Mexican Garment Workers Poised to Win an Independent Union

By Judith Ancel
Saturday, March 26, 2011

In the face of dismal working conditions and company and government repression, workers in a key Mexican clothing factory successfully organized an independent union over the past year, winning official labor board registration on February 10. The mostly women workers at Manufacturas Lajat (which makes jeans for Levi Strauss & Co.) won by using militant tactics and rallying support in the maquiladora area of north central Mexico.

But union registration is just the beginning for Lajat workers and their supporters from the San Antonio-based Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM). On February 16, Fernando Lopez of the Lajat Workers Independent Union came to San Francisco for a meeting at Levi headquarters.

The day before the meeting, Lopez participated in a rally at Levi Strauss Plaza protesting the sweatshop conditions at Levi’s supplier plants and demanding that Levi force Lajat management to negotiate fairly with the union.

Lajat’s plants are all located in the Laguna (Lake) Region, which used to have so many cotton fields that it became the denim capital of Mexico. But when the lakes dried up, the cotton fields disappeared.

Now the jobs sewing jeans are drying up too, moving to lower-wage regions further south and to China. But Lajat (which employed 12,000 workers in 2005) remains a major link in the global chain of jeans production.

Lajat is also a chronic labor law violator. It fails to pay for overtime (despite requiring illegal amounts of it) and is months behind on housing and health insurance payments to government funds. Lajat workers are exposed to harsh bleaches and dyes without protection, as well as the usual regime of disrespect, particularly for women.

FACTORY CLOSING

In January 2005, Lajat announced the closure of its laundry and finishing plant in Gomez Palacio, Durango and began transporting the workers to its Torreon plant about six miles away. Workers say they were trucked to the new plant in the backs of pickups, “like animals.”

The workers struck, protesting the Gomez Palacio plant’s closure, and formed a coalition which the government’s labor board recognized. Lajat quickly signed an agreement not to close the plant.

Everyone went back to work. Then Lajat fired the eight-member organizing committee.

Undaunted, the women approached the Coalition for Justice of the Lake Region, an affiliate of CJM. CJM began building local and national support. In the U.S. CJM issued calls for protest letters to Levi Strauss and Mudd Jeans, another Lajat customer.

CODE OF CONDUCT?

Since offshoring all of its U.S. production a couple of years ago, Levi operates in over 50 countries, with almost 200 suppliers in China and 33 in Mexico. To protect its name, Levi developed an impressive code of conduct for suppliers called the “Terms of Engagement” (TOE).

Despite these code requirements, the company often has no idea where its products are being produced, or what conditions are like in the plants. Workers had to show labels and production sheets they’d saved to Levi’s Latin America representative, Miriam Rodriguez, to prove that they were working on Levi jeans.

After that, Levi pressured Lajat to reinstate the fired workers, which they did with full back pay.

Elated, the workers began to take Levi’s TOE seriously, but they also decided that their phantom union, a local of the company-friendly Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), had to go. They filed papers for a new democratic union.

Incredibly, in June, the local labor board granted a registration for the union and set a date for a representation election. Levi even got Mudd, a Chinese-owned company with no code of conduct, to write a letter promising not to cut and run if the independent union won the election.

This pledge countered a CTM-inspired rumor that Mudd would leave if the workers voted in an independent union. And technically, Mudd didn’t lie. The company cancelled its contract before the election, citing quality problems.

Alarmed that the workers might actually win a victory for freedom of association in Mexico, Durango Governor Ismael Alfredo Hernandez Deras and a coalition of the CTM and CANACINTRA (the Mexican equivalent of the National Association of Manufacturers), successfully pressured the Labor Board to postpone the election.

Then, in September, Lajat started pulling work out of the Gomez plant, reducing it to nothing by October. With the loss of piecework pay and bonuses, wages plummeted from about 850 pesos a week to 350 ($35). Lajat claimed that orders were down, but workers obtained proof that at least some production had been transferred to a subcontractor.

CROSS-BORDER PROTESTS

CJM generated letters to Levi and also initiated visits to Mexican consulates. In October, a delegation with both Mexican and U.S. representatives from CJM and the nonprofit groups Sweatshop Watch, Global Exchange, and Campaign for Labor Rights met with Michael Kobori, Levi’s executive in charge of supplier oversight.

They presented evidence of multiple violations of the TOE—including midnight visits by Lajat officials to workers’ homes with suitcases full of cash and resignation forms to sign. Kobori promised to have a frank talk with Lajat about the violations.

Two days later Lajat called the entire police force into the plant to beat and tear-gas workers. One worker was arrested on a trumped up charge. Kobori was finally persuaded to issue a corrective plan for Lajat.

Despite this, Lajat called in police two days later and locked the workers out.

CJM organized leafleting at Levi stores and outlets over the holidays to protest the moves. Member groups held demonstrations on November 25 and December 17 in cities in the United States and Canada.

BLEAK CHRISTMAS

The locked-out workers had a bleak Christmas, but they stayed mobilized, monitored production, and worked to raise money. In January they learned that Levi had placed new orders with Lajat, even though Lajat had not accepted Kobori’s plan.

On January 15, however, a federal labor tribunal ordered the Gomez Palacio Labor Board to issue the registration for the independent union, which was finally granted February 10.

Now the workers must make the union a reality. Their first task will be forcing Lajat to recognize the union and negotiate reinstatement or full severance for laid-off workers.

The Lajat struggle has shown that while brands like Levi can make a difference when they choose to, their vaunted codes of conduct are pure public relations unless organized consumers and workers compel enforcement.

Judy Ancel is a board member of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladores.