The Multinational Monitor


W O M E N   A N D   L A B O R

Fighting to Survive

Mexico's 19th of September Union

by Phoebe McKinney

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO--Early in the morning of September 19, 1985, women workers in Mexico City's extensive network of underground garment factories had begun another difficult day. The sweatshops, built with the collusion of business, organized labor and the government, routinely employed under-age workers, paid on a piecework basis and denied workers most of their legally required benefits. Pay was often docked for time away from work--for bathroom breaks, for instance.

With Mexico in the midst of an economic crisis, however, many of the women were grateful just to have jobs. Most of the factories were small (between 10 and 100 workers), and despite the harsh conditions, a certain amiable, albeit paternalistic relationship prevailed between the workers and their bosses.

All this changed on that mid-September morning. A devastating earthquake struck, 8.1 on the Richter scale, destroying hundreds of buildings, killing about 10,000 people and injuring thousands more. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless, and the jobs of thousands, including the women in the garment district, were eliminated in an instant. A second quake on September 20th finished the damage in the garment district of San Antonio Abad: over 800 garment shops were demolished, and 1,600 women were killed. In all, anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000 garment workers were left jobless from the quake. (See Multinational Monitor, January 1988)

Women rescuing their fellow workers were appalled when the factory owners showed up with equipment, not to rescue the trapped women, but to remove machines, cloth and safes from the rubble. The factory bosses, and the soldiers who helped them, left some 400 garment workers to die.

The many foreign journalists in Mexico City to report the earthquake quickly heard about and publicized the seamstresses' plight. The women workers, whose miserable working conditions had literally been exposed when the factories crumbled, gained worldwide sympathy and support. Their plight came to symbolize both the earth quake's destruction, and the larger struggle for worker justice in Mexico.

Looking back, the seamstresses pinpoint the day they watched their bosses remove machinery over the bodies and screams of their co-workers as a turning point in their lives. It was then, they say, that their political consciousness was raised, and they realized it was time to demand the legal right to organize to protect themselves as workers.

International publicity and local support from churches, feminists, leftist groups and independent Mexican unions poured in. The garment workers began working as a union from the very first day, organizing workers to block the removal of the factory machines in order to force their bosses to pay pensions for the families of the dead, and severance pay for the living who had lost their jobs. Under Mexican law, employers, not the government, are held responsible for job loss. The only protection the seamstresses could seek was severance, or "liquidation" payments, for which employers' assets can be seized. In clandestine shops, however, the law is rarely enforced.

For weeks and in some cases months, the newly mobilized workers had to maintain round-the-clock blockades outside their destroyed factories. Within one month, 5,000 workers from 82 shops had joined the fledgling union. It was named the "19th of September" union to commemorate the dead of that day.

In October, thousands of garment workers and their supporters marched to the Presidential Palace to present their demand for recognition as an independent union. Under pressure, the Ministry of Labor granted the request and the "19th of September" union became the first registered union independent of the ruling party's Labor Federation in 10 years.

Recognition, however, was only the first step in the long struggle. Hundreds of separate claims for severance pay had to be filed, since the factory owners refused to negotiate a package deal. It took 10 months of litigation, picket lines, telephone campaigns, numerous marches and negotiations with the Labor Ministry before the garment workers won their first battle. But it was a remarkable victory when it came: 90 percent of their claims were awarded, an impressive result under any conditions.

Unfortunately, in the four years since its founding, the union has found itself almost overwhelmed by the task of improving the oppressive conditions of the garment factories. The workers have not only their bosses to contend with, but the PRI-affiliated Labor Federation (LF) unions as well.

Parodying the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) three-legged base of support, the leaders of the union say that they "are fighting a three-headed monster--the bosses, the government and official unions." The "19th of September" union charges that factory owners and the PRI-affiliated unions use a range of illegal tactics to derail their organizing efforts. Many times when the "19th of September" union demands an election or seeks to collect union dues, a PRI-affiliated union will present workers with a previously unheard-of contract with management. It is also common for these unions to force fraudulent elections between the seamstress union and itself, harassing workers and rigging votes, the seamstresses charge. Once they intimidate the garment workers into voting for them, the LF unions do not even actively represent the workers, the garment workers claim.

