Mexican maquila workers visit Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisvillians gathered at the Steelworkers Local 106 Hall June 7 to welcome Mexican workers who came to tell what happens with Kentucky jobs once they cross the border. It wasn’t the first time that Mexican and Kentucky workers had found the need to learn each other’s story and seek each other’s support.

In 1999, Hoov-R-Line, owned by Moen, announced it would close down its profitable factory in Providence, Ky., laying off 144 steelworkers. The company relocated to Mexico to cut labor costs and boost profits, an example of the devastating impact of NAFTA.

In October 2000, Kentucky Jobs with Justice and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) had organized a delegation of workers and activists to go to Nogales, Mexico, to visit their old jobs. They saw first-hand the new Moen plant and the conditions that workers on the Mexican side face. The story of that trip, with interviews from the workers on both sides, is the subject of a documentary, available from Kentucky Jobs with Justice.

Now the workers from Mexico, hosted by the USWA, and Jobs with Justice, are paying a return visit. Larry Ray of the Steelworkers welcomed the visitors. He said, “Hundreds of good union jobs at Louisville Ladder are going to Mexico. We will end up with only about 30 jobs here. Jobs are leaving our country but the pay and benefits are not going with them. We need to hold both legislators and corporations accountable for what is happening to workers.”

Chris Sanders, secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, reported that of the 700,000 U.S. workers who have lost their jobs since the passage of NAFTA, 50,000 of those were Kentucky jobs.

One of the Mexican women spoke of her job making circuits for computers and cellular phones. She said that they were pressured to work under terrible conditions but ended up being fired when the factory announced it was moving on to Thailand, where the conditions were “more competitive.”

She told of the illusions that workers had of the development and benefits that would come from these plants. She said, “Many travel from the south of Mexico in search of these jobs. But the government and the corporations take advantage of our trust. Education suffers, for parents cannot earn enough to keep their children in school. Parents must leave their children alone for the long hours required by the maquilas. The development is only a promise never fulfilled. The plants are developed – but across a little hill is where the workers live with no development there at all – not even clean water.”

Elisa Ortega from Agua Prieta told of her organization, formed six years ago, to bring to the workers the knowledge of their rights and of the labor laws. She said the work is hard and slow but that it must be done. She said that Mexican law has many protections for workers, but that these laws are constantly broken. The Workers Border Alliance is organizing workers to know their rights. Ortega said that “Together, all is possible.”

Maria Price, of Jobs with Justice, closed the meeting. Everyone signed letters to Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) who voted for NAFTA but refused to even meet with the Louisville Ladder workers.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org