By ALAN BENJAMIN
(reprinted from the The Organizer Newspaper)
On Monday, May 18, more than a dozen Mexican and U.S. media outlets sent reporters to cover the BINATIONAL LABOR PRESS CONFERENCE: “Opening ‘Non-Essential’ Industries Puts Lives at Risk.”
The press release — which was sent out by the Sacramento chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (AFL-CIO) — invited the media to hear statements from unionists and activists from across Mexico and the United States in opposition to the decision by the CEOs of U.S. transnational corporations to re-open on May 18 their factories in Mexico — in particular the GM plant in Silao, Guanajuato.
Speakers denounced the plant re-openings, explaining in detail how this decision put the lives of workers at risk. This decision, moreover, is in violation of the Mexican federal directives of March 24 and 30 demanding that all “non-essential” plants, including the export-oriented maquiladoras, remain closed because of the pandemic.
Articles on the press conference were published in print and online by the following media outlets: Reuters, Reforma, El Sol de Tijuana, El Sol de Leon, El Sol de Irapuato, animalpolitico.com, elotroenfoque.com, zonafranca.mx, periodicocorreo.com, zetatijuana.com, Transición, The Organizer newspaper, Trabajo de la Izquierda, Boletín del SNITIS, and Labor Video Project.
The press conference was co-chaired by Fátima García (Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, AFL-CIO, Sacramento chapter) and Liliana Plumeda (Organization of the Workers and People / OPT, Mexicali, Baja California), on behalf of the Organizing Committee of the Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0 and the Wall of Shame, For Labor Rights for All.
- Israel Cervantes and María Guadalupe Ibarra, spokespersons for Generando Movimiento [Generating Movement] at the General Motors plant, Silao, Gto., Mexico;
- Travis Watkins, bargaining chair, UAW Local 167 at GM in Grand Rapids, Michigan (fired for speaking out against unsafe conditions in the plant);
- Carlos Gabriel, a worker at Tesla and community activist in Fremont, California;
- Javier Gonzalez, a maquiladora industry worker at Cali-Baja in Mexicali, Baja California (fired after contracting COVID-19);
- Jesus Rogelio Casillas, representative, Organization of Workers and People (OPT) in Mexicali, Baja California;
- onifacio Cruz Martinez, representative of the Alianza de Organizaciones Sociales, promoting the independent farm workers’ struggle in San Quintin, Baja California;
- Steve Zeltzer, Workers Solidarity Action Network, San Francisco, California; and
- Alan Benjamin, Editorial Bd., The Organizer Newspaper and member of the Organizing Committee of the Binational Conference against NAFTA 2.0, San Francisco, Calif.
Also answering questions from reporters during the Q&A session were Al Rojas, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union and vice president of Sacramento LCLAA, and Luis Carlos Haro, OPT, Tijuana, Baja California.
Below we reprint (translated into English) excerpts from a few of the articles that were published following the press conference. These are interspersed with reports by this author on important points made by the speakers that the Mexican media did not include in their coverage.
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Auto Workers on Both Sides of the Border Speak Out
El Sol de Irapuato (May 19) printed a lengthy article based on the participants’ statements titled, “They Refuse to Go Back to Work!” Its report on the first two speakers reads in part:
León, Gto. — Workers from General Motors at the Silao plant joined other workers, including from the United States, to express their refusal to return to work as long as they are not guaranteed to be free of infection.
Through the association Generando Movimiento [Generating Movement], they announced that they will send a letter to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in which they will demand that companies that put pressure on workers to return to work in unsafe conditions be punished, including with nationalization without compensation, and that their production be redirected to the social interest.
“They are wary of the measures the company has ‘supposedly’ implemented,” said Israel Cervantes, spokesperson for Generando Movimiento.
In a binational online press conference, María Guadalupe Ibarra, who said she represents workers at the GM plant in Silao, called for the intervention of the Health Ministry, the Labor Ministry, the National Human Rights Commission and the Guanajuato state government to ban the re-opening of the factory “given that this is not an essential activity and the corporate bosses only want to take us to the slaughterhouse.”
