FOR the past 30 years, this booming industrial town of half a million residents has been ruled by top union boss Agapito Gonzalez Cavazos. Almost all of the 35,000 laborers working in the town's 95 maquiladoras belong to Agapito's union, the SJOIIM.
But like union leaders in the United States, Agapito's power is declining. And as the North American Free Trade Agreement begins to take effect, Agapito, along with other Mexican union leaders and their counterparts in the United States, are facing new obstacles. NAFTA will put more pressure on Mexican unions to keep wages low to accommodate new industry and restrain inflation. Union leaders must also cope with the repressive Mexican political machinery.
On the other side, American unions, after bitterly denouncing Mexican labor during the NAFTA debate, now face the task of trying to improve conditions for Mexican workers and increase wages from the minimum $5 a day.
Agapito's political clout has waxed and waned in the years since 1966 when he organized the first maquiladora in Matamoros. As the number of factories exploded, he ruled his union with an iron hand. Today, his maquiladora workers' wages are among the highest on the US-Mexico border. The biggest employers, including Deltronicos (a subsidiary of General Motors) and AT&T, must deal with him if they want to keep operating. But Agapito has also faced the power of the government to quash critics.
In January 1992, while negotiating a new contract, the union leader demanded a 20 percent wage hike. The government responded by arresting and detaining him for eight months in Mexico City on charges of tax evasion.
Tried and convicted of the charges, he was immediately pardoned. His arrest was part of a general crackdown on organized labor that began shortly after Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988. Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, the former union chief at Mexico's oil monopoly Pemex, was the first union boss to be arrested in 1989. Despite Agapito's own arrest, he continues to head the SJOIIM. And he says union power will increase as NAFTA brings more industry and jobs to the border region. But he does not expect to see organizers from the AFL-CIO in his neighborhood any time soon.
``They must change their thinking first,'' he says. ``They have been fighting Mexican unions. They say Mexicans will take the jobs that belong to American unions.''
According to Ellen Lutz, the California director of Human Rights Watch, abuse of workers in Mexico is no secret. ``What happened to Agapito Gonzalez is standard operating procedure,'' she says. ``They get the activist out of the way and they negotiate whatever they want. Then they drop the charges. The PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico's ruling party], wants to silence the activists but also to intimidate everybody else into conforming.''
Although killings are rare, Ms. Lutz says union leaders who are harassed by the government have no recourse because human rights commissions in Mexico are not allowed to look into labor cases or elections. ``The way Mexico treats labor activists is a clear violation of international law and Mexican law. What has to go in Mexico is the system. Mexicans have to be able to elect their officials and have them function independently,'' she says.
Part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), Agapito's union has long been a stronghold of the PRI. The close relationship between the 5 million-member CTM and the PRI has led many critics to say change in Mexico's labor policy is impossible as long as the PRI remains in power. ``The CTM is dominated by PRI. It has no value whatsoever. It's a corrupt organization that is manipulated by the government,'' says Jaime Martinez of the International Union of Electrical Workers, an AFL-CIO affiliate.
AFL-CIO leaders say privately they have not decided how to deepen relations with their Mexican counterparts. Relations with the CTM have been ``symbolic more than anything else,'' an official says. ``Now, we're just going to have to feel our way.''
SOME American groups are avoiding the CTM and have begun working with independent unions. The United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) has a ``strategic organizing alliance'' with the Authentic Workers Front (FAT).
The United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) are also working with Mexican unions. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the 6,000-member FLOC, says, ``Today, we have to look at ourselves as citizens in a collective economy as opposed to citizens of a particular nation.''
But American unions will not be able to address many of the underlying problems facing Mexican workers. With inflation running at 10 to 15 percent a year, the spending power of Mexican workers is declining. ``Even with the recent wage increases, workers in Matamoros are now earning 6 or 7 percent less than they were last year,'' explains Domingo Gonzalez, a labor organizer who works for the Austin-based Texas Center for Policy Studies. ``That's how Mexico keeps attracting companies. They are counting on inflation and government control of the unions to allow companies to make bigger profits.''
Mr. Gonzalez points out that while Agapito was under arrest, the CTM began another union in the Matamoros area. It negotiated contracts with companies which pay their workers less than half the wages of SJOIIM members.
Mexican unions have done a poor job educating their members, Gonzalez adds. For instance, although profit sharing and 12 weeks of maternity leave are mandated, few workers know their rights.
In addition, Gonzalez says unions are ignoring safety issues. Workers hurt on the job are often forced to resign and accept small compensation packages. Many maquiladora workers also handle toxic chemicals on the job without protective equipment. A rash of birth defects among residents in the Brownsville-Matamoros area has led to a spate of lawsuits. But SJOIIM and the CTM have not been active in the investigation.
Maria Guadalupe Torres, a former maquiladora worker, works for the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee educating workers about their rights.
She says some companies have moved to Reynosa, an industrial town 60 miles west of Matamoros, to find cheaper labor. ``I don't see how workers in the maquiladoras in Reynosa survive,'' she says. ``There are workers at a Zenith plant who get less than 100 pesos [33 dollars] a week for a 45-hour work week.''
MS. Torres says workers in Reynosa and other towns with weak unions have a difficult time organizing because they will be fired or asked to resign. In the town of Piedras Negras, 380 miles northwest of Matamoros, maquiladora operator Dennis Charlton predicts that Mexican unions will continue to decline as more American businesses move south.
``Mexico wants to progress and they feel they can't do it with corrupt unions,'' says Mr. Charlton, whose workers belong to a powerful non-CTM union. ``A lot of the companies coming over here are going to communities that are nonunion, period.''
Many labor analysts agree the PRI's antilabor stance will continue. Ed Williams, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, who completed a book on unionization in the maquiladora industry, says NAFTA will ``give the US more leverage in Mexico in creating labor unions.''
Others see a hopeful sign in the designation of Social Development Secretary Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta as the PRI's next presidential candidate. Union officials in Matamoros say that Mr. Colosio had humble beginnings and knows the plight of working people.
Regardless of what happens in next year's presidential election, UE union leader Robin Alexander says ``it is incumbent on us to reach out to workers in countries like Mexico. Without that kind of international solidarity, we are going to be attacked and exploited in both countries.''