June 14, 2003, 7:16PM

New grass-roots movement fosters unions, in past discouraged


TLIXCO, Mexico -- With vacant looks in their eyes, female workers furiously remove stray threads from T-shirts emblazoned with "Princess of Everything."

American girls who wear the garments stamped with this precocious statement will probably never know about the working conditions at the Pacific Continental textile factory.

But after touring this plant one afternoon, organizers like Marco Polo Rodriguez, 27, know all too well. He knows that at the Korean-owned factory in this central Mexican town, workers labor for about $5 a day, less than the retail price of a Princess T-shirt sold at a Texas store.

And the Mexican union organizer hears a Korean manager at the plant explain that the company decided to open a factory in Mexico because of the cheap labor.

Rodriguez is just one of a half-dozen former Mexican university students and plant workers trying to give a voice to workers in these maquiladoras, or assembly line factories. The organizers are part of a fledgling labor movement in a country where promises of democracy after a historic election in 2000 go unfulfilled. But it's a difficult struggle, considering that even if workers succeed in organizing an independent union, maquiladora owners may relocate their factory to a country with even cheaper labor.

"I think if a lot of female Mexican workers would demand what's their right, this would be another Mexico," said Blanca Velazquez, 29, who once worked at an auto parts factory and helped organize a union there, which was so successful she co-founded the Worker's Assistance Center to help maquiladora workers across the state.

For two years these organizers, who are all in their 20s, have visited factories and the homes of workers to help foster the creation of independent unions. They write and perform plays for communities so residents know about working conditions at the maquiladoras and workers know how to organize.

Piling into the group's battered Chevy Blazer, they drive to remote villages to discuss organizing with workers who must travel by foot and bus for hours to reach their workplaces.

"There are no sources of work in Izucar de Matamoros except for in the fields," said Liliana Tejeda, 22, of her small town 25 miles south of Atlixco. Even that work dwindles every day because of Mexico's growing farm crisis.

Impoverished farmers are leaving the countryside, saying small farms are being squeezed out by bigger, better-funded U.S. competitors, and have staged protests seeking help to bring the antiquated agriculture industry up to date Farm labor leaders have even called for an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement and sought to keep subsidies and tariff protection for crops

Tejeda and her sister worked at Matamoros Garment through March, when the plant closed. Until she can find another job, she speaks to international visitors about working conditions at maquiladoras.

The Worker's Assistance Center has had some success in organizing workers in this cathedral-filled town about 90 miles southeast of Mexico City. The center formed in 2001 to help organize an independent union for workers at the Mexmode garment factory.

Mexmode workers complained of worms in the cafeteria food, and a few said they were forced to perform sexual favors, Velazquez said. Mexmode officials would not allow reporters or union organizers access to the plant recently.

The situation ignited in January 2001, when about 800 workers walked off the assembly line and camped inside the Mexmode factory, demanding the rehiring of fired workers, cleaner restrooms and cafeteria food that didn't make them sick. Three days later, hundreds of soldiers stormed the plant and began beating the mostly female workers.

"Everything was really ugly," said a Mexmode worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her $6-a-day job.

The beatings drew international media attention when American college students found out their schools ordered sweat shirts bearing the Nike swoosh from Mexmode, formerly called Kukdong.

Students protested with workers in Atlixco, and Mexican students formed the Worker's Assistance Center, which invited American labor leaders to help.

Together, they helped the Kukdong workers form an independent union, an extraordinary action in Mexico. That's because there's no such thing as voting by secret ballot in Mexico. Instead, in an intimidation tactic, each worker must vote in front of her boss.

"Here you don't succeed in forming an independent union, and we did it," said the 21-year-old worker for Mexmode, which now has a contract to make NBA uniforms.

She stitches together colorful pieces of material to make basketball uniforms but can't tell the difference between a jersey for the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks.

Although she is pleased an independent union was formed, there are still problems at the factory, she said.

