. Labor organizers
are using this case to put NAFTA's labor side
agreement to the test.
the Metal, Steel, Iron and Allied
Industries (STIMAHCS).
According to Enrique Hernmndez,
who represents the independent
union, "companies sign protection
agreements with the CROC in order
to ensure uninterrupted production.
The CROC collects money directly
from the employers and holds no
meetings. Its representatives only
come to the factory when there is
trouble, to tell the workers to go
back to work."
On October 6, workers forced the
Tijuana office of the Mexican labor
board to hold an election to choose
between the two unions. Despite
having to vote openly in front of
representatives of management and
the company union, 55 voted for the
independent union and only 32 for
the CROC.
"All the maquiladora owners
were worried that an independent
union at Han Young would encour-
age workers to organize at other fac-
tories, and drive up wages,"
Hernmndez says. The government
shared their concern. Despite the
majority vote for STIMAHCS, the
labor board refused to certify the
Kang defends the government po-
sition. "Eighty percent of the work-
ers really wanted another union, not
STIMAHCS, but they weren't per-
mitted to vote," he claims.
C6rdoba says that is ludicrous.
"The government even let the super-
visors and Han Young's nurse vote,"
he says, "and still the company
After the government denied cer-
tification in November, charges
were filed with the NAO by the San
Diego Support Committee for
Maquiladora Workers, Mexico's
National Association of Democratic
Lawyers, and other organizations.
They alleged that the labor board
illegally permitted management per-
sonnel to vote, and illegally refused
to certify the election results.
t first, the charges seemed to
go nowhere. In the United
States, a network of union
and community activists began
picketing car dealerships belonging
to the Hyundai Corporation. Bad
publicity and possible lost sales,
they hoped, would force Hyundai to
intervene. According to Mary Tong,
director of the San Diego Support
Committee, "under Mexican law
manufacturers are responsible for
the actions of their contractors." But
although Han Young produces
solely for Hyundai, the corpora-
tion's representatives denied re-
Pressure grew more intense dur-
ing November's debate over fast-
track legislation, which would have
given the Clinton Administration
the authority to negotiate future
trade agreements, including the
expansion of NAFTA to other coun-
tries, without amendment by
The Han Young election was used
by fast-track opponents as a symbol
of NAFTA's failure to protect work-
ers' rights. As the Administration
sought to line up support, Demo-
cratic Representatives David Bonior
and Richard Gephardt met with
other members of Congress and told
them about the Han Young case. It
worked well. In the end, even with
substantial Republican support,
Clinton failed to come up with the
necessary votes and pulled fast track
off the floor.
Seeing no progress, however, a
small group of fired Han Young
activists started a hunger strike on
November 20 in front of the state
government building in downtown
Tijuana. Workers struck the plant
again in early December, and com-
pany officials finally agreed to talk.
But the labor board still refused to
permit negotiations, prompting the
hunger strikers to chain themselves
to the doors.
As the fast gained publicity and
support, the Mexican and U.S. gov-
ernments grew desperate to defuse
the Han Young issue. Under intense
pressure, the labor board finally
agreed to a deal. If the factory's
workers voted for the independent
union again in a second election,
and their supporters withdrew the
NAO complaint, the board would
certify the results. Han Young
would rehire the fired workers and
bargain with STIMAHCS.
On December 4, in front of the
factory, 32 workers voted for the
independent union for a second time
while 27 voted against it.
At first it seemed the deal would
hold, and six of the fired workers
were rehired. But it quickly started
to unravel.
A representative of another gov-
ernment-affiliated union, the Revo-
lutionary Union of the Working
Class, began showing up at the fac-
tory almost daily. Meanwhile, the
company refused to bargain with
STIMAHCS representative Enrique
Herndndez, and forbade him to enter
the plant.
The situation grew more tense in
January. Just after New Years, a
crane carrying a one-ton truck chas-
sis almost collided with another, and
the chassis fell. Six workers leaped
out of the way, narrowly escaping
death or serious injury. Around the
same time, leaking water poured
through the roof during torrential
rainstorms. High-voltage cables
attached to welding equipment
snaked through two-inch-deep pud-
dles which spread across the floor,
threatening shock and electrocution.
Workers struck again for a day on
January 6 to force a government
safety inspection. In the wake of the
stoppage, the NAO complaint was
amended to include alle-
gations that the Mexican
government was not
enforcing health and
safety regulations at Han
When the NAO hearing
finally opened in San
Diego on February 18,
over two dozen workers
lined up to testify about
the failure of the legal
process to guarantee their
union rights, and the
Mexican government's
unwillingness to enforce
safety regulations.
Even getting to the hear-
ing was not easy. Although
workers received tempo-
rary passes to cross the
border the day before, A worker
when they presented them election h
at the San Ysidro crossing at 8:00
a.m. on the morning of the hearing, Border Patrol agents questioned
their validity. For three hours, revolving teams of agents held their
credentials for verification and re-
fused to allow the workers to pass.
Only after NAO Secretary Irasema
Garza personally phoned the border
station were they allowed to pro-
Garza's sympathetic treatment of
the workers contrasted remarkably
with past NAO proceedings. The
Han Young complaint is the sixth
heard by the U.S. NAO office.
Parties who have brought previous
complaints say they were met with
indifference bordering on hostility,
as well as a total lack of enforce-
ment. In fact, since NAFTA's pas-
sage in 1993, unions and worker-
rights activists in both countries
charge that enforcement of the labor
side agreement has been a sham.
The first complaint was filed by
the United Electrical Workers and
the Teamsters in 1994, after General
Electric Corporation defeated a
STIMAHCS organizing effort in
Ciudad Judrez. The unions charged
own leadership in the company
union, and were beaten by guards
and police in front of the plant while
protesting election fraud. When
workers later tried to register an
independent union with the local
labor board, government officials
turned them away.
After the NAO hearings, then-
Labor Secretary Robert Reich met
with his Mexican counterpart
Santiago Ofiate, and agreed that the
from the Han Young factory (right) votes for the independent union, STIMAHCS, in an
eld on October 6, 1997 at the offices of the Mexican labor board.
that GE threatened to close its plant,
and fired a number of workers after
they were interviewed on the
Macneil-Lehrer Newshour. The
NAO hearing was held in
Washington, making it virtually
inaccessible to workers who wanted
to testify. The complaint was sum-
marily dismissed.
Another complaint was filed by
the Coalition for Justice in the
Maquiladoras, assisted by the Inter-
national Labor Rights Fund (ILRF),
the American Friends Service
Committee and Mexico's National
Association of Democratic Law-
yers, on behalf of workers at the
Sony plant in Ciudad Laredo.
Workers there tried to elect their
Mexican government was illegally
obstructing independent unions. But
when workers tried to register their
union again, the labor board again
refused. No further action was
The NAO process failed U.S.
workers as well. The Mexican tele-
phone workers union charged in
1995 that the U.S. government had
failed to protect San Francisco
workers at Sprint Corporation when
235 of them were fired and their
workplace was closed a week before
a vote on union representation.
Although hearings in this case also
documented extensive violations of
the National Labor Relations Act,
no corrective action was ever taken.
Inaction in these and subsequent
NAO cases is not surprising. There
are no penalties or fines under the
side agreement against governments
which violate workers' union rights.
ut last February in San
Diego, things had changed.
After fast track bombed, rep-
resentatives from Vice President Al
wages and company unions, so it's
hard to give any credibility to the
labor side agreement, which was
just window dressing to get us to
accept NAFTA to begin with. But
we have to use the tools that are
available to us. If the NAO case
helps Han Young workers stabilize
their union, and the idea spreads to
other workers and plants, then I
Buying out workers is a common way
for Mexican employers to settle the
cases of "troublemakers" without
giving them back their jobs.
Gore's office reportedly called
Congressman Bonior. When they
asked what the problem was, they
got a two-word reply: Han Young.
The case has become a political
litmus test. The Clinton Admin-
istration has already announced it
intends to reintroduce fast-track leg-
islation this spring. It needs credibil-
ity in Congress to blunt criticism
from Bonior, Gephardt and other
Democratic Party opponents. And
when Gephardt and Gore face off
two years from now for the
Democratic presidential nomina-
tion, free trade and jobs will be two
key issues.
This means that dumping the Han
Young case, like others before it, is
not an option-no small irony for
activists who have spent years orga-
nizing workers on the border and
who are implacable foes of free
trade. The Administration intends to
use their most important case to win
credibility for a policy which they
blame for workers' poverty and lack
of rights.
"There is no question that the pur-
pose of free trade is to create favor-
able conditions for foreign invest-
ment," says Hernindez. "On the
border, those conditions include low
guess we'll have to pay the price of
lending some credibility to a policy
we oppose."
It is still a race against time, how-
ever. The legal process usually lasts
over three years. Meanwhile, Han
Young is hiring new workers.
Busloads of workers are arriving
from Veracruz, where big layoffs in
shipyards and oilfields are produc-
ing hoards of unemployed welders.
STIMAHCS supporters worry that
the company will once again claim
that a majority of workers oppose
the independent union, and push for
a third election. Such concerns are
real. Kang is insisting that the new
workers make up 80% of the work-
force, and that they support the new
government-affiliated union.
But not all the new Veracruz
workers are proving to be such
docile pawns. Two of them testified
against the company in San Diego.
STIMAHCS supporters say that
during the January work stoppage,
the Veracruz workers did not come
to the plant to demonstrate, but they
did not show up for work either.
The company may be undermin-
ing its own plan to pit new workers
against the independent union.
Carlos Pdrez Cruz, hired in Veracruz
in September, says Han Young's
recruiter promised he would make
1,200 pesos, or $66, a week. Kang
denies the company ever made such
a promise.
Pdrez's pay stub for a week in late
February shows he made only 558
pesos, including overtime and an
incentive bonus. "I am being evicted
from my room because I cannot pay
the rent. I don't have enough to eat
or send money to my family," he
complained bitterly. "I can't even go
home. The fare to Veracruz is 1,200
pesos. Even if I didn't eat and slept
in the street, it would take two
weeks to make that."
Norberto C6rdoba is from
Veracruz as well. Since being fired,
he has worked short jobs in con-
struction, living day to day, trying to
send money home. He was not
among those rehired in December.
Kang says the company offered
C6rdoba money to give up his claim
to his job, and that he accepted. "I
was out of work for a long time, liv-
ing a thousand miles from my fam-
ily, who had nothing to support
them at home," he says. "I didn't
know if I would ever see the inside
of the plant again. What was I sup-
posed to do?"
Buying out workers is a common
way for Mexican employers to settle
the cases of "troublemakers" with-
out giving them back their jobs.
"But I want to go back to Han
Young," he says. "I have been part
of all this. I told the company I
would even be willing to start as a
new worker again, without my
Despite no certain job or
prospects, C6rdoba has decided to
settle in Tijuana. He finally sent for
his family a few weeks ago.
Can or will the NAO put him
back to work? While larger agendas
jockey against each other, it remains
to be seen whether NAFTA's labor
side agreement can actually help
just one person survive daily life on
the border.

Tags: NAFTA, labor, maquiladoras, unions, Han Young

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