The "19th of September" union's complaints about the Federation of Mexican Workers (CTM) bureaucracy are especially virulent. Director of External Relations Alicia Cervantes claims that 18 gunmen from the CTM showed up on election day at one factory and bullied the women into voting for a CTM-affiliated union. In another factory, Cervantes says, the day the election was won, "trucks arrived with 200 thugs with clubs and rocks. After they beat us all up and made us leave, the authorities told us we had to bring in proof--pictures--of them beating us up." In the end, the government recognized the CTM union over the seamstresses' claim to represent the workers, Cervantes says.

"They don't respect our rights to free unionism," she continues. "I assure you that 100 percent of the workers unionized with the CTM are there against their will. If you don't accept your CTM credential card, they threaten to fire you. Our union teaches us our rights and explains our contract. The official unions don't do that because they just want to control the workers. They humiliate us because of our economic need."

Another major problem is the threat of illegal firings during organizing drives. Union leaders cited the example of a campaign that lasted over a year; when they won the election, the boss declared bankruptcy. The leaders say this is a common tactic to undercut their unionizing efforts and avoid labor protection laws. Owners can work with government officials to declare bankruptcy, and then reopen somewhere else several days later, they charge. "They close down, and when they reopen, they hire other people who need work and who will accept low wages," says Marisol Hernandez, one of 18 members of the Executive Committee which sets the union's agenda.

Hernandez and Cervantes described other obstacles to their organizing efforts: "The majority of the garment workers are single mothers, and there's tremendous fear of factories closing. We understand the conflicts and pressures people feel trying to support their families, but it makes it hard to organize. Many women are young--around 14 years old, they are dependent on their families--and can't make decisions on their own. Also, we have to work secretly because of the high rate of illegal firings and shop closures. We work with the women, teaching them about what a union is, how to participate, what their rights are, and what's different about an independent union. We try to get them to understand that they are the union, that they are the ones that give it its life. If they don't know how to fight for their rights, we can't do the work."

Right now one of the main problems the union faces is that its original organizing tool--securing severance pay--does not increase membership. After receiving their pay from a closing factory, many women drop out of the union. Although the garment workers have attempted several regional organizing campaigns, there are still many places in Mexico, such as along the U.S. border, where they have been rebuffed. At the moment, the union represents fewer than 1 percent of the industry, and less than 1,000 workers are actually covered by collective bargaining contracts. Union leaders fear losing their national registration if they don't have enough shops under contract.

Nonetheless, severance pay remains a large part of the union's work because they have absolutely no control over the high rate of factory closings. There have been approximately 533 factory closings and only 133 openings in Mexico City in the past three years, according to a staff member of Equipo Pueblo, a grassroots organization that works to support peasant and popular movements.

Although they are discovering that credentials and power are two very different things, the garment workers say their previous negative experiences with PRI-affiliated unions have strengthened their resolve to survive against seemingly unbeatable odds.

Hernandez claims, "Independent unions are truly defending workers' rights. Official unions don't get involved. They say, 'Just leave the factory and I'll get you another job.' With independent unions like ours, you'll either get your job back or you'll get your due compensation. The 'charro' (CTM) unions aren't interested in workers' problems--they spend their money elsewhere. We work out of personal interest here, and we're careful about where we spend our money." Noting the CTM's reputation for corruption, Hernandez wryly adds a further difference: "There's no money to be corrupt with in our union."

Indeed, due to a profound lack of funding (each member pays about one U.S. cent a month in union dues), the members of the National Executive committee are sometimes obliged to work fulltime without pay. They prefer that, they say, to losing their independence from the CTM and the government.

Their union offices--several buildings made of corrugated metal in an otherwise empty lot--reflect both the difficulty and the hope that characterize their struggle. Canvas tents have been set up around the perimeter for classes in organizing, and sometimes to house people. The main office is furnished with rickety tables and archaic equipment. It buzzes with activity and the voices of the women and children who gather at different times in the day. Next door, huge, beautiful murals full of political symbolism hang in dedication to their vision.

