Up from Ashes
MEXICO CITY--It's now more than two years since a massive earthquake devastated downtown Mexico City and its grimy, bustling textile district. Commuters exiting the San Antonio Abad subway station no longer turn to look at the nearby heap of twisted beams and concrete slabs, once an 11-story building housing 15 textile factories.
About 500 such semi-legal sweatshops were destroyed in the quake, leaving close to a thousand women textile workers dead and 40,000 jobless. After the quake, the textile barons wasted no time in declaring bankruptcy or collecting their insurance money and setting up operations in other parts of the city. But the workers who survived were out of a job. There was no clause in the women's contracts covering job loss due to earthquakes. In fact, the quake provided a good excuse for factory owners to get rid of garment workers, or "costureras," with seniority and replace them with cheaper labor, hired on "temporary" contracts without benefits.
But two years later, the owners of the textile factories are realizing that the quake generated wide cracks not only in the bricks and mortar of their buildings, but in the hegemony they'd long exercised over an unorganized workforce. In a country where the official government-controlled unions have long been little more than an arm of management, the textile industry has been shaken by the emergence of the radical 19th of September National Garment Workers Union, the first independent union registered with the Mexican government in more than a decade.
The new union, named for the date of the 1985 earthquake, has now secured compensation for most of the costureras who lost jobs due to the quake and won collective contracts for over a thousand costureras in 12 factories. Intense labor struggles are ongoing in more than a dozen other factories both inside and outside the city, and the union is challenging a new government policy exempting "maquiladoras" - export-oriented factories run by multinational firms - from abiding by Mexican labor law. In just two and a half years, the women of the 19th of September Union have gained international attention as pacesetters for the popular Mexican labor movement.
The unlikely headquarters for the controversial union is a scattering of tents and tin huts in a sunbaked parking lot across from the San Antonio Abad ruins - the same site where the costureras held their first sit-ins only hours after the earthquake.
For 15 years Evangelina Corona, secretary general of the 19th of September Union, had been earning 33,000 pesos (about $30) per week in a textile factory. On the morning of September 19, 1985, she dropped off her daughter at school and was on her way to work for her 8:30 shift when the quake hit. She was greeted by a scene of bedlam.
"Eight of the 11 floors had collapsed. It looked like a sandwich with the insides squirting out. Cloth and equipment [were] everywhere," recalled Corona. "Some workers from the early shift were being rescued by their coworkers with fabric ropes. We could hear cries and screams coming from inside. I had an aunt and a cousin in there. But it wasn't long until police cordoned off the zone putting an end to our rescue efforts."
"They said it was for our safety, in case there was another tremor," explained unionist Isabel Quintana, but they let "the factory owners bring in crews and heavy machinery to rescue their equipment and the safes with money. They made no effort to rescue the trapped workers."
"One owner was heard to say that the costureras were 'cheaper dead than alive,"' said Corona.
After a few days' standoff with the police, the women began to congregate in groups to prevent employers from removing their sewing equipment from the ruins.
"We felt we had the right to hold the machinery because we had not been paid," said Quintana. "We also wanted compensation for those with seniority who had lost their jobs. The garment workers were left with nothing."
Under Mexican labor law, laid-off costureras are entitled to three months salary plus 12 days pay for every year worked. But the factory owners claimed bankruptcy when the women asked for their money. The official textile workers' unions, controlled by the Congress of Workers - the state-sanctioned labor federation - took no interest in the women's claims.
Known as "charro" or "yellow" unions to workers, these paper organizations function mainly to satisfy Mexican laws requiring employers to negotiate with a union. These union leaders usually strike a contract with owners without consulting the rank and file.
"The only way we knew the unions existed was because they subtracted the dues from our salaries," said Corona. "But the union officials never listened to workers' complaints and the owners preferred to pay off the union leaders rather than address our problems."
And by U.S. Iabor standards the problems of Mexican costureras seem endless. An estimated one million Mexican garment workers, half the textile workforce, are paid less than minimum wage - under $25 per week at current exchange rates - for 50-55 hour work weeks. And garment workers are often forced to work in substandard sweatshops.
The 19th of September Union blames the huge earthquake death toll in the garment district on the substandard construction of the factory buildings - the buildings were not designed to hold the weight of heavy garment-making machinery.
Corona said that the ruined building next to the San Antonio Abad stop was only 13 years old. "We had been told that the building had been constructed with special safeguards and would not be damaged in an earthquake."
In fact, survivors of the building's collapse charge that when the tremors began, their supervisors closed the exit doors and told the women to calm down and keep working rather than letting them flee.
