NAFTA's advocates promised that free trade would bring a new era
of respect for workers rights in the North America. Especially south
of the border, they said, the treaty's labor side agreement would
ensure that workers could vote freely for the unions of their choice
in clean elections by secret ballot. But a recent election at the
huge Duro bag plant in Rio Bravo, just across the border from Texas,
could become a symbol of how those promises have been broken. And
with more promises on the horizon--as the Bush administration pushes
for fast-track authority to extend the treaty across the whole Western
Hemisphere--Duro may become the poster child for NAFTA's failure
to protect workers rights.
On March 2, voting began inside the Duro factory, where workers
labor around the clock cutting and gluing fancy paper bags for the
U.S. gift market. On the ballot were two unions--the Union of Duro
Bag Workers, an independent union organized by rank-and-file workers,
and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC),
a company union affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI), Mexico's former ruling party.
The stage was set the day before, when observers outside the plant
weapons being unloaded from a car and carried into the plant. That
night, workers from the swing and graveyard shifts were prevented
from leaving. Instead, they were held for hours in a room blocked
off with metal sheets and huge rolls of paper. A few observers from
the independent union later reported that they could hear cries of
"let us out!" until company managers began playing music at deafening
volume on the plant speaker system.
Ojeda, director of the
Coalition for Justice in the
outside the Duro plant.
The next morning, workers from the day shift were escorted to the
voting area by CROC organizers, who handed them slips of paper printed
with the union's local number. At the voting table, representatives
of Mexico's national labor board asked workers to declare their
choices out loud. Company foremen and government-affiliated union
representatives took notes. In the end, only 502 people voted out
of a work force of more than 1,400. Only four of them openly declared
their support for the independent union. "The Duro election is clearly
a tragic defeat for the workers," says Robin Alexander, director
of international relations for the U.S.-based United
Electrical Workers, which supported the independent union. "I
hope the violations here will serve as a wake-up call."
Duro's vice-president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages
at Rio Bravo start at $6 a day. "We're in Mexico to take advantage
of inexpensive labor," Forstrom admits.
According to Eliud Almaguer, a fired rank-and-file leader from
the Rio Bravo plant, many people have lost fingers in machinery
because of fast production and little protection. Such poor wages
and working conditions have led to a long history of agitation at
Ludlow, Kentucky-based Duro Bag
Manufacturing Corporation also operates seven U.S. plants. For
years, Duro has paid local leaders of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood
Industry Union to guarantee labor peace at the plant. The union
is part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which has
been a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since
the '40s. Two years ago, workers in the Duro plant decided to challenge
that contract and elect reform-minded union leaders, including Almaguer.
That led to Almaguer's firing in October 1999 and a work stoppage
a year ago, when 150 more workers were terminated. The CTM then
signed a new agreement with Duro, with none of the higher wages
and increased safety demands the workers were seeking. The Rio Bravo
plant began organizing an independent union in response.
When the election finally took place this March, none of the fired
workers were allowed into the plant to vote. The CTM, which had
grown increasingly unpopular, withdrew from the process the morning
of the election and was replaced by the CROC. Many workers didn't
even know the name of the union they were told to vote for.
During the past year, however, Duro workers have been supported
from the north by the San Antonio-based Coalition
for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a coalition of North American
unions, churches and community organizations. Help also came from
Mexico's new independent labor federation, the National Union of
Workers (UNT), based in Mexico City. Last summer they pressured
the governor of Tamaulipas state, where the plant is located, into
granting the independent union legal status.
The company's legal battle was handled by attorneys from the Mexican
employers' association, COPARMEX, the equivalent of the U.S. National
Association of Manufacturers. This has been very beneficial to Duro--Mexico's
new Labor Secretary Carlos Abascal was formerly the chief of COPARMEX.
When Duro's independent union presented its petition for election
to Abascal, they requested it be held on neutral ground with a secret
ballot. Abascal denied the request, and the federal labor board,
under his control, went on to administer the balloting in Rio Bravo.
Abascal's orders violated an agreement negotiated between his predecessor,
Mariano Palacios Alcocer, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis
Herman. That agreement grew out of two celebrated cases filed under
the NAFTA labor side agreement--at the Han Young plant in Tijuana,
and the ITAPSA plant in Mexico City. Abascal's decision to ignore
it is one more dent in NAFTA's already-tattered credibility.
Since NAFTA went into effect in January 1994, more than 20 complaints
have been filed under the labor side agreement. Almost all have
charged that Mexico does not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the
right to form unions of their choice, and to strike effectively
when they do. But nothing has been done to rehire a single fired
worker, nor has a single independent union been able to negotiate
a contract. In Tijuana last June, independent unionists from the
Han Young factory were even beaten and expelled from a public meeting
about workers rights called by the Mexican government (see "Tijuana
Troubles," August 21, 2000).
U.S. officials present at the time made no public protest over
the violence and expulsions. But they did boast about one outcome
of the Han Young case: According to Lewis Karesh, a former deputy
U.S. labor secretary who headed the office which hears NAFTA complaints,
the Mexican government promised that workers would be able to choose
union representation by secret ballot. "The Duro election strips
away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights,"
says Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the
Maquiladoras. "The side agreement is bankrupt."
Events at Duro throw doubt on President Vicente Fox's promise that
he intends to be more democratic than his predecessors. Labor activists
on the border, in fact, see the denial of a secret ballot as consistent
with the pro-business policies of his National Action Party (PAN).
In states like Baja California, where the PAN has been in power
for a decade, the party has fought efforts to organize independent
unions. Strikes like the one at Han Young have been broken and court
The Duro vote also calls into question claims that treaties like
NAFTA provide any mechanism for protecting workers rights. "Duro
shows that for both the U.S. and Mexican governments, when the chips
are down, their interest is in promoting investment," Alexander
says. "Free trade clearly outweighs any commitments they make about
labor rights. Institutions like NAFTA and the WTO will never operate
in workers' interests. What's needed is an independent institution
on an international level."