Of Woman Born: Courage…

by Elvia Rosales Arriola

As 27-year old María Elena García Sierra pulled off her white sock to show me the places on her feet where she suffered a recurring infection that began when she was 17, I struggled to contain my horror as I fumbled with a video camera to look at the scars. Pointing to the affected areas, she continued with her personal history as a maquiladora worker, beginning with the first job she got at the age of 15 with Hamill de Mexico (now TRW) and that ended two years later because of the infection.

“I can never wear open shoes and in hot weather I must have on cotton socks to prevent the humidity from encouraging the fungus to reappear,” she said. She pointed to dark scarred tissue mostly on the upper side of her feet, old scratch marks and evidence of once-ruptured skin, and what she referred to as the signs from a year-long period when her feet had first developed an unexplainable fungus and infection that had broken and rotted the skin so badly “that my own brothers and sisters would tell me to stay away from them because of the awful smell.”

The doctors concluded that the condition was so bad that if she did not find a remedy and did not stop working in the environment that had obviously contributed to the infection that she would lose her feet to gangrene. Her mother told her, “although I appreciate the help from your working I don’t want you to lose your feet.” So María Elena quit her job at Hamill, where for two years she had assembled the locking mechanism for thousands of automobile seatbelts. During that time she had been exposed to fine dust particles that not only covered her arms, hands and exposed upper feet but that also caused this mysterious condition that to this date, she claims, has no known permanent cure. Only after months of home remedies and rest was she able to bring the infection under control. She moved on to another factory about a year later.

I got very sad hearing María Elena’s story, not only because of her health problem, but also because I knew it to be just one of thousands of such cases that illustrate how the general health of Mexican maquiladora workers has suffered due to the proliferation of the assembly plants under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). My deeper sadness connected her story to the fact that government and trade officials, including members of the Bush Administration, are currently trying to implement as quickly as possible the Free Trade Area Agreement (FTAA), an ambitious global corporate project intended to extend the free-trade policies of NAFTA into the economies of 34 countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“There is Only Maquiladora Work Here”

María Elena and I sat across from each other in a dingy hotel room I had rented in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which is across the border from McAllen, Texas. I had traveled with friend and colleague Judy Rosenberg to learn more from María Elena and Verónica Quiroz, both activists for the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), about how workers were managing their health and labor problems at large Reynosa employers like Delphi Electronics and TRW. Later we were joined by Atanacio Martínez, a CFO volunteer from nearby Río Bravo, the site of recent violent confrontations between management and workers and host to an internationally publicized union election where fear and intimidation tactics had been used to crush the vote for an independent union.

María Elena’s dark eyes flashed intensely with a mixed look of anger and enthusiasm as she remarked on the need for workers to unite: “the only form of work here is maquiladora work… for those of us without a better education… who are so many, really the majority… If we don’t struggle to achieve a little more, a little better treatment, they will always treat us as nothing but ‘mediocres.’ That is how a CTM representative recently referred to us in a meeting with the workers….’mediocre people’ ‘You mediocre people fight and you don’t know what you are fighting for.'” “He especially says that in reference to our acquiring support in our labor struggles from our US allies,” María Elena said.

I could feel her passion for justice and was only a bit surprised to discover that her introduction to the struggle for justice in the Maquiladoras had begun when she was only 12. “I came to this work because at a very young age my own mother, Virginia Sierra, had to go on strike against her employer, the Zenith company, a producer of TVs and radios. I was about 12 and I remember helping to cook food and bring it to the women who were striking against Zenith.” She remarked more than once that such experiences undoubtedly influenced her in becoming so outspoken against injustice today.

In each session with the three women I was able to interview that weekend, María Elena, Verónica and Sofía Rosales, I felt a deep sense of admiration for the strength I witnessed as each one told me a little more about herself and how she had come to work in the industry, or moved to the border, or had supported herself and her family members. I am always amazed at the facts that sometimes spill forth in answer to my questions about the kinds of materials the women have worked around or the conditions for work in the factories. Sometimes I cannot contain my shock and judgmental reaction.

As I continued with María Elena’s work history I soon learned about the detailed list of chemicals she remembered using in her seven years of work at Delnosa (now Delphi). For protection? “We were given common, yellow household gloves. At one time or another I worked with industrial alcohol, toluene, freon, formaldehyde, lead (from soldering), oil-based paints, laser rays and ultraviolet light. My nose had a constant allergic dripping.” She did not mention any long-term effects on herself and was grateful that nothing serious appeared in her only child’s birth. But then she went into great details about the discovery of lead poisoning in her sister’s lungs, who had worked in soldering at a different Delnosa plant, “I remember it well because I was pregnant at the time and I took her to the hospital for tests… I also remember that she had to take a radioactive pill for one year in order to remove the spot from her lungs.”

I could not help but think that in return for miserly wages that average US$25 to US$35 per week and barely support their families and children, the kinds of wages that are promised as a boon to economic growth and development under NAFTA or the forthcoming FTAA, that women like María Elena and her sister, or her mother, have all paid a higher price with their health and prognosis for a long life by going into the only work available to them–in the maquiladora. At the Mexican border today, there are over one million people working in the maquiladora industries, but the appeal of free trade has nurtured their development far beyond the US-Mexico border and into regions like Yucatán. While NAFTA’s policies promised increased prosperity in all three signing countries, the reality is that many stockholders prospered indeed, while many more workers have seen the absolute opposite. Trade liberalization translated into working conditions that for women brought the horrors of routinized forms of sexual harassment and physical abuse, violence, mandatory pregnancy testing and denial of the basic human right to organize collectively in order to demand better wages and treatment.

A few months ago an historic complaint against two maquilas in the Matamoras/Brownsville region was filed by a few dozen workers before the National Administration Office charging extreme examples of medical injuries that can be traced to working in the maquilas without adequate safety gear. So as I continue to collect stories like María Elena’s that illustrate the breadth of the problem, I am nagged by a moral question–what have we wrought in the name of economic development and global corporate expansionism? How often is the question of the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters in the global family ever included in the contemporary talk of the “global village?”

Women, Men and Union Leadership

Because she is an activist for the CFO, María Elena’s attention was intensely focused in our meeting on the problems for Reynosa workers at Delphi Electronics where her husband Juan works. Workers at his plant had been trying to get new union representatives installed and were also very concerned about the exposure of workers to lead poisoning found in so many factory operations. She had spent the weekend preparing a letter with Verónica Quiroz that they planned to deliver via Juan’s efforts to the shop union delegate.

Listening to María Elena, I reflected silently on the personality differences between these young women who have lived lifetimes of experience in their short lives. Outwardly María Elena seemed very shy, while Verónica was more outgoing and a “take control” kind of person. Verónica, who had actually been organizing longer than María Elena, had also worked from the time she was 15 and had supported several members of her family on her meager income. At 27 years of age, Verónica almost has a steeliness about her that no doubt symbolized a life of hard work and little time to play. She is also extremely witty and obviously intelligent.

One of the most emotional moments in my interview with Verónica focused on the times when the money from her first job bought the land upon which she built, literally with her own hands and her grandfather’s help, the home her mother lives in today. This is no small task, as the customary materials for building in Mexico involve huge cement blocks and mortar. Verónica stands tall at about 5 ft. 3 inches so as she recounted that period of her life I was in sheer awe of the human capacity for survival and her felt need, be it typically maternal, feminine or cultural, to take care of her family. With that, and so many other of her personal experiences that were marked by pain, loss and struggle, I understood how Verónica could switch in a flash of a moment from looking like an aged woman, at 27, to wearing the achingly sweet smile of a little girl. It seemed psychologically obvious that humor and control have become a part of Verónica’s way of coping in the world and tools in her organizing kit.
Describing their battle from a distance with the Delphi union delegate, María Elena and Verónica shared with me their strategies for getting a union assembly to help the Delphi workers. The situation appeared to pit the minds of women against the brute power of men as they explained a letter they had written that made reference to the delegate’s boasts about his abilities. It was hoped that by complimenting the man’s strength he might use his powers to rehire an unjustly-fired, popular female co-worker that the employees wanted to have as their shop union delegate.

María Elena and Verónica also used humor to make creative inroads into workers’ resistance to fighting for change. I have a flier that was given to me by Verónica who worked with María Elena to draft its cartoon and message. They later channeled it to Delphi workers through the surreptitious efforts of María Elena’s husband. Workers were being asked to re-think where in fact their mandatory union fees were going when they were clearly not making it on the average $400 pesos per week paid in the Reynosa Maquiladoras (about US$38). The caricature depicted a union steward shouldering a huge bag full of money–derived from the dues paid by workers and used only to create a non-responsive, lazy, management-allied entity that filled its own pockets as an institutionalized thief.

Workers Teach Each Other

Some of the most bitter conflicts at Delphi have centered on the unyielding power of the existing union leadership which sided with investor interests to prevent workers from obtaining living wages and meeting their demands for better health and safety protections in the workplace. María Elena and Verónica both spoke about the simplicity of their message to the workers which is that people should work together for their common interests. However, they also encountered difficulties in getting their message across to workers who are exhausted from the typically long workdays and weeks and especially timid about rocking the boat and threatening their job security.

Now and then a worker referred to me for an interview by the CFO surprises me with her answers, like 30-year old Sofía Rosales. Of Mayan descent and standing beautifully at about 4 foot 6 inches tall, Sofía says she has never had a problem talking back to supervisors about unfair treatment. Because she was a fast worker at TRW Sofía frequently found herself having met the quota earlier in the day than other workers and would have time to sit. “They put me to mop the whole factory and one time I got hurt, by having my IUD dislodged, because the door and the equipment were too big for me to hold open so I could throw the water out. After that I would not let them give me those assignments . . . and I would ask for a pass to leave. I got along pretty well with the supervisors, but they are very very negligent about training the workers and it doesn’t take much before a worker has hurt herself, or cut a finger or whatever. I was lucky to have only one bad experience that healed easily.”
On the whole, however, popular education among the workers is a task of patience and love engaged in by the CFO volunteers for the eventual outcome of a workers’ united front against the entrenched company and/or union power. Of course, the work María Elena and Verónica were having to accomplish at Delphi by distributing their fliers and helping the workers to invoke a union assembly barely hints at the conflicts that can arise in a Mexican border town where old and established union-management alliances are unable or unwilling to bring about improvements in the lives of Maquila workers and their families.

