Which Side Of The Border Are You On? Well, Both

Ofelia Medrano, 22, stands under a blazing sun outside a Honeywell Inc. plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, handing out flyers to workers heading home. She has toiled in factories since she was 14, but five months ago she was discharged--along with 20 fellow employees. Honeywell says most of the dismissals were the result of work transfers. But the employees and the U.S. unions that back them charge they were punished for trying to organize a union at the maquiladora, where 493 workers earn an average of $1 an hour making thermostats and other products.

Medrano is the only one of the group who refused severance pay and is demanding reinstatement in her job. But she's not going hungry. She is earning the peso equivalent of $258 a month as a union organizer, thanks to donations from American members of the Teamsters and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), and from U.S. nonunion support groups. "We're determined to get a union here," says Medrano, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the UE name.

What Medrano represents is a growing network of ties between U.S. and Canadian labor unions and Mexican workers whose low wages and miserable working conditions were a rallying point for opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement. "As companies become global, unions must become global," says Jeff Hermanson, organizing director of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, which is giving help to Mexican unions. "We are late starting, but we are going to put a lot of effort into this area."

If the organizing help leads to pay gains for Mexican workers, the narrowing wage gap could slow the exodus of U.S. jobs to Mexico. Ironically, U.S. unions, militantly anti-NAFTA, now are using the law to help their cross-border campaigns. The Teamsters have filed a complaint against Honeywell with the National Administrative Office, set up by the U.S. Labor Dept. to help implement the labor pact. And the UE has filed one against General Electric Co., which makes electric motors at a factory employing 950 workers in Ciudad Ju rez. The unions charge that Honeywell and GE are violating labor rights, including firing workers for organizing activity.

FIRED FOR CAUSE. The right to organize, argues the UE, is endorsed by the NAFTA side accord and is protected by Mexican law. But in practice, Mexico's government, with close ties to the official Mexican Workers' Confederation (CTM), uses its powers to block independent unions, says the UE. In the cases of three discharged workers, GE says, settlements have been approved by the Ju rez Labor Conciliation Board, an official dispute-settlement office. At Hmneywell, Priscilla Wardlow, vice-president of manufacturing for building controls, says Medrano was fired for cause. "She was bothering other workers and being disruptive," says Wardlow.

In any case, there's only so much U.S. unions can do for Mexican workers under the NAFTA labor pact. It provides for a council made up of the U.S. and Mexican Labor Secretaries and Canada's Labor Minister, a 15-member secretariat to be located in Dallas, and National Administrative Offices in each country. But this apparatus will have only limited powers to influence labor conditions in the three countries.

Nevertheless, U.S. labor unions clearly hope to breathe life into the Administrative Office's powers to investigate complaints and hold public hearings. Such attention could help deter U.S. companies from further crackdowns on union activists and also put political pressure on the Mexican government to protect labor rights.

What launched the border drive was an alliance formed two years ago by the UE with the Authentic Workers Front (FAT), a small independent union. The UE supplied FAT with a list of U.S. companies where the UE had locals and other information, as well as financial aid. It also promised "solidarity in case of repression," says Amy R. Newell, UE general secretary treasurer.

Other U.S. unions are pursuing different strategies. The ILGWU helped set up the Coalition for Justice in Maquiladoras, which includes environmental, religious, and community groups. One target has been health and safety conditions at Zenith Electronics Corp.'s border plants. But the ILGWU also pursues lower-profile efforts in the garment industry, where many U.S. companies operate through small contractors abroad. Says Hermanson: "We often follow the work from U.S. companies into Mexico and talk with workers about organizing."

TOP WAGES. In the UE's border campaign, the union-company confrontation has been ratcheting up since last fall. Robert Valerio, 31, an 11-year veteran at the GE plant earning near-top wages of $14 a day, says he was fired with 29 others who attended a meeting on forming a union. "Every single person who attended was laid off," Valerio says. Co-worker Fernando Castro, 27, says he was fired after talking with a U.S. public television crew during a visit by a delegation from UE locals in California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Sitting under a poster that says "Unionism Without Borders," Castro says the Mexican workers convinced the visitors they don't want Americans' jobs, just better wages and more rights. "We can get that under NAFTA if we cooperate." Whether that is so will soon be tested.

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