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Maquiladora Workers in Tehuacán Win Union Representation
Saturday, November 24, 2007
The Human Labor Rights Commission of the Tehuacán Valley (CDHLVT), one of UUSC's Economic Justice partners in Mexico, has achieved a victory in its fight for freedom of association for garment workers. In a union representation vote on November 23, workers at the Vaqueros Navarra blue jean factory voted to be represented by the independent September 19 Union.
This "open vote" had not looked very promising for the supporters of the September 19 Union because instead of a secret ballot at a neutral location, the workers — many of them young indigenous women — were forced to declare their vote in front of the employer, the state labor authorities, and the "official" unions. However, despite these daunting obstacles, the workers' collective voice prevailed.
The fight for freedom of association for Vaqueros Navarra workers
For many months, the Human Labor Rights Commission has been organizing workers at the Vaqueros Navarra maquiladora owned by Grupo Navarra, a powerful garment manufacturing consortium contracted by major apparel brands in the United States. Workers were demanding fair payment of the annual profit-sharing benefit mandated by Mexican law, but were left unprotected by the "official" union that held title to the collective agreement in the factory. (Under Mexican law, only one union at any given workplace is considered to hold "title," or authorization to represent workers.) This union did little to protect these workers from retaliation by Vaqueros Navarra.
Official unions like this one, which is affiliated with the Confederation of Workers and Campesinos (CROC), often side with management instead of representing the interests of the workers. The CROC is also affiliated with the PRI, Mexico's historical ruling political party that controls both the Puebla state government and the Local Conciliation and Arbitration Board that was mediating the case.
In contrast, the September 19 Union is a garment workers' union named to commemorate the date of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City. The earthquake destroyed about 500 semi-legal sweatshops and caused over 1,000 women textile workers to lose their lives and over 40,000 workers to lose their jobs. This independent union was formed in the wake of the earthquake to advocate for the workers who lost their jobs, and at the time it was one of the first unions in a decade to be registered independently from the ruling party's labor federation. Affiliated with the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the September 19 Union has been instrumental in supporting workers to challenge maquiladoras that evade obligations to workers under Mexican labor law.
When an assembly of Vaqueros Navarra workers decided to seek representation by an independent union to advocate for their interests, the company began to fire workers en masse, using intimidation and harassment to pressure workers to "voluntarily" resign in an attempt to prevent them from joining the September 19 Union. Over 100 workers have been fired in the last few months.
To complicate the situation, when the September 19 Union filed a petition for title to the collective agreement at the factory, another official union — one affiliated with the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers, or the CROM — filed its own petition to contest that of the September 19 Union. The Human Labor Rights Commission soon learned that a small group of workers were paid by the employer to represent the CROM in an attempt to keep September 19 from gaining support, and that the CROM was the only union being permitted by the company to campaign inside the factory despite the fact that it did not hold title to the collective agreement, which is illegal under Mexican labor law.
Representatives of the official unions also harassed and intimidated the workers, such as when they appeared outside the factory with baseball bats and blared loud music over the workers' demonstrations to prevent workers from protesting their unjust dismissal, or from organizing to support September 19.
Despite these attempts to discourage workers from exercising their right to select the union representation of their choice, the final recuento (union representation vote), which included the votes of about 45 of the dismissed workers, gave the September 19 Union 263 votes, compared to 187 for the CROM and 3 for the CROC.
The observers of the recuento included Lynda Yanz of the Maquila Solidarity Network, Angélica Gonzalez of the Jesuit Centre for Reflection and Labour Action (CEREAL), and the U.S. Labor Attaché to Mexico, Kevin Richardson.
UUSC's participation in a movement for international solidarity
This victory in the recuento was due in large part to the tireless organizing of the Human Labor Rights Commission and of the FAT, but also to the international pressure exerted on the company and the local authorities. The international attention to the situation was noted in the media, including in a recent article in the Mundo de Tehuacán (in Spanish), which focuses on the fact that "NGOs will continue to follow the case."
Since August, UUSC has received communication from the commission and urgent alerts from our shared ally the Maquila Solidarity Network, detailing the terrible situation in Tehuacán. MSN has played a leading role in informing and calling upon an international coalition of unions, human rights organizations, and government representatives to pressure state officials and labor authorities in Puebla.
UUSC has been actively involved in this international campaign through a series of letters written by UUSC's President Charlie Clements appealing to Puebla state authorities to ensure justice for the workers. In his letters, Clements cautioned the governor of Puebla that "our organization and others around the world will be monitoring the situation closely."
Grupo Navarra also heard expressions of concern from a group of brands that source their products with the company, including Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, Express, Gap, Levi Strauss, and Warnaco. These brands signed a letter urging the company to ensure that the union representation vote proceeded in a transparent way, following an investigation of the factory by the independent monitoring group Verité at the request of Gap.
The Verité investigation had uncovered workers' rights violations including physical, psychological, sexual, and verbal harassment and abuse; threats of dismissal for union organizing and affiliating with labor rights NGOs; withholding wages owed, severance and other benefits from terminated workers that did not agree to sign resignation letters; and discrimination in hiring and dismissals based on age, pregnancy status, and union affiliation.
After the victory, the struggle continues
While the September 19 Union has won the right to represent workers in the Vaqueros Navarra factory, the factory owner and official union representatives have indicated that they will contest the results of the vote.
UUSC will continue to be part of the vigilant international coalition voicing their support for the workers to ensure that no retaliatory action is taken against those who voted for September 19, and that the unjustly fired workers are reinstated.
The struggle remains far from over, but the vote for the September 19 Union represents a huge victory for the Human and Labor Rights Commission, and for economic justice in Tehuacán.