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 worked." 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 NACILA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS c 6UPDATE / LABOR 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 results. 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 lost." 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- sponsibility. 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 Congress. 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 V1 7 7 Vol XXXI, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1998UPDATE / LABOR 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 Young. 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- ceed. 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 taken. 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. 8 NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 8 NACILA REPORT ON THE AMERICASUPDATE / LABOR 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 seniority." 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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