"In every local, we try to teach people to understand what unionism is in a larger context ... that it's a political struggle," says Cervantes. They have maintained good relationships with several groups in the urban popular movement, especially women's groups. "Whenever there's an assembly," Cervantes adds, "we call for our members to participate. We teach them about other struggles--the teachers, the electrical workers, the telephone workers. Often workers only dedicate themselves to machines, without looking at what is happening outside the factory. We give them information, try to promote their participation. This is a whole different level of organizing."

None of the leaders had any real experience participating in an organization before they created their union, and their political transformation has been profound. Cervantes described it by saying, "We are going through our own political education process. There is much more we need to learn. Sometimes being in the middle of a problem makes us learn things, but there are more systematic problems we need to understand. We need a better political analysis, we need to educate more, to build our movement."

The union understands that women, as wives and mothers, also work a double work day, and they are endeavoring to improve not only their working conditions, but also the quality of their lives. The union has conducted classes in literacy and education. Like their North American sisters, union members are starting the difficult task of addressing issues of wage parity and sexual harassment, and they are reaching out to women in other unions to discuss their shared concerns.

The union runs its own day care center, although it was damaged in the earthquake in May of this year. The center, which survives on donations, has had to cut back its meal program, and is staffed by the workers' family members. As they put it, "it operates from day to day."

This fall, the "19th of September" union hopes to sponsor a union exchange with some of its U.S. counterparts and workers from other independent unions. They want to discuss the need to make women's concerns more prominent in the labor movement, labor issues related to transnational corporations, and how modernization has affected women workers. Several union leaders have already toured the United States, sharing information with their U.S. counterparts in related unions, such as the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, as well as with non-union women's groups. An issue of particular concern to the Mexican workers is the need for worker solidarity across borders. They are disturbed by the charge that they are stealing jobs from U.S. workers and counter it by saying, "This is not something that benefits us. We are being exploited," says Hernandez. "Workers must not be against workers. We need the work, but we must not feel resentment towards each other. We want to help create a more global view. It's not a view of you and a view of us, because the two aren't separate. Bosses everywhere act in their own interests. They will always go where they will make more money."

Solidarity abroad, however, will not guarantee success at home. Organizing an independent union in Mexico is a monumental task. Organizing seamstresses, who work in small, underground shops in the crisis-plagued garment industry, is almost impossible. They face myriad hurdles: plant closings, under-employment and the inability to protect the results of their election victories.

The "19th of September" union was born from the solidarity of a particular crisis. Maintaining unity over time has been difficult. There are political differences, for example. Some of the first people to come to the seamstresses' aid were members of leftist and feminist groups. They were extremely influential in helping the workers analyze their exploitation. The participation of groups with different ideological leanings, however, has caused a number of internal rifts within the leadership. Some of the union's shops are completely divided according to which political group helped to organize them. This dissension within the ranks has weakened the "19th of September's" overall effectiveness in building an independent union.

Inadequate education also threatens the union's survival. Many of the leaders never got beyond the second grade. Their education in the union has focused more on developing a political analysis than learning the basic skills required for the day-to-day operation of the union. This lack of practical skills has hurt them. For example, some of their international funding has been cut because they appear to have no coherent funding strategy.

Whatever happens, the union has already scored many important gains. It is the only union in Mexico in which the majority of the leadership is female, and it has played an important role in Mexico's growing feminist movement.

For the past four years, the union has tried to join the May Day PRI-sponsored workers march into Mexico City's zoccolo (main square) where the presidential palace is located. Independent unions view the march as a forced thanksgiving. Getting to the square during the march is one of their dreams. "The day we get to the zoccolo will be a triumph. They make it seem like [it] is just for the people who are bowed down, who are supposedly going to give thanks to the president. When we go by the president, we're going to protest that our rights as workers are not being respected. We are not going to lose hope."

PhoebeMcKinneyis an international representative for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and a program associate for Mexico-U.S. Dialogos. She was in Mexico City in May 1989.

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