STRIKERS BEATEN AT NAFTA-SPONSORED HEARING
By David Bacon
TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (6/23/00) -- The Camino Real is a swanky Tijuana
establishment full of men in expensive business suits -- a modern concrete
blockhouse, garishly painted in violently clashing shades of purple and
yellow. It's very appearance makes it an appropriate choice for a
meeting about labor conflict, and last Friday morning it was the scene of a
conflict that suddenly turned immediate and violent.
In Salons Uno and Dos, the hotel's largest combined hall, Mexican Labor
Sub-secretary Javier Moctezuma Barragan began intoning a list of rights won
for Mexican workers by the outgoing administration of President Ernesto
Zedillo. Three hundred well-dressed listeners filled the auditorium's
seats and lined the walls, appearing to give him rapt attention. Most
wore badges with the initials of the CROC (the Revolutionary Confederation
of Workers and Peasants), one of Mexico's principal government-affiliated
As Moctezuma spoke, a small group of two dozen workers entered and walked
quietly down the aisle between the seats, carrying banners. Hand-painted
letters on torn sheets called for "libertad sindical," -- the
right of workers to decide for themselves what union they wish to join --
and condemned the repression of the two-year old strike at the Han Young
When the group arrived at the front of the room, its leader, Enrique
Hernandez, looked out at the sea of hostile, angry faces as Moctezuma fell
silent. Then suddenly, with no warning, men from both sides of the
aisle jumped from their seats, screaming as they began beating Hernandez and
his companions with their fists.
Hernandez took a blow to the side of his head and went down. His
friends turned to flee, but the aisle behind them was full of men with the
CROC badges, fists flying. Hernandez made it to his feet, only to be
pushed towards a corner of the hall, where he was knocked down again.
His head snapped back, as heavy shoes kicked his cheek. Other kickers
went for the ribs. One swung a pedestal, angling for Hernandez' face.
The room broke into chaos, as the advocates of libertad sindical were forced
to flee under a rain of blows. Hernandez, once again on his feet, was
pushed and buffetted by fists as he backed out of the salon. Pursued by
dozens of angry attackers, the workers were pushed through the hotel
lobby and out of the main doors. The Tijuana newspaper "La
Frontera" later identified the leader of the perpetrators as Raniel
Falcon, director of a youth group organized by the CROC, which has been
linked to the state government of the National Action Party. Hernandez
says they included a group of CROC-affiliated truckers.
After a few minutes, Moctezuma came out and stood halfway down the lobby
stairs, while Hernandez and his companions demanded that he do something to
guarantee their right to be heard. The sub-secretary announced there
was a "lack of space." He took a few questions from agitated
reporters, and returned to the salon. No invitation or guarantees of
safety were forthcoming for the workers left outside.
This would have been simply one more demonstration of the problems in
organizing independent unions in Mexico if one other important factor had
not lent the situation an air of pitiful irony. The Mexican labor
ministry had organized the meeting, a "Seminar on union freedom in
Mexico," to explain two new agreements it signed in May. In those
agreements it promised to protect the right of workers to form independent
The case which led to one of the two accords was that of the very people
beaten and left outside - the 57 workers whose strike at the Han Young
factory was the first by an independent union in the history of the
maquiladoras. Not only were these well-known advocates of independent
unionism violently expelled, but the very name of their strike and union was
so completely absent from the commentary of the assembled dignitaries that
it seemed forbidden.
"They threw us out because it was impossible to maintain the pretense
that the freedom to organize independent unions exists while we were present
in the room, living evidence of the lie," Enrique Hernandez commented
Workers at the Han Young plant, which welds truck frames for Tijuana's huge
Hyundai industrial complex, began their independent union effort in June of
1997. Complaining of low wages and serious safety hazards, they sought
to get the company to improve conditions. They quickly discovered,
however, that there already was a union representing them, but one which
they knew nothing about. It held no meetings, and no union
representative had ever appeared at the job to resolve problems.
Like countless other Mexican workers, the Han Young employees were working
under a "protection contract," an agreement in which the company
made monthly payments to a CROC union leader. In return, the CROC
guaranteed the company would be able to maintain low wages and poor
conditions without labor conflict.