For example, workers can't go to the restroom or drink water without permission. And even with pay raises, many of the workers who fought the hardest for a new union decided to walk out on their Mexmode jobs and migrate to the United States.

Such disillusionment among workers is normal, labor experts said.

"I think a lot of times people have expectations that a new union or a new organization can solve every problem and make a workplace into a Utopia," said Lance Compa, senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y.

At least Mexmode workers ultimately won in their fight. Others have not been so lucky. At the Matamoros Garment factory in Izucar de Matamoros, workers tried to organize an independent union with the help of the Worker's Assistance Center.

Workers like Tejeda complained of forced overtime and low pay, among other issues. Management and strangers harassed them while they were organizing, Tejeda said.

Ultimately, their efforts didn't pay off because the factory closed in late March for financial reasons, Velazquez said. As part of an international trend, owners search the globe for ever-cheaper pools of labor, opening a plant in one country for a few years and then closing it and reopening in another

Some people are glad to see the dwindling of the maquiladora business.

"The experience has been very unpleasant," said Hector Estrada, a spokesman for Atlixco's city hall. "It's better that the maquilas leave. They pay little."

For years, the city's former political leaders encouraged foreigners to open plants in the area and offered long lists of economic incentives. But new city leaders said they no longer want to promote Atlixco as a source of cheap labor.

"We want tourism instead," said Victor Galdeano, director of agricultural development for the city, pointing to photos of the city's blooming rose, hibiscus and bougainvillea business.

Despite the diminishing factories, organizers at the Worker's Assistance Center want to improve conditions for workers at those that remain, like the Pacific Continental Textile factory.

Compared with many factories across Mexico, conditions are better at this plant in the sleepy city of 117,000.

Bottled water sits on workers' sewing tables, and music booms from loudspeakers in competition with the constant hum of sewing machines. Fans try to cool off workers in this sweltering plant. Safety zones are clearly marked on the floor, and a fire extinguisher is available.

But workers don't wear masks as they perform the tedious chores of sewing together pieces of fabric or packaging finished garments, all while tiny hairs of fabric float in the air.

"I can understand why people get asthma," said Tom Hansen, director of the Mexico Solidarity Network, a human rights group that helps workers on both sides of the border.

Near the cafeteria with a palapa roof, covered in palm fronds, where workers eat lunch, signs from companies such as Gap, Reebok, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target spell out a broad list of rights for workers who make clothing for the U.S. retailers. These codes of conduct for retail subcontractors include the right to organize.

But the signs don't convey the reality of union life for most of Mexico's maquiladora workers.

Low pay and dismal working conditions are common in Mexico's manufacturing sector. Strong union leadership could easily tackle and improve working conditions, and probably raise salaries.

However, many workers find themselves caught in a political game played for far too long in Mexico.

When fed-up workers try to organize, they discover that they cannot form an independent union because a fake labor group was chosen for them even before the factory opened. And a union leader they've probably never met represents them.

This "white union," as such a phantom group is called in Mexico, negotiates everything from wages to working conditions with the factory's owner in secret. So instead of union leaders representing workers, they work more for the employers and receive financial favors in return.

Except in a few cases, true representation was uncommon for maquiladora workers.

Mexican government officials said they are working on labor reform, but that reform will likely not move through Congress until after the pivotal July elections. And it likely won't make enough changes to satisfy workers.

Until then, workers at Mexmode and Pacific Continental continue sewing together garments for American consumers.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  June 15, 2003, 11:16PM

Putting migrants on road to rights

Laborers urged to join ride to East Coast rally


Labor and civil rights activists joined politicians in Houston to rally immigrant laborers for a 1960s-style march to Washington, D.C.

Gearing up for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in September, activists like the Rev. Joseph Lowery urged immigrants on Saturday to unite with each other and African-Americans in the struggle to gain better wages and civil rights.

"We may have come over on different ships, but we're all on the same boat now," said Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr.

Inspired by the freedom rides of the civil rights movement, organizers from major cities plan to take buses filled with immigrant workers to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20-Oct. 4.

