Latina Garment Workers Organizing on the Border

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Pam Galpern

LA MUJER OBRERA is an organization of Hispanic Women garment workers. Its principal objective is for workers to obtain genuine economic, social and political power–a goal that is far from being realized in this country.

The structure of the organization is a set of concentric circles. The board of directors are six women workers, as are three of the six women on staff. The organizing committee is made up of representatives from the various factories, who are using a workers’ rights manual to organize in their respective factories.

The membership is also drawn from the garment factories in El Paso. We also work to build alliances with other social sectors on both the local and national level—with church people, political officials, union people, lawyers, etc.

We know we can’t provide the workers with the economic stability they need. However, we do have certain economic programs, which serve both to alleviate some of the financial pressure workers feel and to draw people into the organization. These include a health clinic, a food cooperative program, the fight for job training and alternatives for displaced workers. We do a lot of political education work through classes for both the membership and the leadership, through weekly wall murals and through the newspaper which is distributed in all the factories.

Let’s look at three of the big challenges facing the labor movement and the way they’re being played out in El Paso:

First is the changing composition of the labor force—the increasing number of women, immigrants and people of color—and the challenges of organizing these populations, which have been traditionally ignored.

Second is the potential impact of the North American Free Trade agreement on workers and some of the many challenges that are presented in organizing in that climate. And third is the existence of the current union structure, which for the most part neither promotes the development of worker control or leadership nor is very effective in representing or protecting workers’ interests.

When we talk about the changing composition of the labor force, El Paso is an excellent example. It’s the largest city on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border, with approximately a half million people, and the garment industry is the largest industry in the city. It employs 17,000 workers, eighty-five percent of whom are women, all of whom are Hispanic and many of whom are single mothers. About half these workers are covered under the amnesty law of 1986.

La Mujer Obrera is committed to building a women workers’ organization that’s led by women workers themselves. A fundamental component of the work, then, is that of leadership development We’re talking about building leadership in an environment which at every other turn attempts to crush the development of these women, not just as leaders, but as human beings.

The workers’ lack of knowledge of their basic rights is astounding. The repression that they face in the factory is compounded by the language barrier. Many of the owners use the threat of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) against the immigrant workers, whoare afraid to organize or speak up for fear of losing their amnesty status.

For most women, the garment industry is the only job possibility in El Paso. We’re struggling against the idea that any job is better than no job, and promoting the idea that, as immigrants, these workers do have rights.

The challenges presented by populations rendered invisible, not only by the government and the employers but by the mainstream labor movement as well, include the need for the development of new strategies of organizing. We think that these strategies need tobe grounded in an analysis which guides the work Some of the political education I was talking about involved looking at such questions as: “What are we struggling agauistr-4x-mg very clear that we’re not struggling against the worker next to us as the owner would like us to believe, or even ultimately against the owner him or herself, but against the system that’s inherently exploitative of workers.

“What’s the level of organization of oppressed people and who are oppressed people in this country?- “What’s the vision we have of what we’re struggling for?” We’re struggling for a better wage but we’re struggling for a lot more than that—for housing, for health care, for education,, for freedom to live in our communities without fear of violence, for political freedom. This vision shapes the work, making clear that the work that we do has to go beyond the factory gates.

When people ask what impact the free trade agreement will have, we don’t need a great deal of information or foresight to answer because we’re living the free trade agreement on the border right now. The implementation of the maquiladora program (the twin plant program) in the late sixties and early seventies the border” between the U.S. and Mexico, and brought profound changes to both sides of the river.

Twenty years ago the majority of garment workers in El Paso worked in large factories with good wages, decent benefits, good working conditions and many had union contracts. As the maquiladoras opened, the larger factories moved across the border and the garment industry broke down into a system of sweatshops. Of the 120 garment factories that are in El Paso, about 90 employ 15 to 100 workers, have no benefits, no health insurance, no holidays, no paid vacation and often no workers compensation. Many times workers don’t get paid for their work.

On the Juarez side of the border, which is the Mexican border town next to El Paso, the changes have been equally striking. Juarez experienced a virtual population explosion as people came from the interior of Mexico to work in the infrastructure in Juarez.

Therefore, you have the very strange contradictions of that city. On the one hand you have colon las with no running water, no paved roads, a very severe shortage of clinics and schools, and whole neighborhoods which are built of cardboard and corrugated houses. On the other hand, you have large industrial parks full of very new looking companies with U.S. names. We’ve also seen a rise in health related problems of the people who work in the maquilad0nz$, and an increase in the level of repression of the people who are attempting to organize in Mexico.

