Suspicious fire heats up border labor dispute
RIO BRAVO, TAMAULIPAS, MEXICO – Since their house was burned to the ground a few weeks ago, Eliud Almaguer and his wife Evelia have been staying with friends, but rarely more than one night in the same place.
They fear that those who destroyed their house might return. “I fear for the life of my family,” says Almaguer.
He believes his house was burned because for the last three years he's led a campaign to organize an independent union at the Duro Bag plant, a maquiladora just across the Rio Grande from Pharr, Texas.
Almaguer's home was typical of the houses lining a dirt street in a dusty Rio Bravo neighborhood. The Almaguers used wood for heating and cooking. These houses are often made of wooden shipping pallets, with unfolded cardboard boxes stapled onto them for walls. They're extreme firetraps the Almaguers were lucky they were not home.
Modest as it was, the home nevertheless was broken into at least twice before the fire, Almaguer says. “I think they were looking for union documents, since I don't have anything worth stealing, but we keep them in a safe place.”
Neighbors say they saw a man fleeing the scene just before flames engulfed the small dwelling, but police refused to listen. Almaguer himself says that police refused to take a report from him or conduct an investigation.
The Duro factory churns out chichi paper bags that sell for a dollar at gift shops. The Kentucky-based Duro Corporation also operates seven U.S. plants.
Duro's vice-president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60 pesos a day (about six dollars), about three times the cost of a gallon of milk in the supermarket. Forstrom explains that Duro's automated operations are north of the border, but its labor- intensive operations are concentrated in Rio Bravo. “We're in Mexico to take advantage of inexpensive labor,” he explains.
In the spring of 1998, Almaguer, an intense, stocky man in his thirties, got a job at the plant. He says he saw people lose fingers or suffer other injuries because of missing safety guards, unlabeled solvent containers and other hazards. “In terms of safety, well there just wasn't any.”
Duro has a “protection contract” with a Mexican local of the Paper, Cardboard and Wood Industry Union, part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The CTM has been a pillar of support for the country's ruling bureaucracy since the 1940s. The arrangement effectively means the company pays CTM union leaders to guarantee labor peace.
When workers in the plant try to enforce that contract, bringing grievances to the human relations manager, “he'd throw us out,” Almaguer says. “The company was in violation of at least fifty percent of the contract.”
Workers could not get the CTM to back their efforts. Finally, in October 1999, the company fired Almaguer. The CTM signed a new agreement with the company in 2000, ignoring workers' demands. In April, they struck in protest and 150 were fired. In June, workers began organizing an independent union.
Throughout this period, Almaguer and his family were repeatedly threatened, he says. After he was elected local union leader two years ago, he says, one person first threatened his family and later offered money. “He told me to slow down and tell the workers not to be against the National Paperworkers Union and Duro or else I would pay the consequences. That night they came back at 1 a.m., knocking and kicking the door, trying to open it,” Almaguer recalls.
Forstrom says only a minority of the plant's workers are involved in the protests and that conditions are better here than in some of the company's U.S. plants. “Almaguer has had an agenda different from the company and the majority of employees,” Forstrom says. “I think he has something to gain personally. It's fairly obvious – a job, money, status.”
Despite opposition from the company and the CTM, the independent union won legal status last summer, but it has yet to negotiate a new contract and 150 remain fired, including Almaguer.
Meanwhile, for five months, grim-faced women, often with their children beside them, have confronted police outside the plant, and camped out in Rio Bravo's main plaza. Their banners demand “libertad sindical,” or the right to belong to a union of their choice.
Most of the 1.2 million Mexican workers employed in 3,450 foreign-owned factories belong to unions, at least on paper, but do not control those organizations.
If more workers run their own unions, and negotiate their own contracts, companies will feel enormous pressure to raise wages. Success at Duro could cost a lot of money.
“This fire was intentional,” Almaguer declares. “They were trying to wipe us off the map, and now my home is just ashes.”
Berkeley resident and PNS associate editor David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.