The Struggle for Genuine Unions in Mexico

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

David Bacon, Joan Axthelm, and Daisy Pitkin

These materials are excerpted from the March, 2001 issue of Mexican News and Analysis, a monthly collaboratio of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE) and AMERICAS.ORG.  Contacts editor Dan La Botz for more information.  For a free e-mailed subscription, send a message with the word “subscribe” in the subject line.

ADVOCATES OF THE North American Free Trade Agreement promised that NAFTA would bring a new era of respect for workers’ rights, especially south of the border, where 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 the recent vote at the huge Duro Bag plant in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, just across the river from Texas, is likely instead to become the symbol of how those promises have been broken.

On the morning of Friday, March 2, voting began inside the factory, where workers labor around the clock cutting and gluing chichi paper bags for the U.S. gift market.  On the ballot were two unions—the independent union organized by rank-and-file workers over the last year, and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), a union affiliated to Mexico’s former ruling party, with close ties to its government.

The Duro Bag Manufacturing Corporation, based in Ludlow, Kentucky, also operates seven U.S. plants, and belongs to the family of CEO Charles Shor. For years, it’s had a protection contract with a Mexican local of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union, part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a pillar of support for the country’s ruling bureaucracy since the 1940s.  With a protection contract, the company paid CTM union leaders to guarantee labor peace.

The stage was set the day before the vote, when observers outside the plant watched automatic weapons unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. Then, as Friday morning approached, workers from the swing and grave shifts were prevented from going home as their shifts ended.  Instead, they were held in an area behind doors blocked with metal sheets and the huge rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line.

A few observers from the independent union, the Union of Duro Bag Workers, reported later that they could hear cries of “Let us out!” until company managers began playing music at deafening volume on the plant speaker system.

Then, observers report, groups of workers from the day shift were taken in small groups into the room inside the factory where voting was taking place.  They were escorted by CROC organizers, who handed them blue slips of paper on which the union’s local number was printed.

At the voting table, representatives of Mexico’s national labor board asked each voter to declare aloud her or his choice between the independent union and the CROC. Both company foremen and government-affiliated union representatives wrote notes as the voting took place.

In the end, only 502 workers voted out of a workforce the company says numbers over 1400.  And of those, only four workers openly declared their support for the independent union, while 498 voted for the CROC.

Efforts by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladores (CJM) and by various U.S. and Canadian unions and faith-based groups, supporting the Duro Bag workers in their attempt to create an independent union, were attacked by Mexican Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal.  Abascal told the press that while there are some legitimate organizations promoting human right and labor rights, other organizations were attempting to create a “false climate of labor violence.”

“While the Duro election is clearly a tragic defeat for the workers and their efforts to win better wages and conditions,” said Robin Alexander, director of international relations for the U.S.-based United Electrical Workers, which supported the independent union, “I hope the violations here were so blatant that they’ll serve as a wake-up call.”

—David Bacon

Members of the independent worker coalition at the Kuk Dong factory in Atlixco, Mexico gathered on Sunday, March 18 to meet the legal requirements for forming an independent union.  Kuk Dong is a factory that produces for Nike, Reebok and many U.S. colleges and universities, among others.

The drive for an independent union at Kuk Dong began in January, 2001 as 800 of the factory’s then 900 workers went on strike in protest of the unfair firings of five workers.  Three months later, independent union supporters met and adopted statutes, elected leadership, and met the legal requirements for the formation of an independent union.

By the end of the meeting, the unionists had taken the name SITEKIM, Sindicato Independiente de Trabajadores de la Empresa Kukdong International de Mexico or the Independent Union of Workers at the Company Kukdong International of Mexico.  This is the first step in the process of becoming a legally recognized body with rights to represent the Kuk Dong workers.

Due to continued hostility towards the independent union, both inside and outside the plant (mainly at the hands of the conservative government affiliated union, the FROC-CROC-the union from which SITEKIM is struggling to win bargaining rights), workers feared reprisal or outright violence at Sunday’s meeting.

Fortunately, no such measures have been reported.  However, in an intimidating move, the FROC-CROC did station three people with a video camera to tape the workers entering the meeting.

The meeting was also attended by a lawyer from a law firm in nearby Puebla, Mexico, by activists from the Comite de Apoyo al Trabajador, and by a student activist from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Reports from sources in Mexico say that the atmosphere in the Kuk Dong plant is calmer than it has been in months.  The newly elected leaders are beginning to take on the role of representing their co-workers, investigating grievances and meeting with management on their behalf.  A large majority of the workers in the factory are united in their support of SITEKIM.

The lack of disruption of the founding meeting of SITEKIM was in part due to the success of the international campaign in pressuring Nike to intervene in a strong manner with direct communication to Kuk Dong management about the violations in the factory.  In part because Nike was “persuaded” by the student campaign to forcefully intervene, approximately 400 of the 800 strikers have returned to work.

Those interested in getting involved in the Kuk Dong international support campaign should contact Daisy Pitkin at this email or at 202-544-9355.

—Joan Axthelm at US/LEAP and Daisy Pitkin at Campaign for Labor Rights

ATC 92, May-June 2001