"There are about 650,000 union contracts in Mexico, but only 50,000 of
them are real negotiated agreements." explains Jose Luis Hernandez,
vice-president of Mexico's new national democratic union federation, the
National Union of Workers. "The rest are simply protection
agreements, The people who benefit from them are a kind of Mafia.
To get rid of these agreements is going to require a virtual war."
When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in January,
1994, however, enforcing labor rights in Mexico became a responsibility of
more than the Mexican government alone. All three NAFTA countries,
including the U.S. and Canada, agreed to another treaty, the North American
Agreement on Labor Cooperation, which pledged each to enforce its own labor
laws, and set up a process for hearing complaints that labor rights were
In the ensuing years, almost 20 complaints have been filed. Of them
all, the highest-profile cases have been those at Han Young, and at another
plant in Mexico City, ITAPSA. At both factories, U.S. and Mexican
unions have alleged that workers were prevented from exercising their legal
right to organize independent unions.
Additional complaints also alleged that Mexico has failed to enforce its
health and safety laws at the factories. The ITAPSA complaint charged
especially dangerous conditions, with workers routinely exposed to asbestos,
a known source of lung cancer.
Under the NAFTA process, the National Administrative Office in the U.S.
Department of Labor held a series of hearings. As a result of
extensive testimony by workers and independent union officials, the NAO
concluded that serious violations of Mexican law had occurred.
In May, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and her Mexican counterpart,
Mariano Palacios Alcocer, signed agreements to settle the Han Young and
ITAPSA cases. Mexico agreed to hold two seminars to discuss better
protection for workers organizing independent unions, and better enforcement
of health and safety laws. The Tijuana meeting was the first of the
two. Another is scheduled in a few weeks in Mexico City, where ITAPSA
The agreements, however, do not require the Mexican government to do
anything concrete to change the situation of workers in either plant.
"We're extremely disappointed," says Robin Alexander, director of
international affairs for the United Electrical Workers, a U.S. union which
supported the independent Mexican Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in its fight
at ITAPSA. "We expected there would be a more significant
The UE, FAT and the union at Han Young had particularly high hopes for the
complaints about lack of enforcement of health and safety laws. While NAFTA
has no penalties for denying workers their right to form independent unions,
Mexico could have been fined a percentage of its export earnings, a
potentially huge amount of money, for health and safety violations.
With the settlement agreements, that possibility was removed.
FAT's general secretary Benedicto Martinez credits the good intentions of
the NAO, but says he's lost faith in the process. "Nothing will
actually change at ITAPSA, and the Mexican government has a long history of
finding reasons not to enforce its own laws protecting workers," he
The problem of the lack of enforcement is particularly acute at Han Young,
where the independent October 6 union won the legal right to represent
workers two and a half years ago. The plant's owners were then legally
required to negotiate and sign a contract, but have yet to do so. When
workers struck in 1998, the Baja California labor board ruled their strike
The Mexican 15th District Federal Court has overruled that decision three
times, the last time in April, and has ordered the labor board to protect
the workers' right to strike. Yet for two years, the board has refused
to implement those orders. Instead, Tijuana and Baja California
authorities have called in the police to remove the strikers' picketlines,
burn their strike flags, and escort strikebreakers into the plant. In
Mexico, it is illegal for a company to hire and operate with strikebreakers
during a legal strike.
In addition, strikers like Julian Puente have been blacklisted.
"I went to Hyundai's main plant, and got hired," he says.
Hyundai was offering 69 pesos a day, about $7, for skilled welders.
"But then one of their foremen recognized me as a striker. The
human relations manager told me there was no work for me there."
Like other strikers, he can only find occasional work on local construction
"The settlements haven't remedied our situation at all," charges
Jose Pe�aflor, the lawyer for October 6. "The violence today has
its roots in efforts by corrupt union leaders to hold onto their protection
contracts. The problem is the enforcement of the law. Despite
what the government says in meetings like the one today, Mexico's labor
policy is actually hardening. It's clearer than ever that it won't
permit any kind of independent union on the border."
For the U.S. Labor Department, the beatings at the Camino Real have to be a
big embarrassment. Four DoL representatives attended the seminar, led
by Louis Karesh, deputy secretary and head of the NAO. "I'm
disappointed to see what happened," he said, but tried to present a
positive interpretation. "I was glad to see Moctezuma came out to talk
to the workers."
