Secret Ballot Denied to Duro Bag Workers across from McAllen, Texas

Tony Abdo aabdo at
Sat Mar 17 04:54:27 MST 2001


                  RIO BRAVO,
TAMAULIPAS (3/12/01) - NAFTA's advocates promised that free trade would
bring a new era of respect for workers rights in all three countries -
the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Especially south of the border, they said,
the treaty's labor side agreement would ensure that workers could vote
freely for the unions of their choice, in clean elections, by secret
                  But last week's
vote at the huge Duro Bag plant in Rio Bravo, just across the river from
Texas, is likely instead to become the symbol of how those promises have
been broken. And with more promises on the horizon, as the Bush
administration pushes for fast track authority to extend NAFTA to
include the whole hemisphere, Duro may even become the poster child for
the treaty's failure to protect workers rights.
                  On the morning of
Friday, March 2, voting began inside the factory, where workers labor
around the clock cutting and gluing chichi paper bags for the U.S. gift
market. On the ballot were two unions - the independent union organized
by rank-and-file workers over the last year, and the Revolutionary
Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC). a union affiliated to
Mexico's former ruling party, with close ties to its government,
                  The stage was set
the day before, when observers outside the plant watched automatic
weapons unloaded from a car and carried in through the plant gate. Then,
as Friday morning approached, workers from the swing and grave shifts
were prevented from going home as their shifts ended. Instead, they were
held in an area behind doors blocked with metal sheets and the huge
rolls of paper used to feed machines on the line. A few observers from
the independent union, the Union of Duro Bag Workers, reported later
that they could hear cries of "Let us out!" until company managers began
playing music at deafening volume on the plant speaker system.
                  Then, observers
report, groups of workers from the day shift were taken in small groups
into the room inside the factory where voting was taking place. They
were escorted by CROC organizers, who handed them blue slips of paper on
which the union's local number was printed. At the voting table,
representatives of Mexico's national labor board asked each voter to
declare aloud her or his choice between the independent union and the
CROC. Both company foremen and government-affiliated union
representatives wrote notes as the voting took place.
                  In the end, only
502 workers voted out of a workforce the company says numbers over 1400.
And of them, only four workers openly declared their support for the
independent union, while 498 voted for the CROC.
                  "While the Duro
election is clearly a tragic defeat for the workers and their efforts to
win better wages and conditions," said Robin Alexander, director of
international relations for the U.S.-based United Electrical Workers,
which supported the independent union, "I hope the violations here were
so blatant that they'll serve as a wake-up call."
                  Workers at Duro
have a long history of agitating for better wages and conditions, which
led to their effort to form an independent union. According to Eliud
Almaguer, a fired rank-and-file leader, many people lost fingers in
machinery because of fast production and little protection. Duro's
vice-president of manufacturing, Bill Forstrom, says wages start at 60
pesos a day (about six dollars). A gallon of milk in a local supermarket
costs 20 pesos - a third of a day's work. Another fired Duro worker,
Consuelo Moreno, relates that, "my daughter had to drop out of school
this year, because we didn't have the money for her to continue."
                  The Duro Bag
Manufacturing Corporation, based in Ludlow, Kentucky, also operates
seven U.S. plants, and belongs to the family of CEO Charles Shor. For
years, it's had 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. With a protection contract, the
company paid CTM union leaders to guarantee labor peace.
                  Two years ago, the
workers in the Duro plant decided to actually change that contract, and
elect union leaders, including Almaguer, dedicated to enforcing it. That
effort led to his firing in October, 1999, and a work stoppage last
April, when a further 150 workers were terminated. The CTM then signed a
new agreement with Duro, with none of the higher wages and increased
safety demands the workers were seeking. They began organizing an
independent union in response.
                  When the election
finally took place, none of the fired workers were allowed into the
plant to vote. The CTM, which had grown increasingly unpopular, withdrew
from the process the morning of the election, and was replaced by the
CROC. Many workers didn't even know the name of the union they were told
to vote for, independent union observers allege.
                  Throughout the
past year, however, Duro workers have had help from the north, organized
by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, based in San Antonio,
Texas, a group of unions, churches and community organizations in the
U.S., Mexico and Canada.   Help also came from Mexico's new
independent labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), based
in Mexico City. Last summer they pressured the governor of Tamaulipas
state, where the plant is located, into granting the independent union
legal status.
                  U.S. support was
particularly controversial, leading to charges by Mexican employers and
the government-affiliated unions that U.S. unions were trying to chase
the company's work back into its U.S. plants. Rick de la Cruz, a
vice-president of Local 6-314 of the U.S. Paper, Atomic, Chemical and
Energy Workers (which represents three Duro plants in the U.S.), visited
Mexico with fellow unionists from his Texas plant to support the
independent union. He thinks the charges are ridiculous. "If that work
leaves Mexico, it's not coming back to the U.S. - it's going somewhere
workers have even fewer rights," he says. "'We just think everyone
should have human rights, and not just in Mexico - in the U.S. too."
                  Duro's V.P.
Forstrom admits that the company only keeps automated operations remain
north of the border, while its labor intensive operations are
concentrated in Rio Bravo. "We're in Mexico to take advantage of
inexpensive labor," he says. And in reaction to a protest outside Duro's
Kentucky headquarters just prior to the election, company managers
refused to allow the president of the PACE local at its Ludlow plant,
Dave Klontz, to travel to Rio Bravo as an observer.
                  Border employers
watching the Duro fight also feel threatened. Duro is just one of 3,450
foreign-owned factories, employing over 1.2 million Mexican workers,
according to the National Association of Maquiladoras. If more of these
workers run their own unions, negotiate their own contracts, and raise
wages, it will be very costly to the foreign corporations operating
                  The company's
legal battle was handled by attorneys from the Mexican employers'
association, COPARMEX, the equivalent of the U.S. National Association
of Manufacturers. Those ties now reach up to the top level of the
administration of Mexico's new president Vicente Fox -- Labor Secretary
Abascal was formerly COPARMEX chief.
                  When the
independent union at Duro presented its petition for the election to
Abascal, it requested it be held on neutral ground with a secret ballot.
Abascal denied the request, and the federal labor board, under his
control, went on to administer the balloting in Rio Bravo. That decision
to force workers to cast their votes in front of company managers,
inside the plant, violated an agreement negotiated between his
predecessor, Mariano Palacios Alcocer, and former U.S. Labor Secretary
Alexis Herman. The agreement grew out of two celebrated cases filed
under the NAFTA labor side-agreement -- at the Han Young plant in
Tijuana, and the ITAPSA plant in Mexico City. Abascal's decision to
ignore it is one more rent in NAFTA's already-tattered credibility.
                  Since the treaty
went into effect in January, 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed
under the labor side-agreement. Almost all have charged that Mexico does
not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the right to form unions of their
choice, and to strike effectively when they do. A few have been filed
against the U.S., charging a similar unwillingness to enforce workers'
                  No remedies have
ever been imposed which would have required rehiring a single fired
worker, nor has a single independent union been able to negotiate a
contract, as a result of any ruling in a case under the treaty. In
Tijuana last June, independent unionists in its most publicized case -
the strike at the Han Young factory - were even beaten and expelled from
a public meeting to discuss workers' rights, called by the Mexican labor
                  U.S. officials
present at the time made no public protest over the violence and
expulsions. But they did, however, boast about one outcome of the Han
Young case. According to Lewis Karesh, deputy secretary at DoL under
Herman, and head of the office which hears NAFTA complaints, the Mexican
government promised that workers would be able to choose the union to
represent them by secret ballot.
                  Duro was the first
real test of that agreement, and despite protests from the U.S. Labor
Department, Abascal refused to abide by it. "The Duro election strips
away any idea that the NAFTA process can protect workers rights. The
sideagreement is bankrupt," declared Martha Ojeda, director of the
Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.
                  "It shows that for
both the U.S. and Mexican governments, when the chips are down, their
interest in promoting investment and free trade clearly outweighs any
commitments they make about labor rights," Alexander added. "Workers in
the U.S. can't expect they'll be able to maintain decent standards here
if a company like Duro can go across the river and violate the rights of
workers in the interest of paying low wages."
                  Mexico's new
national government, which took office December 1st, faced one of the
most important tests of its commitment to democracy in Rio Bravo. But
events at Duro throw doubt on President Vicente Fox's claims he intends
to be more democratic then his predecessors. Labor activists on the
border, in fact, see the denial of a secret ballot as consistent with
the pro-business policies of his National Action Party. In states like
Baja California, where the PAN has been in power for a decade, the party
has fought efforts to organize independent unions. Strikes like that at
Han Young have been broken and court orders ignored in that effort,
leading to criticism that PAN policies undermine the rule of law itself.
                  But the Duro vote
also calls into question claims that treaties like NAFTA provide any
mechanism for protecting workers rights against low wage policies
designed to encourage investment.
                  The Clinton
administration argued that free trade agreements could protect workers
rights while boosting profits for large corporations, and pointed to
NAFTA's labor side agreement as proof of its claim. Now the Bush
administration and free trade supporters in Congress are expected to
make similar arguments, as they seek approval to extend NAFTA to cover
all of Latin America.
                  "Institutions like
NAFTA and the WTO will never operate in workers' interests," Alexander
responds. "What's needed is an independent institution on an

duro workers in mexico to meet with subcomandante marcos
Duro Workers in Mexico to Meet with
Sub comandante Marcos

Struggle of EZLN and maquila workers both a response to NAFTA Contact:
Martha Ojeda: 210 240 1084, 732 9857

Workers from Duro Bag Manufacturing in Rio Bravo, Mexico will travel to
Mexico City to meet with Sub Comandante Marcos of the Zapatista National
Liberation Army, EZLN, on Thursday, March 15, at 2:00PM, at The National
School of Anthropology and History auditorium.

The workers, members of the Independent Union of Duro Workers, will link
their struggle with that of the Zapatistas, who recently concluded a
march from the jungles of Chiapas to Mexico City.

The Zapatistas, who took up arms on January 1st, 1994, when NAFTA was
implemented, have called the North American trade agreement a
death-knell for indigenous people, and have demanded greater autonomy
and an end to the exploitation of the indigenous people of Mexico

The workers at Duro have struggled to improve the lives of maquila
by forming the Independent Union of Maquila Workers. After eight months
of struggle, including a strike, lock-out, and hundreds of firings and
beatings, the workers finally won the right to a union election last
week. But with a twist. Workers were required to walk through a gauntlet
of over 100 pro-company thugs and declare out loud their choice for a
union. Not surprisingly, the independent union lost. The Fox
administration did nothing to ensure a secret ballot election, despite a
ministerial agreement with the United States to do so.

The thugs were paid by the CROC, the PRI-affiliated union friendly to
corporate interests that won the election. The day prior to the
election, the thugs were seen unloading automatic weapons into the Duro

Duro produces bags for Hallmark and Neiman Marcus, and is reputed as
having the worst labor conditions in the maquiladoras. Employment in the
maquiladoras, known for their long hours, low pay, and unsafe working
conditions, has doubled to over one million as a result of NAFTA.

The collusion between Duro and the Fox administration to deny workers in
Mexico their most basic labor rights, is reminiscent of the secret memo
Chase Manhattan Bank sent to the Mexican government in 1994 that called
for the use of overwhelming force to crush the Zapatista uprising. In
both cases, business and Government were concerned with ensuring a
favorable climate for foreign investment.

Sub comandante Marcos and other Zapatista commanders marched to Mexico

City last week to meet with the Mexican Congress and achieve a just
resolution to the conflict in Chiapas. The Zapatistas were met by over
100,000 supportes in Mexico's central square. The meeting with Sub
comandante Marcos will link the struggle of the EZLN to that of
maquiladora workers in the North of Mexico.

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