Editor’s Note: Fast food and other low-paid service industry workers conducted protests and strikes this week in nearly 300 U.S. cities. The workers, many of them immigrants, demanded an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour and union representation.
Meanwhile, a similar movement deepened in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where workers in the foreign-controlled maquiladora industry wage a struggle for better pay, dignified working conditions, union representation, reinstatement of fired workers and an end to sexual harassment. Today’s story is the latest installment in Frontera NorteSur’s special coverage of the new labor movement on the border.
Braving the oncoming cold season, protesting workers maintained encampments this week outside four separate factories in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Now chalking up weeks, the demonstrations represent an unprecedented development in the history of the assembly-for-export business, or maquiladora industry, in the northern Mexican border city. The companies seeing protests include CommScope, Foxconn’s Scientific Atlanta affiliate, Eaton and Lexmark.
For employees of North Carolina-based CommScope, which manufactures products for telecommunications infrastructure, Friday, November 13 could be an important day. Cuauhtemoc Estrada, attorney for the workers, told FNS that the federal Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JLCA) is expected to issue a resolution today on a worker petition for an independent union.
Estrada, however, isn’t placing his bets on the JLCA. “I’m not depending on the authority. I know how it operates. I know what the commitments are for not having an independent union. It’s political,” said Estrada, who specializes in labor law.
In the event of a negative decision, Estrada said the workers will have seven days to file an appeal that could drag on in another court for five months or so.
If an independent union is denied, the workers are contemplating an intensification of public pressure as a more effective alternative to relying on the court system, he said.
On Thursday, November 12, hundreds of CommScope and Foxconn workers, joined by supporters, staged a march through the streets of Juarez demanding an independent union, the rehiring of fired workers, the dismissal of legal accusations against Foxconn workers arising from earlier protests, the payment of money previously withheld from workers for a savings account, and overall better pay and working conditions.
Base pay in the Juarez maquiladoras hovers around six bucks or less a day.
“We are workers, not criminals!” the marchers chanted. “We want a solution…union freedom!”
In the case of CommScope, Estrada said he was convinced that the company owners, who acquired the Juarez factory from ADC last August, did not know what was transpiring on the plant floor. He blamed the labor conflict on the abusive practices of a middle layer of “30 or 40 supervisors.”
Rick Aspan, CommScope spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of allegations against middle management but reiterated the company’s position that the labor conflict only represented a small minority of workers in Juarez.
“We’re talking about 100 people out of 3300,” Aspan told FNS. “No talks” are in the works, he said.
In a November 12 statement, CommScope denied that any of its Juarez employees had been terminated for trying to organize, adding that demonstrating workers would not be paid as long as they stayed away from work. “However, we look forward to their return to work in the near future,” CommScope said.
“We are committed to engaging our employees-and making CommScope in Juarez a great place to work-by emphasizing development and training, creating a safe work environment, embracing diversity and inclusion, and supporting uncompromising values,” the company stated.
CommScope said its Juarez workers “earn more than market-competitive wages” while having good benefits like the company’s daycare and education service.
Other industry leaders and some government officials have reacted to the wave of protests by defending company practices and warning that the manifestations of discontent could harm Juarez’s image and drive away foreign investment at a time when production is reaching new heights .
For instance, Jose Yarahuan Galindo, president of the Maquiladora Association (AMAC-Index) earlier told the local El Mexicano newspaper that different, unnamed companies were analyzing whether to leave Juarez.
“We are the most audited, the most watched and the most inspected,” Yarahuan said in response to complaints of bad treatment of workers.
In the same vein, Chihuahua State Economy Secretary Manuel Russek Valles was also quoted in El Mexicano saying the state government was considering an investigation into a group of lawyers who might be manipulating workers into taking actions that would drive the maquiladora business from Juarez and result job loss.
The themes of outside agitators and economic devastation- now tinged with red-baiting- were raised again by El Mexicano in its November 13 edition. Without specifying the date, the newspaper reported on a meeting between business leaders and state and local officials that supposedly resolved not to negotiate with lawyers until further analysis, and blasted leftists from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena party, the Resssiste teachers’ movement and others for allegedly stirring up the workers.
In addition to representatives of the Chihuahua state and Juarez municipal governments, representatives of AMAC-Index, the Business Coordinating Council, the local Chamber of Commerce and the Coparmex employers’ association reportedly attended the meeting.
Estrada called Russek’s earlier comment “unfortunate,” challenging the official to go beyond generalities and specify what particular group of workers he was referring to when making the statement.
The business-government reaction to the labor protests comes on the heels of a controversy whipped up by the release of the new Hollywood film “Sicario.”
Starring Benicio del Toro, the movie centers around the violence of the so-called drug war that devastated Juarez. Claiming “Sicario” distorted the current reality of a recovering and vibrant city, Mayor Enrique Serrano, who is mentioned as a potential candidate for the Chihuahua governorship next year, urged residents to boycott the film and even threatened to sue the filmmakers.