The disastrous consequences of the accelerated deindustrialization and the subsequent job loss in this country are now recognized on a wide scale by almost all sectors of the labor movement What’s much less clear is an idea of how to organize amidst this phenomenon. In El Paso, we’re experiencing the incredible difficulty of organizing in an industry which is broken down into this very underground system of sweatshops. We’re faced with the challenge of organizing a population that’s already in an extremely vulnerable economic situation, having no other alternative than to work in these sweatshops.

We have met with people in the community college and university, the city, the state, the federal government. We’ve talked with them about the impact on El Paso and Juarez that we expect to see with the free trade agreement We’ve demanded information on what sort of resources and retraining programs are going to be available for workers. We’ve also met with other organizations in the United States, Mexico and Canada, and talked about the impact of the U.S. Canada Free Trade Agreement and what we can expect to see with the North America Free Trade Agreement.

We’re seeing very clearly, in both the worker populations and in the larger communities on both sides of the border, the crucial need for educational work regarding the agreement Large numbers of people, including many workers, adamantly believe the tremendous government hype that the “free trade” is going to create jobs for both sides of the border.

The reality is that it is going to create jobs on the Mexican side, but lousy one–which people don’t recognize. Feeling “any job is better than no job,” workers along the border have heard it will bring jobs to Mexico. But the jobs don’t pay people enough to support themselves.

Workers on the U.S. side also think it will bring jobs—not realizing that the few jobs it creates will be mid- or high-tech jobs. If they lose their jobs as a result of the free trade agreement, they won’t benefit from the new jobs; and the number of jobs created will be less than will be lost on the U.S. side.

The last area to address is the conflict between La Mujer Obrera’s organizing model and that of the traditional methods of most international unions. When the large factories left El Paso, the unions didn’t put up a fight When approached, they refused to attempt to organize the sweatshops. Fewer than five percent of the garment workers in El Paso are currently unionized, and many who worked in those large factories remain angry and disillusioned with the unions.

A year ago, La Mujer Obrera entered a relationship with the ILGWU (International Ladies Garments Workers Union). We did so because we believed that we could work together to provide an economic base for organizing efforts in El Paso. Together, we could fight for stable, decent jobs, provide workers with the protection of a contract and launch a strike to win these demands if necessary. We could develop the leadership and political strength of workers through their participation in the union. We also hoped to combat some of the anti union sentiment which is so strong in El Paso.

We knew when we entered the relationship with the ILGWU that there were fundamental differences between the two organizations.

On May 1,1991, 120 workers from four different factories went on strike, with the support of both La Mujer Obrera and the ILGWU, against Andre Diaz, who is both a contractor and the “king of the sweatshops” in El Paso. As the strike progressed it became increasingly clear that neither La Mujer nor the workers had any control in the decision-making process—either of the strike or the future of the union in El Paso. Over the course of the summer we came into conflict again and again with the ILGWU as they refused to deviate from the position that this was the way that the union always ran a strike.

La Mujer thought that method couldn’t be successful, because: 1) The union severed, one by one, the ties that La Mujer had built between the strike and the larger community, thus rendering it a fairly isolated battle; and 2) by not organizing the workers in a genuine way, by allowing no worker participation or control, the union insured that the strike wouldn’t create a leadership base among the workers or lay the groundwork for future organizing efforts in El Paso.

Given that La Mujer wasn’t strong enough in our relationship to the ILGWU to maintain our political positions and influence the dynamic toward our perspectives, we ended the relationship. The difficulty became how to do that while maintaining our commitment to the workers. After much, much thought and discussion, we concluded that the only way to do so was to help the workers organize to take control of the strike and the future of the union.

[Update: This strike was settled in late December, with the signing of a weak contract under which many of the strikers are still not back to work A report by Pam Galpem will appear in the March issue of the newsletter Labor Notes.]

Current developments in El Paso highlight some of the challenges we face nationally in the labor movement:

The challenge of organizing in a period of massive deindustrialization with the potential development of a large and permanently unemployed population.

The challenge of developing effective and comprehensive models of organizing that build leadership among all worker populations—including women, immigrants and people of color.

The challenge of building a network of independent worker organizations that can forge a relationship to democratic forces within unions.

And all these challenges are connected to the possibility of social transformation in our global economy.

March-April 1992, ATC 37