Mexico Solidarity in 2000
May 12, 2000
The cat suns on the roof after a late mouse snack. Hummingbirds compete with bees for entry into the trumpet flowers. We are safe, returned from Mexico DF. Our landlady painted all the cement walls while we were gone, blue, green, yellow, pink; the steel doors are green. The exterminating didn't work, it will be easier to replace the wooden door frame than to argue with termites in our bathroom. The patio is littered with seeds, each in its natural Saran wrap envelope, drifting out of the clear sky, from where I can't guess. Huge roaches die on the cement walk. It seems like another season in Oaxaca since we left a week ago for Mexico to meet the labor delegation for Mexico Solidarity Network.
The May Day observation was strange for me; in Mexico unions are run by the government and/or the company. Independent unions struggle for recognition; although the Constitution gives them legal status, the government doesn't. It takes more than forever to achieve recognition for each union that applies. I believe right now there are only 6,000 independently unionized workers. The hosts for our Solidarity delegation of five Americans were the FAT, which is the Frente Autentico Del Trabajo (Authentic Labor Front), basically a Socialist union. This political orientation poses no immediate threat to any system whatsoever. It's tough going on the organizing.
The May Day legal observation and holiday allows speeches in the morning in the Zócalo. That means the government and company unions marched, a band played, politicians performed for perhaps twenty thousand participants. At noon we set out with the six thousand "illegals" not permitted to speak from the stage and without a band. We formed a parade of independent unions, and George and I sort of strolled along with FAT, trying to look like neither tourists nor members, putting on and taking off our bright red hats, furling and unfurling paper banners, jumping on and off the sidewalk according to who and what cameras looked at us. Silly: it occurred to me later that no political party or government creates trouble two months before an election. In this case Mexico DF is PRD-run, and some few optimists believe the national election will at last unseat the - what is it, seventy two years? - of PRI rule.
The FAT organizers and workers seem grateful for any show of support, and of course Mexico Solidarity Network donates money collected in the US for supporting strikers. The strikers were enormously gracious. We ate what they gave us, and only moderately and intermittently suffered consequences.
The two strike sites we visited were, like, educational. One is right in the city, a printing press where strikers after four years now hope the judiciary grants severance pay; some worked there for twenty years or more and will receive no retirement security. The printing plant closed when the workers demanded eight weeks back pay from an owner who paid neither his social security nor tax requirements. The strikers set up a shack camp outside the door to prevent the owner from taking away his presses, which represent all the severance pay they'll ever see, if any. Someone guards the entry twenty-four hours a day. They served us a lunch of beans and tacos. As far as I could see their bathroom facility was a latrine on the sidewalk. The strikers in the shack showed us the cardboard containers the plant printed, Barcardi Rum, various pharmaceutical boxes.
One consequence of these women (mostly women) going on strike is that their children drop out of school, since attending is too costly and children's work income is needed. What, you say, children working? So it is. They lie about their ages and the parents sign letters attesting to the lie. We met a few people who started work at twelve. But that was not just in Mexico DF, it was also in Irapuato, a town about four hours bus ride away in the state of Guanajuato.
The Irapuato strike is by strawberry packers, whose pay per box packed was certainly not enough to live on even with twelve hour days, and they had no protective clothing for the acid or chlorine. The strawberry plant is owned by an American caricature of a racist old nasty capitalist. The workers live in a barrio of dirt streets; they lost their water supply recently due to broken pipes. The only house interior we saw had a clean painted cement floor, some pictures of Jesus, and chairs for when meetings are called. Another cement house (they're all cement) enclosed a dirt yard inside its patio walls; we saw a truck, turkeys and dogs. A third tiny place houses at least a dozen people descended from one grandmother.
To get to the plant we crossed above a dry river bed stinking and littered with trash. Eight years ago the owner built a steel narrow footbridge so the women from this barrio wouldn't have to wade through river water when the rainy season comes. The workers call the bridge "Golden Gate". Lots of laughs there. It swayed, but I managed to cross in both directions, once. Declined to do it again.
The strawberry strikers have set up a plastic tent, and the food they offered was strawberries and cream which they purchased for our visit. In both workplaces the workers have a sense of pride in their products, strange as that seems. And I might say the women strikers were clean and ready for receiving company, although the kids were not. We were a traveling circus, we Americans. One little girl of about nine told me she plans to go to the US some day, and asked if there are factories. Her imagination can't get much past working like her mother. After our refreshments we skirted the fenced-in plant area, breathing the odor of chlorine and rot. Armed guards sit near camera monitors; the workers say that in the US the owner Arthur Price is watching from his home in North Carolina as they walk past. I waved and hollered, Hi Mom! but they didn't get the joke. Price is old and not well; he hates unions; another fear is that instead of recognizing the strikers and paying a living wage, he'll shut the plant, as he has threatened to do. Meanwhile Mexico Solidarity traced his strawberries to Sara Lee, Smuckers and a yogurt company. They'll try to see if any pressure can be applied; however, in the case of Barcardi and the printers it did no good. At the moment Price busses in strikebreakers from other neighborhoods. There is no solidarity, no crossing of boundaries. A middle-class condominium complex stands within view, and although the condo kids must breathe the same dirt and sneak off to play in the same river garbage as the workers' children, there’s no solidarity there either. No-one wants to know anyone else's troubles.
Some of the women bring in a little income by selling products in a tiny market; everything looked filthy. Second hand shoes, Asian plastic junk. There's no hand work or crafts. Although we’re told malnutrition is serious, I was struck by the nearly one hundred percent possession of perfect white teeth. I suppose they drink ground water, not able to afford bottled? The mysteries of fluoride. Here in Oaxaca teeth are silver, or in the countryside or in Chiapas, non-existent. The worker who told me malnutrition is a grave problem also said that family planning is not practiced, although many of the mothers are single, because God wills children. And good teeth. Sometimes God's decisions mystify me.
In the airport as we waited to fly back to Oaxaca I sat next to a group of three men going to the US, to pick tobacco in Kentucky. They have legal temporary status. The man we spoke to said they will be paid minimum wage for three months work, eight hour days, but he's not sure how many days per week. I guess the more the better, for them. He will have to pay airfare to Los Angeles, bus to Kentucky, board and room while he works; but he says it's decent; his brother told him; the brother is there in Kentucky. So with luck he will return to Mexico with 20,000 plus pesos saved from his work, and buy a house in the country; i.e. a cement brick rectangle with cement floors. If workers here were paid as much as US minimum they would be fine with today's prices. But instead of getting 50 pesos per hour they're very lucky to get fifty per day, and I believe the printers were receiving twenty for a twelve hour day. Three dollars per day - 30 pesos - is the Mexican average.
60% of Oaxacan men enter the US to work, and everywhere we go we meet the returnees. A bi-national solidarity is building to find ways to deal with NAFTA and neo-liberalism; but in Mexico when the FAT leadership invited us to a bi-national conference only the strikers from the printing press showed up. And us.
Nevertheless the percentage of Mexicans or Mexican- Americans is bound to make its weight felt sooner rather than later. Too bad the US government always waits until doing something decent - in this case issuing legal work permits for unskilled willing laborers like the janitors in Los Angeles - is the only recourse. Not much moral credit under those circumstances, is there?