by David Bacon
Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories. Since September, workers have set up encampments, or plantones, in front of factories, they’ve marched through the streets, they’ve demanded recognition of independent unions. In response, the companies have fired hundreds and tried to stop the workers’ movement from spreading.
About 255,000 people work directly in Juárez’ 330 maquiladoras, about 13 percent of the national total, meaning Juárez has one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing on the U.S./Mexico border. Almost all the plants are foreign-owned. Eight of Juárez’s 17 largest factories belong to U.S. corporations, three to Taiwanese owners, two to Europeans, and just two to Mexicans. Together, they employ over 69,000 people- nearly 30 percent of the city’s total.
Five companies (two U.S. and all three of the Taiwanese companies) are contract manufacturers of electronics equipment sold under the familiar brand names of huge corporations. One, Foxconn, is the world’s largest contract manufacturer. Its Ciudad Juárez plants assemble products for Hewlett Packard, Cisco and Dell. Three Juárez plants produce auto parts and electronics, including the city’s two largest factories: Delphi, which employs 16,000 workers, and Lear, which employs 24,000 workers.
In most other maquiladora cities like Tijuana or Matamoros, workers are rigidly controlled- and independent organizing is suppressed- by a political partnership between the companies, government authorities and unions tied to Mexico’s old ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Juárez has been an exception. Its selling point to major corporations has been the fact that it has some of the lowest wages anywhere on the border; the average pay of Juárez maquiladora workers was 18 percent less than the average for manufacturing workers in Mexico’s other border cities.
The new workers’ movement in Juárez began last August at four maquiladoras: Foxconn, ADC Commscope, Lexmark, and Eaton Corporation. Commscope manufactures laser optic cable, Lexmark makes cartridges for inkjet printers, and Eaton is an auto parts plant. On Sept.16, Mexico’s National Independence Day, a group of 190 Commscope workers went to the local labor authorities at the Conciliation and Arbitration Board, and filed a request for a registro, or legal status, to form an independent union. At Foxconn, workers also asked for a registro for their own union that same month.
Both efforts were greeted by mass firings, which led workers to set up encampments in front of those plants last fall in protest. At Lexmark, 120 workers were fired in December for protesting bad wages and conditions, and they have maintained a plantón there ever since.
Workers lifted similar worker encampments at Foxconn and Commscope after the companies promised them a registro in November. At the time of this article’s writing, the Lexmark plantón continues in front of that factory. A network of supporters in the U.S. has organized solidarity demonstrations, including a concert headlined by folksinger legend Charlie King. One demonstration has even confronted the company at its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky.
This insurgent wave of worker protests threatens the established economic order at the center of maquiladora production on the border, as Mexico continues to feel the impact of the U.S. recession. By U.S. standards, the companies are huge: Foxconn’s two factories alone employ over 11,000 people while Commscope employs 3,000 workers, and Lexmark another 2,800 workers.
While a wave of worker activism spread through Juárez in the 1990s, such militancy declined as the city’s women became victims of a notorious series of mass murders that terrorized the city for a decade.
Juárez has become a huge metropolis built on the labor of tens of thousands of young women, overwhelmingly migrants, who have traveled north from cities, small villages, and rural areas in central and southern Mexico. Between 1993 and February 2005, over 370 women had been murdered. In 2010 alone, 247 women were murdered, and between January and August of the following year, another 130.
The mothers of Juarez organized despite the terror to fight for the lives of their daughters. They charged that larger social forces are responsible for creating a climate of extreme violence against women. This new wave of worker protests, therefore, is breaking the cycle of fear and terror that has gripped working-class neighborhoods for over a decade.
In the two personal accounts that follow, Verónica Rodríguez, a fired Commscope worker, and Elvia Villescas, a community organizer, explain the origins of this new workers’ movement, and what it might mean for the maquiladora workers of Juárez.
VERÓNICA RODRÍGUEZ, was fired from ADC Commscope:
I’ve worked in many maquiladoras. I have three kids- two boys and a girl- and I went to work there because I was only able to complete secondary school. The workday is nine hours. You can get Saturday and Sunday off, so you can do the work you have at home, and at the end of the day you’re with your family and can help your children with their homework. But you have to ask permission from the company to let you go if your child is sick, and you practically have to pray on your knees. It’s kind of contradictory.
I began working at ADC Commscope twelve years ago. I worked for eleven years, was out for three months, and then came back for a year after that. When I began there, I worked really hard so that I could get a better job. But when I achieved that, I could see that there were a lot of abuses.
The other supervisors wouldn’t give them permission to leave the line, for instance. One of them I fought with all the time. Once a worker asked for the next day off because he had an appointment for his son, who’d just been born. The supervisor said, “No, tell him [the doctor] to do it another day.” I told him, the appointment is for tomorrow- he couldn’t change it. In the end, the supervisor said he had to find someone else to replace him, and so I told him I’d do it.
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