More than 150 members of the first independent union in Juarez in 30 years held a workers assembly on February 7, 2015 to develop their proposed demands to Commscope, formerly known as ADC, a manufacturer of fiberoptic equipment for major telecommunication companies.

Meeting in a hall that usually rented for children’s parties in the Plaza Nogales shopping center, Jorge Raul Garcia, the newly elected general secretary, facilitated the discussion of their first proposed collective bargaining agreement.  Their contract proposal is for 285 pesos per day, $15.62 in U.S. dollars, which is based on a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico on what Mexican workers need to make ends meet on basic necessities.  Jorge worked at Commscope for 16 and-a-half years cutting fiberoptic cable. He made 150 pesos per day. The average wage at Commscope is 115 pesos. New workers are hired at the minimum wage of 75 pesos per day, or $4.11 in U.S. dollars.

They formed the Union of Workers at the ADC Factory. Commscope, or ADC, is producing fiber optics for Verizon, AT&T, Nortel, Telmex, Televisa and a telecommunications company in Scotland.  The union had requested strike authorization from the state Ministry of Labor.

Jorge was skeptical that they would get it. He foresaw an extended struggle that would go beyond state authorities to the federal government.  He said that the company is illegally exerting pressure on the chair of the labor board to declare the union illegal.

Union of Workers protest at ADC Factory
Members of the newly organized Union of Workers at the ADC Factory demonstrate outside the factory gates.

There are around 255,000 workers in Juarez’ 330 maquiladoras, about 13 percent of the national total, making Juarez one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing along the U.S./Mexico border.  According to a survey by the Hunt Institute for Global Competiveness, the average pay of Juarez maquiladora workers was 18 percent less than the average for manufacturing workers in Mexico’s border cities.

In 1993, a partnership between the Mexican labor federation, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and the U.S. union, the United Electrical Workers, mounted a union organizing campaign at the General Electric factory, Compania Armadora, but lost the election.  In the mid 1990s, Mexican and U.S. unions cooperated in opening a Center for Labor Studies (CETLAC) to help educate workers about their rights.

However, CETLAC closed its doors last year. Its former director, Daniel Rocha, is focusing on organizing workers in the informal sector, people who shine shoes in the central plaza and people who guide motorists to parking spots on public streets.  Gathering after the worker assembly to give their personal stories, workers passed around a box of tissues, as one after another broke into tears describing their struggle to survive on the low wages.

Ema is a single mother with two sons who makes 900 pesos per week, $49.38 in U.S. dollars. She gets no child support from her sons’ father. After she pays Fonavit, a government housing agency, she has 600 pesos left.  Breaking into tears, Ema said that she had to choose between buying shoes for her sons to go to school or buying food.  She developed a cyst in her wrist from the repetitive motion of turning screws at work. Ema said that her supervisor would count the time she took to go to the bathroom and then ask why she stayed so long.

Veronica Rodriguez, elected Recording Secretary, has worked 11 years at the plant. She said that when it was ADC, the treatment was good but when it changed owners and the name, it became different.  “The situation is intolerable. The Supervisors talk to us with ugly words saying we are idiots, and bad workers. ‘You work slow and don’t meet production,’ they would say,” Veronica said.  She said that she had to work nine hours and then the supervisors wanted the 10 people on her line to work 20 more hours. They had problems with pain in their arms and wrists after that 29 hour shift. Veronica said that there is a nurse at the plant but she does not care about their pain.

Luis Manriquez carries heavy cables and equipment at the plant. He has boots with steel toes that are supposed to be changed every six months but he has had the same boots for three years. The steel toe plate is cutting into his toes.  Luis has worked at the plant for 10 years. He makes 920 pesos per week and after paying Fonavit, he has 720 pesos left. He depends on getting extra overtime but on one occasion, after working extra hours, he was tired and made mistakes. The supervisor ordered him to go home without pay.  Luis said that if workers miss a day they lose half of their attendance bonus. He said bonuses are a mechanism to pressure workers.

Aurelia Mendrano has worked at the plant for 11 years. “The treatment is inhuman,” she said.  Aurelia said that if workers ask for permission to leave work to pick up a sick child from school, the supervisors tell them that it is their problem because they had babies or have “that kind” of husband.  “There is a lot of favoritism. People close to the supervisors get better treatment. The supervisors are like Egyptian pharaohs,” Aurelia said.  Aurelia said that someone sent her chocolate one day. She did not know it was her supervisor until he asked her friend what time she goes to the restroom.  She told her supervisor that she respects him as a supervisor but did not want a relationship. He told her that they could be lovers and he could help her get a better position.  After she rebuffed him, he kept pressuring her. She became sick from the stress and had to spend time in the hospital.

Dulce Maria Roque has worked at the plant for eight years. When her daughter is sick, she must negotiate with the supervisor to take the child to the doctor. The supervisor will say that she can leave half-an-hour early but will have her salary cut in half for the day.  “We are treated with no compassion or understanding of our necessities. The supervisors are without ethics and don’t care about the human person,” she said.

Luz Maria Nava had worked at the plant for 11 years. She had a heart attack on the assembly line. She was in recovery for two months and afterwards could not work extra hours.  When she got a call from the school that her daughter was sick, the human resources office would not let her call anyone to pick up her daughter. They told her that they would cut her salary if she left work.  Luz Maria said that management took the doors off of four of the 10 toilet stalls to discourage women from spending time in the restroom. She said that when they complained, human resources said “what is the problem? You are women with the same things on your body.”  Favoritism is rampant. Luz Maria said that a woman in human resources passed over a more qualified worker to give a position to her husband.

