(en) David Bacon 10/10 Han Young article

Shawn Ewald (shawn@wilshire.net)
Wed, 15 Oct 1997 02:42:07 -0700

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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Tue, 14 Oct 1997 06:42:52 -0700 (PDT) To: Campaign for Labor Rights e-mail list <clr@igc.org> From: Mike Rhodes <clr2@igc.apc.org> Subject: David Bacon 10/10 Han Young article

Maquiladora Workers Elect Their First Independent Union By David Bacon

Tijuana, Baja California (10/10/97) -- Beating off a last-minute attempt to destabilize the election process, employees of the Tijuana factory of Han Young de Mexico on Monday became the first maquiladora workers on the U.S./Mexico border to vote in favor of an independent union. In the traditional open voting system used by the Mexican labor board, (the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board - JNCA), 55 workers publicly declared their support for the Metal, Steel and Allied Workers Union of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), Mexico's most independent labor federation, while 32 favored the existing company union.

"This is the beginning of the independent labor movement in Tijuana," declared Jose Angel Penaflor Barron, a local attorney who acted as FAT's lawyer during the proceedings. "This is the beachhead for democratic unions on the border."

Although the election was scheduled to begin at noon in the tiny offices of the JNCA in a dilapidated building in downtown Tijuana, by 11:00 dozens of workers had already formed a long line in front of the door to the conference room where voting was to take place. Over half of those present were wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the FAT union's logo. Fearing the company wouldn't release them to vote, the Han Young workers had stopped work that morning, and had traveled to the labor board office as a group.

As the procedure finally began, they trooped into the room, one by one, and presented themselves at a table, behind which sat JNCA secretaries and officials. Each was asked for a photo ID, and then another identification paper documenting their employee status at Han Young. Finally they were asked the question - which union did they prefer?

A packed crowd of representatives of both the FAT and the existing company union, the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers (CROC), surrounded the workers listening intently.

Numerous observers from U.S. churches and unions jammed into the small room as well. Their delegation had been assembled by the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, to ensure a fair and clean election.

As secretaries typed furiously, each worker openly declared their choice. When the waiting line of workers had been exhausted, 52 had voted for the FAT, and only 7 for the company union.

As the process ended, angry shouts broke out from the waiting area outside. A heated confrontation erupted, as a new group presented themselves to vote. To the outrage of Han Young workers, they recognized their supervisors, and saw others they had never seen in the plant before.

The labor board representatives reopened the election procedure. After police were called, the new group was escorted into the conference room, and began voting. Many had no papers identifying themselves as Han Young employees. Some didn't remember the name of the company where they supposedly worked, until reminded by others.

At least one was not asked for an ID at all. Another admitted that he had gone to work in the factory just days before. Still another, Manuel Uribe Vasquez, admitted after voting that he was a foreman, and therefore ineligible to vote under Mexican law.

As this group voted, angry Han Young workers outside chanted "Fraud, Fraud." In the end, however, the votes of the second group proved insufficient to defeat the FAT, and the total stood at 55 for the FAT, and 32 for the CROC.

If its victory is certified, the FAT will take over the existing contract of the company union at Han Young, becoming the workers' representative and the first independent union at a factory on the border.

Three days later, on October 9, the labor board opened a hearing to determine the eligibility of challenged voters. FAT questioned the eligibility of 25 votes, including supervisors and workers hired only days before, and the CROC questioned two votes. The challenged votes are clearly not sufficient to overturn the FAT victory. Nevertheless, the labor board refused to certify the results, and instead postponed the hearing for two weeks.

The board's impartiality was thrown into question last week when the company union met with the governor of Baja California, Hector Teran Teran, the Thursday before the election. The governor then forced the resignation of the JNCA chief in Tijuana, Antonio Ortiz. Tijuana newspapers quoted sources inside the labor board, saying that Ortiz was punished for allowing the election to take place at all.

During the voting, the board's previous chief, Jose Mandujano, showed up representing Han Young. For many years, he was the lawyer for the Maquiladora Association, an organization of factory owners. The October 6 election was administered by his protege, Carlos Perez Astorga, who denied that any voting irregularities had occured.

At the October 9 hearing, operatives from the Mexican Interior Ministry showed up looking for Mary Tong and Jim Clifford, leaders of the San Diego support committee. They told one reporter that Tong and Clifford would no longer be allowed to enter Mexico.