Guadalupe Ibarra called for the creation of a Health Inspection Commission “elected by the workers themselves to audit all the automotive companies and to punish those that do not comply with the health and safety protocols. Companies must not be opened until we can guarantee our safety.”
Immediately following the two speakers from the GM plant in Silao, Guanajuato, Travis Watkins, bargaining chair for UAW Local 167 at the GM plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported that he had been fired for sounding the alarm about the lack of health and safety protections at his plant. Watkins informed the media that the lack of health and safety inspectors and lack of enforcement of COVID-19 directives mentioned by the Mexican autoworkers are also a major problem facing autoworkers in the United States.
Watkins expressed his “heart-felt” solidarity with the Silao workers, underscoring the fact that “we have a common adversary and common interests as workers across borders. It is time to build the strongest ties of solidarity with each others’ struggles.”
Watkins was followed by Carlos Gabriel, a worker at the Tesla automobile plant in Fremont, California, who reported on a rally held May 16 to demand that the Tesla plant be shut down, as the basic safety conditions for a plant re-opening have not been met. The rally also demanded that Tesla CEO Elon Musk be jailed.
Gabriel explained that Musk had re-opened the plant in direct violation of the shutdown order by California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. “Go ahead and jail me,” Musk told Newsom. But instead of jailing Musk, which he should have done according to Gabriel, Newsom reversed the Tesla shuttering directive, caving in to the pressure from both Trump and Musk. So much for Democrats defending workers’ interests!
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Maquiladora Workers Face Increased Hardships
Elotroenfoque reported the comments by the next speaker: Javier Gonzalez, a worker fired from Cali-Baja in Mexicali after he contracted COVID-19. It reads in part:
Javier Gonzalez, a worker at Cali-Baja in Mexicali denounced the fact that he was fired from his job after reporting to the infirmary and being told that he had contracted COVID-19. He said that workers are being forced to stay on the job in a plant that should have been shut down in accordance with the presidential decree. He added that workers are told they will lose their jobs if they stay home.
Transición, a monthly publication of the OCRFI supporters in Mexico, reported on Javier Gonzalez’s statement in greater detail:
After he was told he had contracted the COVID-19 virus, Javier Gonzalez was told to go home and rest. He was told that he would receive his full salary and that someone from Human Resources would stop by his home to get his signature on a form granting him his full wage while on disability.
A representative of HR did show up at Gonzalez’s home and urged him to sign the sheet of paper. Gonzalez insisted on reading the text before signing, which angered the HR rep. Then Gonzalez realized that this whole thing was a hoax. The form he was urged to sign was a letter of resignation from the company. When Gonzalez refused to sign, he was assaulted physically by the HR representative, prompting him to have to call the police.
Days later, when he went to the IMSS [Mexican Institute of Social Security] for a health check-up, he was told he no longer had access to healthcare, having lost his job. He had been blacklisted. “I was tossed out of my job for getting sick, which was through no fault of my own, and then denied health care. I was thrown out into the street,” Gonzalez told the press.
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Open Letter to Mexican President López Obrador
The next speaker, Jesus Rogelio Casillas, a representative of the OPT in Mexicali, provided further details on the rates of infection, hospitalization, and deaths of maquiladora workers in Baja California and throughout the border corridor. He also reiterated the importance of the Open Letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that had been mentioned by earlier speakers.
The Open Letter, initiated by the OPT of Mexicali and Mexican supporters of the Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0, was featured in all the media reports emanating from the press conference. In its concluding paragraphs, the Open Letter calls on President López Obrador and the Mexican Department of Labor (STPS) to do the following:
(1) move immediately to enforce its own federal shutdown decrees,
(2) bring criminal charges against corporations in the maquiladora industry that remain open,
(3) demand that the corporations in this sector pay 100% of the wages of workers sheltered at home on account of the pandemic, and
(4) requisition the assets and, should it become necessary, nationalize the U.S.-based corporations that continue to ignore Mexican laws and directives.