Saul Ruiz has worked at the plant for 15 years. He saw that a friend on his line, Lupita, was sick. She went to human resources to ask if she could go to a doctor. Human Resources said that she could not go. The plant nurse did not check on her. Saul said that she went home and died that night.  “One of the reasons that we requested a union was that no one in the company cared about us. If we have a union, we can take care of each other,” Saul said.  Another worker who was gay also became sick and died. When workers asked management why he died, they were told that “he died because he chose to be gay,” according to Saul.

After these two incidents, three workers went to meet with an attorney to find out how to start a union. The attorney, Cauhetomoc Estrada Sotelo, said to bring together a group of workers for a meeting. More than 200 came to the meeting.  On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, they delivered a petition for a union to the labor tribunal.  When workers who signed the petition showed up at work that day, management told 172 of them that they no longer worked there and the company would tell other maquiladoras not to hire them because they are rebels.  Raul said that they had a planton, an encampment outside the factory gates, for 43 days.  They took down the planton as part of an agreement with the president of the labor commission to be registered as a union. It took a further sit-in of the commission offices but on December 21, they were certified as a legal union.

As a union, they are demanding a collective bargaining agreement from the company and filing a strike petition with the labor tribunal. They are expecting the labor tribunal to deny them permission and then they will appeal to the federal labor board.  Their demands to the company are to reinstate the 172 fired workers and back pay since November 19, and to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a minimum wage of 285 pesos per day, increased from the current average of 115 pesos per day.  They are demanding that mothers who have children in child care or school be allowed to leave to get their children with no decrease in their salary or bonus. Also, if they have to go to a medical appointment, they would not lose wages if they show a prescription as proof.  Of the 172 fired workers, 106 are women and 49 are heads of household.

At the furthest point in south Juarez, past a roundabout Glorieta a Benito Juarez, highway signs carry the names of maquiladoras such as Planta Electrolux. The highway has four lanes and tall metal poles hold four street lights each. Huge steel poles more than 100 feet high carry large power lines.

On a dirt patch next to the driveway to the Lexmark plant, workers pitched tents and continued a planton for more than 6 weeks. Miriam Delgado Hernandez, coordinator, expressed their fear of being disappeared like the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero in 2014.

This year Juarez is celebrating 50 years of the Border Industrial Program, which opened the door to the maquiladora boom.  While production is booming, wages and working conditions are deteriorating.  The minimum wage is hovering just above $4 per day as the peso is rapidly devalued.

According to Cecilia Espinosa, a former maquiladora worker who is currently on staff at the Mesa de Mujeres, a women’s human rights group, since 1982 the minimum wage has been losing purchasing power. Last year, the minimum wage of 70.10 pesos per day lost 68 percent of its value.  Previously, young people usually paid 50 percent of their income to their parents, according to Cecilia. Now, all family members of working age need to work full time to support the household.

The Mexican president and governor of Chihuahua have traveled overseas to lure more production to Mexico. As wages are rising in China because of labor unrest, they are trying to capture market share in advance of the implementation of the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP will open access to Vietnam and Malaysia as low-wage areas in competition with Mexico.

There has been a black-out of coverage of the protests in the Juarez media. The February 7 edition of the local paper had a full page spread denying that there are problems in the maquiladoras.

A former maquila worker from Eaton Busman, one of the plants with a labor dispute, Antonia “Toñita” Hinojosa Hernández, ran for mayor in the June 5 election to call attention to the grievances of workers.

While actually winning was a moon-shot, organizing the campaign to reach the 250,000 maquiladora workers in the city was a vehicle to organize workers in the maquiladoras. They launched a civic association called Maquiladora Workers of Juarez.

On the U.S. side, labor and community activists have been organizing in support of the Juarez maquila workers.  A group of students met at the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) to plan a student group to support Juarez maquiladora workers.  A labor support group, the Kentucky Workers League, picketed the Lexmark headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, last January.

The San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in support of the maquiladora workers at its meeting on February 8. It sent letters to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte, Juarez Municipal President Javier González, the Chihuahua Secretary of Labor Fidel Perez and Lexmark corporate headquarters calling on them to protect workers rights to organize and demonstrate, to reinstate fired workers and to recognize their union.

A similar resolution was passed by the El Paso Central Labor Union on January 13 and the Texas AFL-CIO state labor federation on January 20.  The AFL-CIO issued a message of solidarity on January 11 and called on the U.S. government to review any purchases from these suppliers that may be receiving U.S. taxpayer dollars while they violate labor rights.

Even U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso visited the planton outside the Lexmark plant and had his picture taken with workers. His parents own maquiladoras. His father-in-law is Bill Foster who built the power-house business alliance, the Verde Group.  The Border Institute, a faith-based group from both sides of the border, held a meeting on February 6 in Juarez with a workshop, “Discussion on Globalization and the Border Economy.” They discussed “Laudato, Si” or “Praise be to you” an encyclical letter by Pope Francis on the environment, production and work.

Father Benjamin Cadena described Border Theology. People idolize the market like the biblical golden calf. The fetish is now the economic system called Neoliberalism. Money is the new god that replaces the god of life. The desert is a place for communion and solidarity and the preferential treatment of the poor, moving through darkness by loving the light.  Father Cadena said that Pope Francis has spoken about structural or social sin that creates inequality. Sin is within society as lack of justice and those who pay the highest price for the impunity of the rich are the poor, according to Father Cadena.  While the Border Institute did not take a formal action, activists at the meeting began organizing to publish a letter in a local paper to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to Juarez on February 17.

They published a full-page ad that described an oppressive and exploitative social reality for workers in Juarez.  While the Pope met with some selected maquiladora workers, his visit was tightly choreographed to present Juarez as a safe place for investment.