By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On one of the few paved roads in Cananea, a small Mexican mining town at the Arizona border, an isolated rectangular building of white sheet metal sits in the sun. On its front there are two small windows and two doors. At one time, up to a thousand people toiled in this plant nine hours a day in sweatshop-like conditions for less than 40 cents an hour, manufacturing computer keyboards and video games. And it is here that a company named Maxi Switch Inc. smashed the independent union its workers formed in November 1995.
It is also in this plant that Maxi Switch manufactured special keyboards for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's media company Bloomberg LP. In fact, Maxi Switch has produced these keyboards for years. Bloomberg LP likely was aware of Maxi Switch's attempt to bust its union, and, it seems, did nothing about it.
These keyboards accompany the flat-panel Bloomberg terminals that clients of the Bloomberg Professional service can lease in order to get real-time financial data delivered to them. The service costs between $1285 and $1640 per month per workstationand for an extra 150 bucks a month customers can have the special terminal and keyboard on their desks. Bloomberg clients include all the major private banking firms and central banks, said Chris Taylor, spokesperson for Bloomberg LP. With 166,000 terminals leased to date, the Bloomberg Professional service represents "at least 95 percent" of the company's revenues, according to Taylor, who declined to answer further questions about the origin, the volume, and the nature of Bloomberg LP's business relationship with Maxi Switch.
However, according to Leonel Meneses Encinas, who supervised shipments at Maxi Switch's Cananea plant for four years, and Olga Figueroa Bustamante, who was in charge of its quality-control department, Bloomberg's keyboards and their unmistakable special keys were produced at this plant.
Beside Bloomberg LP, Maxi Switch's clients include major companies such as IBM, Dell, Sega, Gateway, and Lexmark. Based in Tucson, Arizona, the company is a subsidiary of the Taiwanese corporation Lite-On/Silitek Global EMS Group. During a three-month investigation, the Voiceinterviewed many former Maxi Switch workers, and some still at the company, about their working conditions and the busting of their union.
Maxi Switch opened its Cananea, Sonora, facility in the fall of 1994. "It started with about 300 workers and exceeded 1000" by the end of 1995, said Héctor Tagles, then Cananea's mayor, who recalled inaugurating the plant.
Wages at Maxi Switch were much lower than at other foreign assembly plants, called maquiladoras, said all workers interviewed by the Voice. Workers at Microsistemas, a Cananea maquiladora producing textiles, would get "four times more than what Maxi Switch paid," according to Enrique Treviso Molinares, who worked two years as a Maxi Switch manager before switching to Microsistemas. Former Maxi Switch worker Alicia Pérez García kept pay slips from the time she started working there which show her daily pay was the minimum wage at the time: 18.30 Mexican pesosor $2.98 at the 1995 exchange rate. One week, she worked the regular 48 hours and got $23, bonuses and benefits included.
Workers also complained about a lack of ventilation that caused people to faint, the few cramped buses available to get to the plant, a lunchroom with only two tables and one microwave for up to 1000 workers, and inflexible supervisors who often refused to let workers go to the bathroom or drink water. Finally, in August 1995, a group of workers started to form an independent union, with the help of the Union of Telephone Workers of Mexico, to get better wages and conditions.
When managers learned about the organizing, they threatened to fire workers supporting the union. Rumors spread among management that the company would close the plant if the union got in, said Treviso. "They made me understand that if [workers] imposed a union, they [Maxi Switch] would go," added former Mayor Tagles.
But this didn't discourage employees, who formed the Union of Maxi Switch Workers, and sought official recognition before the Sonora Conciliation and Arbitration Board on November 24, 1995. Four days later, the union's newly elected secretary general, Alicia Pérez, was working on her line when a co-worker punched her in the arm and torso. When she complained to the human resources representative, she was fired. In the following months, several other union leaders were dismissed.
On January 23, 1996, the Conciliation and Arbitration Board denied legal recognition to the union, arguing that Maxi Switch already had a signed collective labor contract with a state union. But workers were never told about this union and Pérez's pay slips do not show that she was paying any union dues. They later found out that on September 20, 1995a month after workers started organizingthe company had signed a contract with a union affiliated with the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), or Mexican Confederation of Workers, a government union federation.
"I know how to handle unions and how you can protect yourself [from them]," said Salvador Talamantes Torres, director of Maxi Switch's Cananea plant at the time. Talamantes admitted that Maxi Switch sought to protect itself from unions. The company's strategy began with signing a labor contract with a CTM-affiliated union.