The Mexican government is very nervous about the Han Young fight because the company is a feeder factory for the huge Hyundai Corp. manufacturing complex, one of largest in Tijuana's vast industrial network. It builds chassis for truck trailers and huge metal shipping containers, which are then finished in the main Hyundai plant. According to workers, Han Young turns out 26 chassis a day, each selling for $1800 (US).

The October 6 election capped a long organizing effort by employees dissatisfied with poor working conditions and low wages. "The company doesn't give us gloves, jackets, or other safety equipment, and there's no ventilation" explained Armando Hernandez Roman, a welder with three years in the plant. "I make 54 pesos a day (US $5.50), and there are no raises to compensate for the rising inflation." Prices have more than doubled for basic groceries in Mexico in the last three years.

Han Young de Mexico has had a company union contract with the CROC since its factory opened five years ago. According to Penaflor, "it is the kind of protection contract maquiladora owners sign to ensure labor peace." Han Young workers say CROC representatives never called meetings, or came to the factory to help with their problems.

Last spring, employees contacted the workers' center in the Tijuana barrio of Maclovio Rojas. For nine years, Hyundai has been attempting to take this community's land to expand its factory and develop industrial parks. When residents refused to abandon their homes, three barrio leaders were arrested, spending months in prison.

Activists in Maclovio Rojas, assisted by the San Diego committee, started their workers' center last year to support a wave of labor unrest sweeping through Hyundai factories. The company has subcontracted out its most troublesome operations to plants like Han Young. At one contract plant, Daewon, 16 workers were fired in industrial unrest in July of 1996. At another, Laymex, 91 workers walked out the following month.

With the center's help, Han Young workers elected an organizing committee, and went on strike for two days last June. While calling for immediate improvements, they also demanded that company managers recognize and bargain with their own elected representatives, rather than with CROC.

Faced with a costly halt in production, the factory's managers acceded to the demands. According to Enrique Hernandez, president of the Popular Alliance, another workers' support organization in Tijuana, maquiladora owners have became worried that the independent union effort might spread. "If workers succeed here, the formation of independent unions could sweep like a wave through the city's factories, where conditions are much like those at Han Young," Hernandez said. "That would increase pressure to raise workers' poverty wages."

Following the strike, Han Young hired a personnel director, Luis Manuel Escobedo Jimenez, who fired eight strike leaders before the election. One leader, Emeterio Armenta, accuses him of being "an expert in psychological warfare." U.S. unions are familiar with anti-union consultants like Escobedo, but they have rarely been used in Mexico.

Company pressure on workers escalated. According to Armando Hernandez, Ho Young Lee, his supervisor, called him into a private meeting at the beginning of September. "He offered me a raise of 6 pesos a day (85 cents), and told me that if I didn't accept it, and stop the effort to organize an independent union, I'd lose my job." Hernandez refused and was fired.

Other workers report that plant manager Won Young Kang called a meeting at lunchtime on September 25, in which he told them that the factory would close if they voted for the independent union.

"It's not possible that the company would close," Won said, denying the charge. "The company doesn't favor any union."

On September 3, a state government representative ordered all TV stations in Tijuana to stop covering the Han Young situation. FAT's general secretary, Benedicto Martinez, credited the presence of U.S. observers with breaking the media blackout, and shining a light of publicity on the election process. "I'm glad they were here. They call them outsiders, but there are times when people need outside support," he said. "We even had support from unions in Korea."

Just before the election, the AFL-CIO moved to get Hyundai, which contracts all the work in the Han Young factory, to insist that its managers respect the election results. AFL-CIO representative Ed Feigan contacted the union for Hyundai employees in Korea, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which wrote a letter to Han Young warning against any efforts to intimidate its workers. The unions have also discussed possible demonstrations at Hyundai's U.S. car dealerships.

Meanwhile, the Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Progressive Asset Management, shareholder action groups, contacted the Korea Fund of Scudder, Stevens and Clark, a major investment house, to pressure Hyundai.

Tong points out that such cross-border actions benefit U.S. as well as Mexican workers. "In a global economy, the jobs and livelihood of people north of the border can depend on the outcome of the struggles of workers south of it, at factories like Han Young," she says.

If FAT's Tijuana victory holds, it could influence Mexican labor and economic policy nationally. The FAT's Martinez was instrumental in forming a new labor federation in Mexico City, the National Federation of Workers, last month. Its affiliated unions have announced their intention to break their relationship with Mexico's governing party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution. They say they will oppose government policies of using low wages as an attraction for foreign investment, especially in the maquiladora sector.

"This election will lead them to pay more attention to workers on the border," he concludes.

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