Serrano asserted that the film could damage Juarez’s image and hurt foreign investment. While the mayor backed down from his threat of court action, the brouhaha got international attention and was reported in publications like Forbes.
Media, especially alternative media, is a strategic arena in the ongoing labor protest.
While coverage of the movement has been spotty in the mainstream Mexican press and almost non-existent in the U.S. (except for Frontera NorteSur), the workers are finding creative ways appropriate for the times to get their message out. In another unprecedented development, workers are using YouTube to speak out on their grievances.
In one independently-produced video, Jose Luis Toscano and Monica Nolasco told an interviewer about their protest camp outside Foxconn’s Scientifc Atlanta plant.
“It seems that this a problem in all the companies,” Toscano said. “That’s why employees are raising their voice and that’s good, because we all have to be united in this movement.”
Toscano and Nolasco charged that they protesters face harassment by company personnel. “Guards come out and take pictures of us. They make the rounds and take photos of us when we walk out and go to
places. They don’t allow us to talk to our co-workers inside,” Nolasco said.
Demanding reinstatement to the shop floor, the two workers appealed for public donations of needed supplies and firewood to keep protesters warm at the encampment. They also backed an independent union for the workers.
The government-approved ones “sell out,” Nolasco contended. “We are struggling for all our rights and of our co-workers,” she said. “That’s what we want, an independent union.”
For labor lawyer Cuauthemoc Estrada, winning an independent union for the Foxconn or other maquiladora workers is an uphill battle that must navigate a complicated minefield of company paternalism, corporate legal power and political relationships between government officials and semi-official union structures like the Mexican Workers Confederation that have long-standing ties with the ruling PRI party.
But, Estrada said, “The workers aren’t children and incapable…they are able to determine who can defend them.” Achieving an independent union would be a new and significant development for Juarez and the state of Chihuahua, he said.
Sexual harassment has emerged as a major grievance in the current round of protests. Again, the issue has prompted defensive responses from the industry and some officials.
Jose Luis Armendariz Gonzalez, president of the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, told the local press that an inter-agency committee was being formed to look at sexual harassment, which is against the law in Mexico.
“This is a committee to combat sexual harassment and aggression,” Armendariz was quoted in El Mexicano. “This committee will have different functions. The first one is preventative, while the other will follow the cases that are denounced and presented.”
FNS spoke with a member of a Juarez women workers’ group, the Rosa Luxemburg Women’s Collective, for background on the issue. According to Cecilila Espinosa, sexual harassment in the border factories is a “recurrent situation” but many women workers know that personally exposing specific instances runs the risk of losing their jobs.
“It would be pertinent for the Labor Secretary to conduct an investigation,” Espinosa said. “If (sexual harassment) isn’t addressed it will increase.”
Espinosa said the current boom in the local maquiladora industry, with more companies scrambling to fill thousands of vacant jobs, has given workers the leeway and confidence to speak out and take a stand, which was difficult to do even just a year ago when it sometimes took three months to find a job.
“Workers aren’t demanding exaggerated or out-of-place things,” Espinosa insisted, “only that the law be enforced.”
Increasingly, the Juarez workers’ movement is picking up national and international support. In early November, for instance, the Mexican non-governmental organization Cereal and the Amsterdam-based GoodElectronics Network released a joint statement urging Foxconn to respect the right of its Juarez workforce to organize and bargain collectively, to earn a living wage and to enjoy improved working conditions.
According to the labor advocacy groups, more than 100 workers have been fired since August 12 when protests first broke out.
Among other issues, the statement cited a “forced restructuring process” that includes a wage scheme in which workers with 12 or 15 years of seniority are paid only four pesos more per day (about 25 cents) than new hires. It also noted that Taiwanese-owned Foxconn has signed the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Code of Conduct, a set of principles that includes the right of workers to freely join unions and engage in peaceful assembly.
“Only a few years ago, Ciudad Juarez was one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Cereal added. “Fortunately, crime has gone down in recent years, and there is an economic recovery. Now, companies and government need to increase the space for social justice, and respect and protect human rights.”
Estrada said the new Juarez labor movement has already achieved some small victories, such as CommScope’s agreement to pay the workers money owed from a savings account withholding.
Additionally, the public is supporting the encampments with food and supplies. But if no solutions are forthcoming on outstanding points of contention, the coming winter could be a bitter one, he cautioned.
“The workers have a great distrust of the (JLCA). They feel more secure to have this protest,” he said. “The cold in December and January is going to be fierce. It is going to be hard to maintain the protest, but this is what they have decided…this group has become very united.”
For the latest Spanish-language videos, audio and photos of the worker stories and protests go to: