Han Young workers fight on
by David Bacon Workers at the Han Young plant, in Tijuana, which contracts the production of truck chassis for the huge Hyundai Corporation, have been on strike for over a year. Their union wants to raise maquiladora wages from the present 50-60 pesos daily average to 100 pesos. The Han Young plant is a maquiladora, an assembly-for-export plant built with foreign investment. The strike is the first in the history of the maquiladoras. According to University of California professor Harley Shaiken, "the Mexican government has created an investment climate which depends on a vast number of low wage-earners". The key to maintaining these low wages is a system of company-friendly unions, encouraged by the government, which sign labour contracts criticised by Mexican labour activists as "protection agreements". Workers often don't even know they have a union, since there are no meetings, and union officials do little to defend workers on the job. "The government basically uses these labour federations to get votes during elections", says labour lawyer Jesus Campos Linas. "Companies make hefty regular payments to union leaders under these contracts, and in return get labour peace." Two years ago, the Han Young workers challenged this system. They organised an independent union, and began industrial action. Pedro Martinez, director of the state chapter of the Mexican Employers Council (COPARMEX), and Jose Calleros Rivera, head of the Maquiladora Industry Association, call the present strike "a threat to investment all along the border". They warn that independent unions could spread to other factories on the border in the wake of a victory at Han Young. For over a year, city and state police, under the control of pro-investment government authorities, have tried continuously to suppress the strike and arrest its leaders. Courts have held those efforts violate the law. On April 6, the First Collegial Court of the Fifteenth District, the highest judicial authority in Baja California Norte, ruled that those actions were illegal. "The justice system of the republic protects [the independent union] against acts of the authorities", the court said, granting the strike legal status. Yet repression against the strike and its leaders continues as though the courts have no authority. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its side-agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation have also had no effect in protecting workers' rights. Hearings on complaints under the Agreement have consistently found that Mexican labour law is not being enforced along the border. The government allows violations of normal legal procedures by the Tijuana labour board, intended to deny the independent union the right to represent the Han Young workers. Occupational safety and health laws aren't being enforced either. In the last year, proposals have been made by the Mexican government, as well as the more conservative National Action Party that rules Tijuana and Baja California, that Mexican worker protection law be weakened even further. US Congressman David Bonior, a Republican from Michigan, said recently that the Han Young case "shows it's virtually impossible to form independent unions in the maquiladora border area in Mexico. We need to fix NAFTA so that workers in the US, Mexico and Canada are protected as much as intellectual property rights."
* * *People's Weekly World, paper of Communist Party, USA