Oppression in Río Bravo

The situation in Río Bravo, about 12 miles east of Reynosa, at the Duro Bag Company where shopping and gift bags are assembled and exported to the US for companies such as Hallmark, illustrates well the bitterness that can develop when union and company interests merge. Since June 2000 hundreds of the mostly female workers have been trying to form an independent union but the conflict has become intensely violent. So much so as to evoke questions about the strategies used or about the nature of the opposition towards independent unions. It is as if the industry, one that has historically preferred young females as workers on the basis of the stereotyped belief that they’ll be more submissive and easier to control, cannot fathom a collective voice of hundreds of women saying “no!” to the male supremacy found in the maquiladora and union leadership. Could misogyny, the hatred of women, explain the depth of the violence evoked in response to the creation of an independent union in Río Bravo?

When a few women representing the Duro workers on strike traveled north last summer with the aid of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) to give their testimony in Texas and Kentucky, they spoke of an awesome power of over a hundred women, many of them single mothers and grandmothers, to endure not only betrayal by their supposed union leaders in the form of hazardous workspaces and slave wages, but also of an equally strong opposition, so hateful as to have resulted in the beatings of pregnant and disabled workers who joined in the wildcat strike in June 2000. Meanwhile the existing leadership displayed all of its economic and political power by calling in the local police and the Mexican military to intimidate the workers that by now were officially fired from their jobs. In the fall, the home of a principal organizer was torched and burned down, while a flyer calling the workers together to protest working conditions, was found mysteriously untouched by the “accidental” fire in the middle of the remaining debris.

Finally, on March 1st, 2001, the workers’ ten-month long struggle to achieve independent union representation produced a union election, but it was an undemocratic one. The forces once again displayed their combined economic and political strength. Workers reported having their campaign literature torn down and destroyed. International observers of the election were stopped at the gate and could not witness the election process. They also saw weapons being unloaded from the back of a car and taken into the maquiladora. This they believed was another attempt at intimidating the workers. The sham election produced a “winner” of a union with a new name but the same old sorts of figureheads.

Feminist Organizing?

The adequacy of the representation of maquila workers throughout the industry is obviously mixed. I have now visited three cities along the US-Mexico border and each has a different story to tell about its failures and successes in bringing about fairer pay or more reasonable working conditions in the maquilas. While at the Duro Bag Company it is clear that the economic superiority of the company overcame the workers, in Reynosa continued activism to empower the workers at Delphi recently produced optimistic success. The losses at Duro in a community so close to Reynosa, but with no clear alliances with the CFO, did not prevent people like María Elena or Veronica from supporting workers in the ways they have learned. They pass on their experience by teaching workers their rights under the Federal Labor Law and showing them how to initiate grievances, how to speak up against supervisor conduct that is in flagrant violation of the law and how to invoke entitlements to medical treatment and disability pay in Mexico’s socialized system of benefits for work-related injuries.
The CFO is explicit about its organizing principles which is to always return to the voice, cause and interest of the workers. It means not making a move until there is clear support by almost all workers. It means teaching workers the importance of struggling together for a cause or not at all. The CFO methods seemingly work because a premium is placed on organizing safely, by meeting people where they are, whether in their fear of talking about their needs as workers or their fear of meeting at or near the workplace to complain about work issues. Thus home meetings are important and creating friendships are too, as are establishing alliances with people in Mexico and abroad, who will not just provide physical support, but who will provide emotional support for the tough times. As an outside observer I have found the group to have a strong feminist appeal in its valuing of relationships over hierarchical structures of power as the basis for developing worker courage and strength to overcome the enemy.

It is risky work, however, for as María Elena noted, the population of the maquiladoras is comprised of so many people who are largely uneducated and at the mercy of finding work only in the maquilas. In the border area, the only other viable employment for women without an education ends up being domestic service. And so, disdain for the uneducated worker class and an undercurrent of misogyny for the rise of a predominately female worker class seemingly intersect in the expressed attitudes of the existing union leaders to the appeal for more fair representation: “There you go again, you bunch of mediocres…you go and you fight and you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.'” Of course, they do know what they are getting into. As Maria Elena says, “this is hard work fighting against labor injustice, but it is good work. I have to make sacrifices when I am doing the work, especially when there are meetings at all hours and I need my mother’s help in the care of my little girl. But I also like it a lot. I may appear very quiet, but when I’m ready to speak up I will.”

Despite the situation at Duro, María Elena obviously continued to do her own work with many other CFO volunteers to empower the workers at Delphi, who on March 18th, held an election at the Delphi Electronics plant and overwhelmingly supplanted their existing union representatives with ones of their own choosing. Throughout the election campaign the workers were advised by the CFO. It is a victory for the workers and a victory for the courage and the strength of women like María Elena and Verónica to continue challenging the impact of trade liberalization policies that harm the general welfare of Mexican families and strain women’s ability to care for themselves and their loved ones.


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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