Blanca Velasquez Diaz
“The Economic Consequences of NAFTA:
A Labor Organizer’s Point of View”

October 16, 2002

Blanca Velasquez Diaz, speaking in the Conference Room at the Center, spoke of her experiences in labor organization in maquiladora industry in northern Mexico.

"The Economic Consequences of NAFTA"
Danilo Trisi, Latin American Studies

On Oct. 16, 2002, Blanca Velazquez Diaz, representative and co-founder of CAT, the Support Center for Workers, spoke about the situation and challenges of worker organizing inside the maquiladoras of Atlixco, Puebla, in central Mexico. For her, NAFTA has only meant an increase of maquiladoras, which are assembly-line factories producing for export. Through her first hand account, she described the harsh reality faced by 16-25 year old women who try to support their families by working in the maquiladora industry that is characterized by poor working conditions and low wages. Yet, she spoke from the perspective of a key organizer in two successful campaigns where the recognition of an independent union led to an improvement in wages and working conditions. Her message was that when the determination of the workers inside the maquiladoras is combined with local and international support, change is possible.

According to the Secretary of Economy of Mexico, the maquiladora industry employed about one million workers in 2000. This was an increase of about 100,000 from 1999. Close to 60% of those workers are women. Velazquez Diaz explained that a majority of the women in the maquiladoras only had the opportunity to attend school until the third grade due to economic circumstances. She said that many women are single mothers of 3-4 children, and a majority of them are the main income earner of their household. She also pointed out that, due to the poor working conditions, women often can’t work there for more than five years.

The CAT, the Support Center for Workers, which Velazquez Diaz co-founded, plays an important role in educating workers through workshops, trainings, and street theater. Velazquez Diaz said that many of the workers in the maquiladoras don’t know that they have rights. “They don’t realize that there’s a federal law that they can use to protect themselves. Nobody is there to tell them about their rights.” She said that the government has failed to look after the welfare of workers. That’s why she and others decided to form the Support Center. The CAT also supports the organizing efforts of workers by increasing their awareness of unions, collective agreements and organizing strategies. In addition, the CAT plays an important role in establishing contacts with international organizations.

Velazquez Diaz mentioned the Kukdong (now known as Mexmode) campaign as a successful case where the determination of the workers inside the maquiladora, combined with the help of the CAT and international solidarity, resulted in the signing of a collective agreement on Sept. 21, 2001. Kukdong now has the only independent union in the entire Mexican garment industry. She said that two years ago, the workers there made about $35 per week, but now they’re making around $60-70 a week. Their working conditions have also improved.

The workers initially mobilized against the bad working conditions such as the rotten food in their cafeteria. They were helped by their discovery that Kukdong’s garments were going to U.S. universities that had adopted codes of conduct for all products bearing their logos. This had been achieved by on-campus campaigns launched by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) groups. When the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which is the body in charge of investigating possible violations of university codes of conduct, revealed that violations had occurred then the international pressure played an important role. Velazquez Diaz said, “University students were there accompanying the process. They helped by sending emails, faxes, making phone calls to authorities and to company headquarters.” The CAT contributed by providing support for workers in Puebla. Besides acting as an informational resource, the CAT contributed by going on house visits to encourage workers not to be afraid and to remain strong. Velazquez Diaz said that in the end the “persistence and determination of the workers” prevailed. “Even after they were forcibly removed and beaten after their sit-in by riot police, they continued to fight to get this.”

Velazquez Diaz also played an important role in the organizing of an independent union on March 24, 2002 in the Siemems auto-parts plant that produces for Volkswagen. As with the Kukdong campaign, she said that “the strength of the women, the courage and anger at the working conditions” were responsible for the success. “It was a crazy strike, but it worked.” She said that the Just in Time method of production makes the VW factory totally dependent on an auto-parts plant such as Siemens. “The VW factory is the most important of the whole state. If you stop the Siemens, you stop the VW factory. The strike officially lasted 3 days, but during the 2nd day they were already negotiating.” International solidarity played a smaller role than in the Kukdong campaign, but she said that the German VW union sent some letters of support.

During the questions and answers session, someone asked Velazquez Diaz what she thought about the claim of the Mexican government that the arrival of maquiladoras is increasing economic opportunities. She responded, “We don’t want to eliminate them. We’re not against work opportunities. If they’re going to set them up, we want a dignified salary and an improvement in the working conditions. But if there’s going to be abuse, harassment, and starvation wages, then we don’t want them.”

According to Velazquez Diaz, people oppose NAFTA, Plan Puebla/Panama, and the FTAA because they see them as continuing the displacement of people in the countryside and increasing the number of maquiladoras. She said, “people are concerned that their children will not have a future. That their only option will be to work in the maquiladoras.” Many of the people working in the maquiladoras were displaced from their farms by reforms that removed price controls and allowed the influx of agricultural goods from modern, subsidized farms in the U.S. Velazquez Diaz argued that these people were marginalized by the government’s failure to provide them with assistance to develop productive activities in the countryside. One of the main problems is that peasants, workers and other “civil society” groups have been left out of the negotiations of these economic projects, while business organizations have had direct access. The result has been a government that invests in roads and airports and signs agreements of investor rights, while leaving out any help for small farm producers and “core labor standards” for workers. The lesson is that more inclusive negotiations will lead to more inclusive results, so the rallying cry should be for more equal participation in negotiations.

In the meantime, people such as Blanca Velazquez Diaz are making change happen in their communities. She calls for people abroad “to be more conscious about what’s behind the label.” As an experienced, hopeful organizer she says, “It’s a lot of work, but when you have one victory, you can have a second and a third victory.”


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