For more than three months, Miriam Delgado and her friends have struggled to get their jobs back at Lexmark International, a U.S.-based company that manufactures printer cartridges at its large plant in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Interviewed at a benefit concert held this month for ex-Lexmark employees in neighboring El Paso, Texas, Delgado and three of her former co-workers — all women — said they were among 120 workers fired last December for organizing against low wages and unfair working conditions. Since then, they have maintained a 24-hour protest encampment outside the company’s plant demanding the return of their jobs and recognition of an independent union.
Getting by without a steady income hasn’t been easy for many of the fired worker activists, according to Delgado and friends. “It’s really difficult,” Delgado sums up, with bills, school fees, money for broken shoes and other expenses not respecting the economic bind. Worse yet, blacklists of activist workers circulate in the maquiladora industry, making it very difficult to land new jobs, the women said.
According to the ex-Lexmark workers, their movement took shape last year after Lexmark introduced a new wage scheme, slightly raising the basic daily pay of about six bucks a day but angering longtime workers — many of them with seven years or more experience on the shop floor — when they realized that new hires were getting equal or higher pay than veteran employees.
In 2015, the expanding border assembly plant (maquiladora) industry in Juárez found that it could not entice enough willing locals to fill available positions and, similar to an earlier boom period back in the 1990s, began offering somewhat higher pay and bonuses to prospective new workers. Plans were announced to bus in fresh employees from out-of-town.
A reported labor shortage has continued into 2016. Government and industry sources cited in a March 14 article in El Diario de Juárez claimed up to 23,000 vacant maquila jobs existed during the first quarter of this year, with one company even seeking new workers aged 55 to 60 to meet demand — a virtually unheard-of practice in the maquiladora industry, or the Mexican economy in general for that matter.
In Mexico, where age discrimination is rampant, workers above the age of 45 or so are routinely deemed ready for the pasture.
Besides pay, other long-percolating issues surfaced at Lexmark, including complaints of repetitive motion injuries and worker exposure to toxic substances like lead that are used in the manufacture of printer cartridges shipped to the United States.
“Many co-workers have been affected by this,” Delgado contended. The fired Lexmark workers — 75 of whom have remained in the struggle, according to the Juárez labor activist — filed a petition with Mexico’s Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board for union recognition and the return of their jobs, but they were rejected twice. A new legal hearing on the matter has been scheduled for March 29.
Lexmark did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the workers’ charges.
But local worker dissatisfaction isn’t isolated to Lexmark. During the second half of 2015, rank-and-file movements also emerged at Foxconn, Eaton and ADC/Commscope. Labor activists from all the companies began banding together in a historic upsurge of independent worker activism in Juárez’s maquiladora plants.
Protest encampments were established outside all of the companies, and hundreds of workers staged a march through the streets of Juárez to call attention to their cause as the year drew to an end. The movement inspired solidarity actions in El Paso and other parts of the United States, including a protest outside Lexmark headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky.
In El Paso, the Columban Mission Center hosted a March benefit concert to raise sorely-needed funds for the fired workers.
“One of the things we do in our mission is to support human rights and workers,” Father Bob Mosher, mission director, told FNS. According to the Catholic priest, the church’s position on labor is based on Rerun Novarun, an 1891 encyclical that supports collective bargaining.
Mosher said the Lexmark struggle also has implications for the United States.
“For us, the Lexmark workers are a representation of the worst effects of NAFTA and the (proposed) TPP, which has been called NAFTA on steroids,” he said. “We like to point to the Lexmark workers as what will happen to other workers if TPP is passed.”
With pictures of Pope Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging on the center’s main wall, two performers entertained a crowd and invited the audience to sing along. Up first, Lucia Veronica Carmona beat a drum, strummed a guitar, and sang with a voice that could pierce walls. Carmona, who now works in the anti-domestic violence field in neighboring New Mexico, told FNS that she was “honored to play,” especially in light of her own history in the maquiladora labor movement.
Carmona was followed by the legendary Charlie King, a Massachusetts musician whose roots date to the folk revival of the 1960s. Mixing satirical lyrics with somber stories, King spun tunes about the executed labor activists Sacco and Vanzetti, immigrant workers, Donald Trump, and the 1 percent. His long song about Yanira Moreno, a woman who escaped Salvadoran death squads to become an immigrant labor leader in California, struck a particular chord.
Seated close to King, the ex-Lexmark workers listened attentively. Asked during a break their opinions of the labor balladeer, the women said they enjoyed his music but couldn’t understand the English words. After some of the song themes were explained to them, the women nodded their heads and smiled. “It’s good, since we’re out of work,” worker Paulina Rodriguez said about the benefit. “It’s great support.”
In a subsequent interview, Carmona recalled entering the Juárez maquiladora industry as a young teen back in the mid-1970s, landing her first job assembling calculators at a factory operated by a California-based firm.
“It was seen as a blessing because it was a source of employment,”Carmona told FNS. But a young Juárez resident’s view of maquiladora life gradually changed as she watched co-workers get sick from exposure to toxic solvents, saw workers left high and dry as factories suddenly packed up in the middle of the night and departed the city, and participated in widespread protests that broke out at companies like Acapulco Fashion. In turn, police surveillance of the maquiladora workers increased, she said.
“Many workers began to wake up, deciding that it was necessary to work for better conditions,” Carmona added. “They began to have a political presence.”
Although 40 years have passed, Carmona views continuity in the fundamental nature of the maquiladora industry, an export-driven business tied to U.S. and other foreign markets that has relied on successive waves of internal migrants who are “disposed to be there because it’s even worse where they came from.” In essence, the workers are disposable and “recycled,” she said.
A 1980 feature article published in the still-young Proceso news magazine by Francisco Ortiz Pinchetti described a Juárez maquiladora industry “in which there is no room for rights or demands.”
Based on interviews with dozens of workers, the piece sketched complaints still raised by workers to this day — lack of union representation, blacklists of outspoken workers, and state labor agency bias toward employers.
According to Proceso, the maquiladoras specifically recruited young women workers aged 16 to 24 with no children or a formal education higher than middle school. Like many others, however, Carmona slipped into the workforce even before she was 16.
Fired Lexmark worker Paulina Rodriguez said she entered her first maquiladora back in 1986-87 at the age of 16. The shop floor was made up almost exclusively of young women who constituted a labor force that eventually changed to include more men, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez concurred with Carmona that wages bought more in the old days, adding that she was able to financially help her parents with the money she earned. “Now there is only money for the day,” Rodriguez lamented.
The veteran assembly-line worker said food costs in particular are taking a big pinch out of workers’ paychecks, exemplified by the rise in staple beans from 10 pesos to 16 pesos a kilo. In Juárez, much of the food consumed is imported from the United States, whose dollar has soared in value above the Mexican peso during the last year, she said.
“Our hope is that all of the people of Juárez raise their voice,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully, more people will join us and realize we are worse off every day.”
A core of former Lexmark workers maintains a protest encampment outside the company’s property, rotating the guard to keep a 24-hour presence. Delgado and Rodriguez said the current workers inside the plant are closely monitored and intimidated from communicating with the protesters.
“We’re going to continue until this is settled,” Rodriguez vowed.