Elaine Burns, a North American volunteer working with the 19th of September Union, points out the eerie similarities between the collapse of the Mexican sweatshops and the famous 1911 fire in a New York City textile factory. The fire took the lives of 146 garment workers who were locked inside the Triangle Shirt Waist factory. Over 100,000 workers marched in a memorial parade for the victims and the disaster spurred the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which registered 20,000 women in the last two years.
In Mexico, the costureras set out to build "a union that represented not only the interests of the garment workers who lost their source of income in the earthquake, but also those working in other businesses who were living with the same problems and the same violations of their most elemental human rights," said Corona.
In the first months the primary struggle was for compensation for those who had lost their jobs. A month after the quake, thousands of costureras marched on the Presidential Palace. A new Mexican telecommunications satellite, sent into orbit just days before the quake, enhanced international coverage of the garment workers' plight. President Miguel de la Madrid yielded to the pressure and recognized the union. Over the next year the union obtained compensation for over 80 percent of the costurera quake victims.
In 1986-87 the union has focused on building membership and securing collective contracts with textile firms. By mid-1987 about 4,500 costureras were affiliated with the union and over 700 were represented in new labor contracts. Union demands in the negotiating process have included the establishment of a linkage between wages and the cost-of-living, acceptance of a standardized minimum wage, social security registration for all workers and a reduction in the current 9-hour workday.
Although many of the demands seem modest by U.S. Iabor standards, the 19th of September women are also confronting the more sensitive issues behind the role of working women. "The challenge for us is to address our role as women and mothers, as well as costureras," Corona said.
For example, although Mexican social security laws contain clauses guaranteeing child care facilities in the workplace, most employers ignore the rules. One 19th of September demand is that all employers provide child care - a revolutionary concept even in the United States. At the end of May, 1987, the union opened its own child care center. The center, funded by foundations in Holland and the United States, will offer education, meals and health care to children at the same rates as over-filled government-run centers.
The union also sponsors adult education classes for members and training workshops that teach new skills to older workers and those who have lost their jobs. The Union has also opened a women's clinic. The union's strength, however, depends on its ability to attract new members and secure collective contracts. The going is slow. Union organizers first have to find the workers, many of whom are employed on three-month contracts and crowded into clandestine cut-and-sew shops. They then must confront an arsenal of company tactics aimed at intimidating organizers.
The organizing drive in the Comercializadora plant which produces clothing under the brand name "Gents" - is typical. The owners amassed a long record of violations: paying salaries below minimum wage, hiring underage workers, denying benefits, and deducting pay for time spent going to the bathroom. The costureras were represented - on paper - by the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM), a charro union, but no one had seen the contract they worked under. When costureras asked for 19th of September representation, the company used a variety of union- busting tactics: 26 workers were fired CTM "goons" were hired to harass organizers and workers were imported from other plants to vote against the 19th of September contract.
Despite these efforts, 19th of September leaders claim the final vote was 54 to 15 in favor of the new union. When Comercializadora refused to recognize the vote, 19th of September leaders appealed to the Local Labor Arbitration and Conciliation Board, presenting proof of the vote count. When the board ruled in favor of the company, 19th of September workers held a 10-day sit-in at the National Palace until they were forcibly removed by police on the morning of May 1.
The large Roberts textile company of Mexico City has used similar tactics to undercut union organizing. The company has demanded that the government nullify registration of the 19th of September Union. Roberts executives have objected to the "extraordinary" way the union was recognized. Because government labor offices were destroyed in the earthquake, the union was registered by the signature of the Secretary of Labor himself, rather than through the normal procedure at the labor office.
The pretext that the union was not properly registered also was used by the army and special anti-riot forces as an excuse to prevent the costureras from marching with other unions in the traditional workers' march on May 1st. The day after the march, the government issued a bulletin questioning the validity of the union's registration, a move that 19th of September leaders say has signalled a hardening of attitudes on the part of labor authorities.
Although most of their organizing has been in Mexican-owned plants in the city, 19th of September organizers have been invited to represent workers in foreign-owned maquiladora plants. In the fall of 1986 costureras at the Korean-owned Textil Maya plant in the Yucatan requested help from the 19th of September Union after 17 workers were fired for protesting working conditions. Union representatives and striking workers were met with violence when they staged a sit-in to prevent owners from removing the plant's machinery. 19th of September Union leaders report that several workers, including one pregnant woman, were beaten in the incident.
"The government is allowing maquiladoras plants to remain outside the law," Corona said. "The women are only given 'piece work' and are expected to work at a high speed for less than minimum wage, [even though] our minimum wage is only a fraction of the minimum in the U.S. or Canada."
"We welcome policies that will bring more jobs, but we fear that the maquiladoras plants will reduce working conditions even lower because all they are interested in is producing goods for export with cheap labor," she said.