The workers will stop in cities across the country to seek support and once in the capital, meet with members of Congress. On Oct. 4, they plan to hold a mass rally for immigrants' rights in New York City.

They will ask for a plan for citizenship for all immigrant workers, the right for immigrant workers to reunite with their families, and greater workplace rights.

The ride is organized by a committee whose members include the AFL-CIO, labor unions, religious groups, students and civil rights activists.

At the kickoff event Saturday, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, said the right for better wages and rights of immigrants was a greater battle for freedom.

He said undocumented immigrants contribute in labor and sales taxes. "It is important that we understand they contribute so greatly," said Gutierrez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Immigration.

Citing early treatment of Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants, Gutierrez said immigrants have historically been viewed as a nuisance to the country.

Immigrants who do not work or pay taxes should be deported, but those who contribute should be rewarded with greater rights, Gutierrez said.

He said children of undocumented immigrants should be able to attend universities, and immigrants who join the military should be granted citizenship and their families considered for citizenship if they die in combat.

About 200 people attended the event.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said he would work in Congress and in the streets of Houston to help immigrant workers gain better treatment.

"No matter what your citizenship is, you still deserve the dignity of being treated fairly," Green said.

Houston City Councilman Gordon Quan said the country's current political atmosphere seems especially bad for immigrants.

"We've had enough ... we must speak out about the treatment of immigrants in this country," he said.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Baytown Sun

AFL-CIO stages protest outside ExxonMobil

By Ken Fountain

Published June 19, 2003

BAYTOWN — About 30 protesters affiliated with the Harris County AFL-CIO Council staged a protest at the North Gate of the ExxonMobil complex early Wednesday as they tried unsuccessfully to present Baytown Refinery Manager Mike Brown with a “No Justice Here” award.

The ExxonMobil refinery was the third of nine stops on the council’s annual “Justice Bus Tour” to the locations of Houston-area employers and the Stafford district office of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

The bus carrying the protesters arrived about 10 minutes after its scheduled arrival time of 9:40 and pulled up beside the Texas Historical Marker outside the North Gate of the complex located off Decker Drive.

The protesters were met by Mark Schubert, an ExxonMobil employee and vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union Local 4-2001, one of the unions that represents workers at the plant.

Last month, after acrimonious negotiations, Baytown Chemical Plant workers and ExxonMobil clerical workers accepted separate four-year contract offers from the company. In April, PACE refinery worker members voted to accept a four-year contract from the company.

Richard Shaw, the council’s secretary/treasurer, said that the protest at ExxonMobil was directed at perceived unfair treatment of clerical workers in their contract, particularly a one-time $1,000 payment instead of a raise. This was especially unfair, Shaw said, in light of ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Lee Raymond’s $76 million salary and bonus in fiscal year 2001.

The protesters also lambasted the corporation for “ending” contract negotiations with “a contract offer which was in no way ‘fair,’” according to a statement read by one of them over megaphone.

“Shame on you,” the protesters repeatedly chanted.

The company’s response to the protesters was relatively muted. A few officials drove from the plant to the gate, and one of them told the protesters they had to leave the private road leading to the gate.

After a few minutes, the protesters filed quietly back aboard the bus, but not before exclaiming “We’ll be back.”

Shaw attempted to hand a framed “No Justice Award” plaque to the officials, but after being rebuffed, he leaned it against a concrete barrier.

“You try to give someone an award, and they won’t take it,” Shaw joked with a security guard, who good-naturedly shrugged his shoulders.

A short time later, after the bus had pulled away, the plaque was gone.

In a written statement released after the protest, ExxonMobil Baytown Area Public Affairs Manager Brian Dunphy said, “We are surpassed and disappointed that the union leadership took this action.

“The members of all six of the unions that represent our Refinery and Chemical Plant have recently approved new four-year contracts. We have a long history of working successfully with the unions that represent our facilities, and look forward to an ongoing cooperative relationship,” the statement said.

Copyright 2003  Baytown Sun

Contact Baytown Sun news staff at

(281) 422-8302.