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The next speaker was Bonifacio Cruz Martinez, a leader of the rank-and-file movement of farm workers in the valley of San Quintin, Baja California. He explained that farm workers in San Quintin have had chemicals sprayed on them over many decades as they toil in the fields — chemicals that have killed hundreds of workers and led to serious long-term illnesses among thousands of others. COVID-19 is one more pandemic foisted upon them, he said.
Cruz Martinez stated that farm workers lack protective gear to defend themselves. They are crammed into the back of trucks as they are taken to and from the fields, and they are getting infected at much higher rates than those reported by the company or the authorities.
Cruz Martinez sent a strong solidarity greeting to maquiladora workers across Mexico and urged all readers and listeners of the media reports to redouble their support for the Boycott Driscoll’s campaign. “This is how people on both sides of the border can support our efforts to build a strong independent union in San Quintin that can compel the growers to sit down with us and sign a genuine collective-bargaining agreement that advances our interests,” he concluded.
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U.S. Corporate and Government Pressures
The Organizer Newspaper reported on the responsibility of the U.S.-based transnational corporations and the U.S. government in the mounting deaths along Mexico’s northern border, where the majority of the maquiladora sweatshop factories are located:
Steve Zeltzer of the Workers Solidarity Action Network joined the rest of the speakers in denouncing the corporations for putting profits above human lives. He stated:
“Opening all these plants without adequate attention given to health and safety standards will lead to the expansion of the epidemic and more deaths of workers and their families so that the billionaires and the bosses can continue to make profits. The U.S. government and U.S. transnational corporations see workers, especially Mexican workers, as disposable — without any need for labor or human rights.”
Zeltzer denounced the lack of enforcement of existing health and safety laws in both the United States an Mexico.
“In the state of California, both Democrats and Republicans have dismantled Cal-OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration],” Zeltzer continued. “In a state of 30 million people, there are now only 200-plus OSHA inspectors. It’s a travesty.”
Zeltzer announced that there will be a protest on June 1 to denounce the dismantling of Cal-OSHA and to demand that ‘non-essential’ plants with unsafe work conditions remain closed. Zeltzer urged unionists and activists to mobilize in a Day of Action on June1 around these basic health and safety demands.
Following Zeltzer’s remarks, Alan Benjamin, a labor activist and Editorial Board member of The Organizer newspaper, underscored the responsibility of U.S. corporations in the drive to re-open the Mexican maquiladoras in unsafe conditions, thus endangering the lives of millions of workers and their families.
He stated, in part:
“The workers of the maquiladoras have waged powerful strikes and other actions [see article below] to demand that the bosses abide by the Mexican government’s decrees shutting down the plants — but they face strong adversaries: the U.S.-based transnational corporations and the U.S. government, now making use of the new NAFTA 2.0 agreement — a bipartisan agreement, I should add — to protect its ‘supply chains.’
“A lead article published on May 1 by the Washington Post points to U.S. complicity in the deaths of maquiladora workers. ‘The U.S. wants Mexico to keep its defense and health-care factories open,’ reads the Post headline.
“U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau also called for re-opening the maquiladora plants. ‘The economic integration of North America demands coordination … so that we don’t destroy the supply chains established over decades under NAFTA,’ Landau said.
“Bending to these U.S. pressures, the Mexican government not only failed to enforce its own plant-shutdown federal directives of March 24 and 30, as well as its own labor laws, the government announced that it would begin opening all ‘non-essential’ plants as early as May 18. The federal directives were largely toothless. The U.S. parent corporations invoked the need for Corporate America to protect the ‘supply chains’ put in place by NAFTA — and the Mexican government essentially caved to the pressures.
That is why we must all join together to build the broadest unity on both sides of the border to demand: Repeal NAFTA 2.0!
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Keeping Mexico’s Maquiladora Factories Open Puts Lives at Risk
By ALAN BENJAMIN and JK VARGAS
From April 6 to April 14, workers at maquiladora factories all along the U.S. border went out on strike to demand that the employers respect the federal decrees establishing that all “non-essential” economic activities must stop, that there must be no reprisals against workers who stayed at home, and that all sheltered workers must receive 100% of their wages throughout the course of the pandemic.
