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Factory Workers In Juárez Unionize For Higher Pay, Better Working Conditions

Former factory workers employed by the American-owned telecommunications company, CommScope, gather outside the state labor tribunal in Ciudad Juárez. These workers are part of the city's only independently organized factory union. (Mónica Ortiz Uribe)

JUAREZ — As labor unrest continues to ripple across this Mexican border city, a group of workers has managed to start the city's only independently organized factory union.

Close to 200 workers are now members of a new union approved by the Chihuahua state labor tribunal. The union got its registration in December and is now in contract negotiations with the American telecommunications company CommScope.

Most of the workers claim they were fired by the company for their organization efforts and are suing to get their jobs back. In a written statement CommScope denies this saying it fired only eight workers in the fall for violating work rules.

"This is something historic," said Cuauhtemoc Estrada, the local labor attorney representing the workers. "Independently organized unions are hard to find."

More common in Mexico are so called paper unions, which are set up and largely controlled by companies. But even those unions are rare in Juárez. For half a century multinational companies have flocked to this city in search of cheap labor located at the doorstep of the United States. Today it has the largest labor force along the U.S./Mexico border which, in good times, employes about 200,000 workers at more than 300 factories. Workers manufacture everything from chew toys to Dell computers to giant wind turbines.

Late last year hundreds of workers from at least four factories, including Lexmark, Eaton-Busman, Scientific Atlanta, and CommScope, began protesting poor working conditions and low wages. CommScope workers are the first to unionize. Estrada, their attorney, said it's the beginning of what could be a long battle.

"Their union petition was rejected by the state three times," Estrada said. "These workers have prevailed out of sheer tenacity."

He recalls how workers set up a protest camp outside the factory for 43 days in the dead of winter. They took turns manning the camp 24 hours a day, he said. Some had to bring their children.

Others, including the secretary of labor for the state of Chihuahua, have publicly blamed local labor attorneys for provoking worker unrest out of their own financial interest.

The workers deny this, saying they began organizing among themselves and then sought legal help. Among their complaints are neglect of injured workers, forced overtime without extra pay and inadequate sick leave. But their main complaint is salary.

"You can't live on our salaries," said former CommScope worker Brenda Estrada. "You just survive."

At CommScope workers manufacture coaxial and fiber optic cables used by companies like Verizon and major internet providers. In its statement, the company said an entry level worker, after six months employment, earns $8 a day plus benefits. That's double Mexico's federal minimum wage, which according to a study by Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM), has lost 78 percent of its value in the last 30 years.

“Businesses promote this region as an area of global competitiveness," said Kathleen Staudt, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who’s studied labor issues in Mexico for 30 years.

“People need to unpack that phrase ‘global competitiveness’ and understand what it really means," Staudt said. "It means a kind of competitiveness that’s exercised on the backs of workers.”

study by the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness at UTEP shows factory wages in Juárez are among the lowest in Mexico, while plant manager salaries are among the highest. When compared to manufacturing wages in China, Mexico is 40 percent cheaper.

In its 2014 financial report CommScope reported earnings of $236 million. In that report the company tells its shareholders it utilizes "low-cost geographies" like Juárez to save money.

A CommScope spokesman said all its operations outside the United States are in compliance with local labor laws and that the company encourages employee feedback. Frank Drendel, CommScope's founder and board chairman, declined a request for an interview.

BorderPlex, a consulting group in El Paso that recruits companies to Juárez, was also unavailable for an interview.

A source who’s worked in management for a major factory in Juárez and asked to remain anonymous in order to speak openly explained “executives fear speaking about unions more than the plague.”

Another former CommScope worker, Ali Lopez, said, "It's sad that these companies don't value the work we do."

Lopez said that after she lost her job her family went without running water for three months.

Workers like Lopez help fuel half a trillion dollars in annual trade between the U.S. and Mexico, a figure that’s grown six-fold in the last two decades. That's brought prosperity to American border cities like El Paso where one out of every four jobs is tied to trade and per capita income is rising at a faster pace than the national average.

Estrada, the union attorney, said the workers don't want the factories to leave the city.

"They generate jobs," he said. "All they want is for the company to share its profit fairly and allow its workers to have a decent life."