Challenging the maquila bosses

October 30, 2009

Some 100 fired workers from the TRW Automotive maquiladora in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, occupied and shut down the international bridge that links that city to Hidalgo, Texas, in early October.

TRW is one of the world's largest automotive suppliers. It has three plants in the city of Reynosa, where about 1,500 workers assemble seat-belt components for GM, Ford and Chrysler cars.

The protesters are part of a group of 300 workers who were fired from TRW in February after the company announced without notice that it would shut down its plant in "Industrial Park North" and transfer 800 workers to another plant on the other side of the city.

Not only were the workers opposed to the move due to the increase in transportation costs for them, but the extra two hours of travel time per day would also require more out-of-pocket spending for child care, since most of the workers are women with children. Furthermore, the workers found out that their salaries and benefits were to be cut in the process.

When workers protested the move, they were summarily fired, blacklisted throughout the maquiladora industry and denied the three months severance pay mandated by Mexican labor law. Since February, protests have transformed into a social movement, as they link with others facing similar circumstances. For example, the bridge occupation was supported on the U.S. side by 20 members of United Auto Workers Local 174, who traveled 28 hours from Romulus, Mich., to show their solidarity with the TRW workers and to protest the devastating effects of NAFTA on Michigan autoworkers.

Ernesto Lizcano of the TRW Workers Coalition and Israel Monroy of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras took part in an October speaking tour across the U.S. on behalf of the TRW workers, which took them from the G20 protests in Pittsburgh to San Diego. They talked to Gabby Gonzalez, Arnulfo Brenes and Justin Akers Chacón about their effort to build a cross-border social movement.

TELL US about TRW Automotive in Reynosa.

Ernesto: TRW is an international company with facilities in 28 countries throughout the world. Three of its maquiladoras are in the city of Reynosa in Mexico. Worldwide, there are approximately 62,000 people employed by TRW, and we are currently in a struggle against this company that mostly makes seat belts for car brands such as GM, Ford and Chrysler.

For many years, we have been subject to violations of labor rights in Mexico by companies established along the border. Now we have formed a coalition of workers in response to the company wanting to send us from one maquiladora to another, without any type of agreement, but unilaterally, to benefit the company. They didn't take the employees into account, so we formed the coalition to sue the company.

We have always wanted to work, but under conditions that are not prejudiced against workers. In response to our organization, the company threw us out of the factory and into the streets, and blacklisted us, which is unconstitutional in Mexico. But since these corporations have all the power and the money, that is what they always do, and all under the protection of the government.

TRW workers protest with a banner that reads: "We are hungry for justice"
TRW workers protest with a banner that reads: "We are hungry for justice"

HOW DID the community of Reynosa respond?

Ernesto: We say that we are the community because we initiated the movement inside the factory, but also because we are the ones who live in the communities. The struggle, then, was sparked in the factory, but it is also a movement of the community.

We see that the only way to fight against the company and the government's corruption is by making our situation public. So we have to mobilize, go out to the streets and protest in front of the buildings of those who are in charge of executing the laws in Mexico, in order for our voices to be heard.

I believe that a really important factor in the case of TRW has been hunger. When people are desperate because the company is cutting your salary in half, a salary that it is already meager, the people become desperate because they don't have money to take home. So this is what sparked the beginning of people's organization.

It was hard because we have to break away from the ideas that the system has instilled in us for many years. In the maquiladora, a system was established from the start to inhibit you from talking, communicating or thinking. You simply have a supervisor behind you telling you "parts, parts, parts," and it's difficult to break from this since it has been too many years that people have been immersed in this.

The people are desperate when they don't have enough to eat, when their families are hungry. That is how we were able to organize the movement. There are some who don't believe, but there are others who do believe it's possible--that we can fight and make change.

Israel: The corporations came into our farmlands, installing themselves and altering all our farming relations. The Mexican government changes the law to make this possible. When we say we are suppressed, it is a constant of the labor movement, the maquila movement. You begin a struggle and right away are suppressed by the different levels of government and by the union, because you are put on blacklists, and everything is at the corporations' service.

We say we are exploited because production mapping has shown us that. Production mapping consists of keeping count of the parts produced daily and weekly, as well as the cost of each part.

Nine fellow workers showed us their data of production mapping in 2008 at Key Safety System, where they produced 352 car airbags every day. These airbags cost $700 in 2003. If you multiply 352 daily airbags by $700, you get approximately $244,000 that only nine workers produced every day!

The corporations look down on our people with contempt; for them, everything is numbers and profits. They look down on indigenous communities, the working class in general, our families--they are looking down on humanity.

That's why we say that the future of the labor struggle depends on learning to apply new forms of organization.

HOW HAS the government responded to your mobilization?

Israel: For a long time, the government has said that it's not true the companies control them, that the problem is not their business, and it's a union, and not a municipal problem. However, this is a problem with the company, not the union, because the former has always been violating the people's rights, the Mexican political constitution and the federal labor laws. Which is why we say this problem is everyone's.

