By Patricia Rodríguez
The times we live in are desolate, especially for low income workers and communities throughout Central America, Mexico, the U.S., and globally. Visiting the border region along the Mexican towns of Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña and talking to the women workers (obreras) and seeing the humanitarian crisis brewing in packed shelters in the area, the links between border imperialism, economic, labor and immigration policies, and the growing need for cross-borders grassroots solidarity efforts become crystal clear.
Maquilas, or manufacturing plants that import and assemble (at low labor cost) duty-free products for export, dominate border economies: there are no less than 36 maquiladoras in Piedras Negras and another 60 in Ciudad Acuña, a town about 56 miles west along the border. Labor violations abound in these export processing companies. Wage losses, deteriorating working conditions, constant discrimination and abuse, and firings at the whim of maquila managers are common for obreras. Nowadays, with large numbers of Central American migrants stuck in border areas as they travel north for survival, managers often daunt the obreras with the threat of job loss, because ‘they tell us Central American migrants they are now hiring work harder than us.’ (1) A similar dynamics plagues poor urban centers and free trade zones throughout Central America. The problems are at the root of forced migration.
Most of the maquilas in this border region have existed in previous iterations as some other company, such that it is hard anymore to recognize any big corporate names. For instance, PKC, now a Finish-owned automotive wire harness plant with around 10,000 workers, used to be Pittsburgh-based ALCOA. PKC works mostly with the Confederación de Trabajadores de Mexico (CTM) union, which seems to act simply as a corrupt arm of the corporation. CTM dominates the political/labor realm, leaving few options for workers who want to be better represented by their own unions. When workers have tried, even as recently as November 2018, to vote to break off and be represented by another union (Miners’ Union), the ballot boxes were destroyed violently, and pro-Miners’ Union workers fired.
The chain of command for such dominant power dynamics in border regions starts at the level of the governments and multinational corporations that enable such systemic economic (and racialized) hierarchies, labor and increasingly, also environmental abuses. The maquilas in this region seemingly work with one another to impede autonomous unionizing and to weaken workers. Today, you can see the boom in construction of workers’ subsidized homes in areas surrounding the maquila sectors. But the houses are tiny, and obreras will pay for this for years via paycheck deductions. The border region also has become a free-for-all haven for companies such as Constellation Brands (beer) and Coca Cola which dry up the water sources of the region, and for fracking companies that contaminate aqueducts, for private benefit. (2)
There is incredible labor and human rights work being done by women workers themselves in Mexico. For instance, the Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s has a mission to improve the situation in the maquilas, and the quality of life of workers and their families. Women work to educate, organize, and empower other workers along the Mexico-U.S. border, and they do so by challenging this system at many levels. One of the most important components of CFO’s grassroots work pertains to empowerment around violence against women, at work, at home, and in the community.
CFO also devotes time and attention to transnational solidarity building with groups such as Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, the American Friends Service Committee and others. Change can only happen with shared visions of what needs to change systemically. Changes in Mexican Labor Law inspire some cautious hope. Workers recently saw their salaries doubled at some of the maquilas, and the sales tax in the region has dropped from 16% to 8%. But often these gains are offset by cuts in bonuses, and health and other benefits.
When I asked one of the women of CFO, what would be the optimal macro-level approach to improved conditions, the answer was firm: “we need to develop our own industry.(3) ” Environmental activists say similarly that the defense of water, of prime resources, can only happen strongly in these border regions when communities band together, though this is rare because of the level of cooptation and bribery by local officials and others. Five years ago, several border communities battled to keep out a nuclear waste company.
There are possibilities for organized and displaced workers who live in border regions, who mostly come from many places in Mexico and Central America. But cross-border awareness and effective solidarity need to be an increasing part of this.
(1) Interview with L.M. March 2020
(2)Interview with J.P. March 2020.
(3)Interview with J.L. March 2019.