Transición reported in its May 2020 issue on some of the widcat strikes that erupted in the maquiladoras. Workers at Rockwell Collins in Mexicali told Transición:
“The bosses refused to shut down production. They told us that the Mexican Secretary of Labor had told them privately that their production was ‘essential’ — but his was a total lie. … It’s our strike that forced the bosses to enforce the federal decree closing down our plant.”
At a factory of the U.S.-based BREG Inc. Corp., also in Mexicali, the strike lasted three days. BREG produces orthopedic equipment for the U.S. market. Several workers spoke out: “The bosses made us sign a paper stating that they would only pay us for four days per week — and only until July! Is that legal? We’re still working when we should not be working.” Others added: “They want us to sign a document telling us to go home on Friday and accepting not to be paid. … They are forcing us to work, but without the basic safety gear!”
The workers felt they had no choice but to strike to protect themselves and their families. After three days of strike action— during which they were subjected to threats and abuse from the company — the bosses shut down the plant. The workers were happy to secure this victory, but they were worried: “Will the bosses retaliate?’ they asked. “Will we still have a job when we come back to work? What will happen to us?”
The workers with fixed-term contracts are the most worried: “Will they renew our contract after we’ve been on strike?” For all these reasons, the BREG workers decided to form a factory committee to keep in touch, get legal advice, and defend themselves better later on.
In Ciudad Juarez — a major maquiladora hub across from El Paso, Texas, where 104 workers have already died from COVID-19 — workers also have been fighting back. They are insisting that human lives be placed above corporate profits. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” said Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?” (quoted in the May 1 Washington Post)
Mexican Government Caves to Pressures from U.S. Corporations and NAFTA 2.0
Though Mexican President López Obrador issued three decrees (including one on April 21) calling for all “non-essential” plants to shut down, federal enforcement of these directives was spotty, if not non-existent. Labor attorney and activist Susana Prieto Terrazas reported that only 15% of the maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez shut down. Activists in Baja California estimate similar figures in their region.
Only a handful of inspectors were sent to the northern border to monitor the plant shutdowns. At the same time, no penalties were levied against companies that did not abide by the federal decrees, and, worse still, there was no directive on what party (bosses or government) was responsible for paying the wages of wokers sheltered at home. Consequently back wages have gone unpaid.
The federal directives were largely toothless. The U.S. parent corporations invoked the need for Corporate America to protect the “supply chains” put in place by NAFTA — and the Mexican government essentially caved to the pressures, refusing to enforce its own directives.
During the early stages of the pandemic, maquiladora workers, feeling that the federal government had their backs, felt emboldened and more than willing to take strike action to demand that the bosses respect the federal shutdown decrees. But as time went on, and as the federal government refused to enforce its own decrees, the bosses were the ones now emboldened. They began bribing workers to come back to work and firing those workers who refused the bribes and who insisted that going back to work in the unsafe conditions of the maquiladoras was tantamount to being sent to the “matadero” — that is, the slaughterhouse.
Open Letter to Mexican President López Obrador
Hence the significance of the “Open Letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador” issued May 15 by the Mexican activists of the Organization of the Workers and People (OPT) in Baja California.
Their letter calls on López Obrador and the Mexican Department of Labor (STPS) to (1) move immediately to enforce its own federal shutdown decrees, (2) bring criminal charges against corporations in the maquiladora industry that remain open, (3) demand that the corporations in this sector pay 100% of the wages of workers sheltered at home on account of the pandemic, and (4) requisition the assets and, should it become necessary, nationalize the U.S.-based corporations that continue to ignore Mexican laws and directives.
This is not only a matter of saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers being sent to slaughter in the re-opened maquiladoras; it’s a matter of enforcing labor laws and human rights — it’s a matter of affirming Mexican sovereignty in the face of NAFTA 2.0., a treaty imposed by U.S. corporate interests.
NAFTA 2.0 should not be allowed to take precedence over Mexican laws, directives, and sovereignty. NAFTA 2.0 must be repealed!
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