The Clinton administration's position linking trade policy and labor rights
has placed the NAO and Karesh under a spotlight. In Seattle, the
administration argued that free trade agreements could protect workers
rights while boosting profits for large corporations. It pointed to
NAFTA's labor side agreement as proof of its claim. In the wake of
Congress' vote on China's trading status, Vice-President (and presidential
candidate) Al Gore went even further, claiming that he would guarantee the
enforcement of labor rights in future trade negotiations.
Moctezuma held out the same promise to Mexican workers, declaring in his
speech Friday that "NAFTA has as a purpose increasing the respect for
workers' rights." Mexico has developed "a new labor culture
of harmony and cooperation between workers and employers" as a result
of NAFTA, he added.
Yet the actual record of the side agreement doesn't provide much precedent.
In fact, as a result of all the complaints filed since 1994, only one of the
many workers fired for independent union activity has been rehired, and not
a single contract signed. Karesh says that because the treaty is
government-to-government, "we can't get a particular worker's job back,
or try to resolve cases in favor of particular groups of workers."
Saying he'd hold further dialogues with the Mexican government as a result
of Friday's events, Karesh pointed out that the Mexican government did
promise two important reforms in the settlement agreements. It said
that workers would be able to choose the union to represent them by secret
ballot in future elections, a change from the current procedure which
requires that workers announce their vote in public. And it agreed to
publish a list of all union contracts, which would make protection contracts
public knowledge for the first time, especially to those workers who labor
But will even these commitments be enforced? "I believe we will
begin to see an impact," Karesh says, "but will there be immediate
change? I don't think so."
The UNT's Jose Luis Hernandez called the situation "absolutely
absurd." Noting that Moctezuma had personally invited him to the
seminar, and guaranteed that the October 6 union would be given a chance to
speak and make proposals, Hernandez called the beatings an act of treachery.
"We didn't have a problem of physical space in the hall, but of
political space in our country. The Mexican government signs these
agreements to project a certain image, but in reality there's a lack of
political will to enforce them. The government depends on this system
of protection contracts, both to attract foreign investors who want low
wages, and because this system supports them politically."
He pointed out that the beatings took place within a few days of the July 2
national election, where the governing Party of the Institutionalized
Revolution may lose to a competing party for the first time in its history.
Hernandez announced to the Han Young workers after they had beaten a
strategic retreat to their downtown Tijuana office that he intended to lay
the problem before the AFL-CIO when he meets with Texas state union
officials next week. "What's happening here affects U.S. workers
too, since companies are relocating production to Mexico to take advantage
of our situation," he says.
For over two years, the Han Young strikers have been slammed by Baja
California authorities and government-affiliated unions for the support
they've received from U.S. unions. Despite the increase in nationalist
rhetoric in the current election campaign, however, Hernandez says that
those ties are important to the survival of workers on both sides of the
border. "In the last few years, it's clear to us that the AFL-CIO
has a different attitude now towards Mexicans, both here in Mexico and in
the U.S." he notes. "We're cooperating and supporting each
other much more now that in the past. We'd like to see the AFL-CIO
take this case to the U.S. administration."
Pe�aflor also intends to seek remedies in the U.S., and plans to file suit
in U.S. courts over allegations of fraud at Han Young. He says a
precedent was set when a California Federal judge accepted jurisdiction in
1996 over the case of sexual harassment at Tijuana's Exportadora
maquiladora, deciding that workers could claim the protection of U.S. civil
rights laws owing to the fact that Exportadora had U.S. owners and produced
for National O-Ring, a U.S. company.
In the end, however, the UE's Robin Alexander says unions have to face the
fact that the NAFTA process itself is fatally flawed. In order to
protect workers rights adequately, "we need a separate entity
that has teeth, that has the power to require enforcement," she says.
"It's obvious now that NAFTA won't sanction governments when they
violate workers rights, and that companies can't be held accountable either.
We don't want more meetings and further study. We want real
On the other hand, for Moctezuma Barragan, the situation couldn't be better.
In ending the Tijuana seminar, he complimented his audience, telling them
that "in Baja California, society has a clear democratic mission,
characterized by open and frank discussion."
The workers expelled from thee meeting weren't in much of a position to
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