By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
"This was a case where the union that Maxi Switch had was what we call in Mexico a ghost union," said Roberto Dagnino, director general of industrial development for the state of Sonora, who was vice-president of the Cananea Chamber of Commerce at the time. This was confirmed by Tagles and Treviso. "The ghost union is really a placeholder," according to labor expert Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who added that "it is an institution that the employer itself brings in to avoid a real union coming in."
These ghost unionsalso called protection unionsare illegal, since Mexican federal labor law clearly states that workers have the right to form their own union to defend their interests. In fact, it was also illegal for the Conciliation and Arbitration Board to deny recognition to the workers' union on the grounds that the company already had one, since Mexican labor law doesn't prohibit more than one union in the workplace. The workers' union then asked the help of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), who, on October 11, 1996, filed a submission denouncing the situation with the U.S. National Administrative Office (NAO), an agency set up under NAFTA to review labor law issues arising in Canada or Mexico.
A few days before the NAO hearings on the matter, and under pressure from the Mexican government, the board granted the union's registration in April 1997, and in exchange, the CWA set aside its NAO submission. Still, the union was not granted the right to bargain the Maxi Switch labor contract until five months later, in October.
According to Bloomberg spokesperson Chris Taylor, Bloomberg LP's understanding is that the problem involved the Mexican government and two unions in a dispute over which one would represent workers at the Cananea plant. "As far as we can tell, the dispute was resolved amicably several years ago pursuant to an agreement among union officials and the Mexican government," reads a Bloomberg LP statement sent to the Voice on April 12, 2002. The Voicehad received no comment from Mayor Bloomberg's office at press time.
However, by the time the arbitration board gave the workers' union the right to bargain, the company had laid off most of its workers, cutting back to a few hundred, and had transferred most of its production to a plant in Hermosillo, Sonora. Maxi Switch also changed the Cananea plant's name to Conceptos de Maquila. While the company pretended it had sold the plant to new ownersin which case the union's certification would be invalidthe business did not change, according to Talamantes. Conceptos de Maquila never bargained with the workers' union and closed in 1999.
Today, Bloomberg's keyboards are manufactured at the Maxi Switch plant in Hermosillo, according to a manager there who asked to remain anonymous. According to Bloomberg LP's statement, "The company assures us unequivocally that it is in full compliance with the labor laws of Mexico." It further states that, "Maxi-Switch [sic] also assures us that it has in place a collective bargaining agreement with a recognized bona fide union, as is required by Mexican law." Indeed , when asked about the company's labor problems, Maxi Switch corporate counsel Michael Trull said, "I know we have a union, and I know that the contract was bargained for and it has been approved, of course, by the Mexican government. So, we always comply with Mexican labor laws."
Yet, when Maxi Switch opened the Hermosillo plant in June 1996, the company was in the middle of the labor conflict at the Cananea plant. In fact, Talamantes, the Cananea plant director, said he bought the Hermosillo plant buildings and started operations there. At the new site, he once again knew "how to handle unions." The company signed a collective labor contract there with the same CTM-affiliated union with whom it had signed in Cananea to keep out the workers' union.
When the Voiceasked the secretary general of this CTM-affiliated union, Guadalupe Gracia, whether her group was acting as a protection union at the Cananea plant, she strongly denied it. "We did a very good job in Cananea. And I can assure you that if I go back to Cananea, people will welcome me with open arms, because we came off well as a union," Gracia added, although minutes earlier she'd been unable to remember whether her union signed a contract with Maxi Switch at that plant.
Javier Villarreal Gámez, CTM deputy secretary general at the state level, gave another version of the story. When asked whether Gracia's union acted as a protection union in Cananea, he said that "at that time, it was approximately true. That is, this union is not a protection union. But neither is it a very active union." He later added, "I recognize that this union had its problems at the beginning, but little by little it has improved its work, and now it is considered, in general terms, a good union."
But are the Hermosillo workers any better off? These workers, including a few who were brought from Cananea by management, are also underpaid, according to most managers and workers interviewed, who were afraid to allow use of their names. The wages at this Maxi Switch plant are still lower than those of other maquiladoras. In fact, according to Villarreal Gámez, today maquiladoras pay workers, on average, two to three times the daily minimum wagethat is, between 80 and 120 pesos ($8.85 to $13.30), a figure confirmed by various labor experts. Yet, according to a copy of the contract Maxi Switch signed with Gracia's union and obtained by the Voice, the company pays starting workers 44 pesos a day ($4.76), increasing to 63 pesos ($6.82) when they reach six months' seniority. Wages at Maxi Switch are thus very close to today's daily minimum wage, which is 40.10 pesos ($4.45) in Hermosillo.