HOW HAVE the maquiladora owners responded?

Ernesto: The government agency in charge of labor regulations (the Procuraduría Federal de la Defensa del Trabajo) summoned the company to sit down and negotiate with workers. But the company never showed up. The government never sanctioned the company, and now we have filed a suit against it.

It is in the legal process, but we are demanding the immediate reinstatement of all of us. We want to work. However, the maquiladora has said many times that we are problem people and opportunists, which is not true.

I have worked in the company for 10 years, and there are others who have been there for 15 or 20 years. We ask how is it that we are problems if we have worked there for so long? But now that we are defending our rights, they say we are problematic.

WHAT ORGANIZATIONS have supported your struggle?

Ernesto: The organization that is currently supporting us is the CJM--the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, which has an international presence. Thanks to them, I am able to come to the U.S. to do this tour and talk with people, with union members, at universities, with religious organizations about our situation.

We are calling for international solidarity. We know that if we leave this struggle in our city, nothing is going to happen. It is necessary to make our movement international.

YOU SAID that there has been an increase in popular movements in Mexico. How does your struggle fit in this context?

Israel: When we say that the popular movement has grown, it is because many sectors of Mexico are currently in the streets. For example, when the Zapatista movement emerged in 1994 in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, the women workers at Sony also raised their voices for an independent union and to denounce NAFTA. This is an example of how movements have appeared from the North to the South within the last 15 years.

In 2006, it was the movement of APPO [Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, or the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca] in the state of Oaxaca that came into view, beginning first with teachers. A struggle with new forms of organization developed without the direction of parties--without the PAN, PRI or PRD, only with the courage and dignity of the people denouncing a corrupt governor, and above all denouncing the neoliberal politics in Mexico.

On the border, we have documented the struggles of Sony workers in 1994; the fight of Duro workers in 2000 in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas; the movement of Lajat workers in Gómez Palacios, Durango, in 2003; the struggle of Key Safety Systems in 2008 in Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas; and currently the one of TRW workers.

This is an example of how we have maintained the fight. However, the federal military has now taken over the Mexican electricians' union headquarters in the center of the country. Even so, currently, the mobilization is very strong from North to South.

YOU HAVE also said that international solidarity is really important. Explain why and what forms of solidarity are you seeking?

Israel: From our perspective, we reaffirm that capitalist politics are upheld by the corporations. These corporations have 10, 15, 20 years established in our country. If we multiplied how much they generate per year, we find the reality of capitalism: the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

These corporations are found everywhere in the world and operate under an agenda that does not care about people. They don't care about rights, about workers or the universal rights of the people and communities.

What is in play for the following years is the future of our jobs, as well as the development of our communities. Today, the failure of capitalism is obvious. Today, the failure of neoliberal politics is obvious with these treaties that create hunger.

YOU HAVE connected your protest to NAFTA and the Mexican government's corruption. Could you explain why?

Israel: We do not violate the law, but the municipal government, the state government and the Mexican government puts themselves at the service of the corporations.

Currently, in Mexico, we have an illegitimate president who did not win elections. He is a business president who has applied the neoliberal phase and extended it, defending the corporations' interests in Mexico.

His presidency has increased poverty in our country. It is said that this year there will be an increase of between 1 million to 6 million new poor people in Mexico. That is why we reaffirm that the neoliberal model--the corporations' model, the capitalist model--is leaving the American people poor, as well as the Canadian and Mexican people.

Today, immigrants are going out to protest. There's the emergence of the women's movement in Africa. People are organizing in new ways that are linked to the dignity of our communities and the resistance against displacement, exploitation, repression and the contempt these corporations have toward our struggles and our lives.

WHAT ARE the next steps for your struggle?

Ernesto: Concretely, the TRW Workers Coalition is calling for international solidarity because we know that our struggle cannot stay isolated. The agenda should be international--that is why we are here in the U.S. urging people to unite in our movement.

The actions we are calling for right now include asking people here in the U.S. to write letters to President Obama, and call on the government to take immediate action against TRW since it is violating the rights of workers in Mexico. We also want to ask him to renegotiate--or like we, the workers, say, to demolish--the free trade agreement, because it has only brought poverty, inequality and misery for our people.

In Mexico, we are calling on people to send letters to the Mexican president and the members of the federal labor agency who are responsible of making sure the laws are respected to immediately take action against TRW and follow through with solving the problem with workers.

We are not doing anything illegal. But this company is doing everything illegally and with the government's support. The government has allowed this to happen.

DO YOU see the potential for a new labor/union movement in the maquilas?

Ernesto: Yes, we actually believe that this situation is happening all over the country. The corporations are changing their production models, and there aren't the same numbers of jobs as before. So people today are coming out and protesting the political situation, the problem of food crisis. Our people and towns are becoming poorer and poorer. I believe this can detonate a very important new social and labor movement.

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