Reflections from Delegation to
Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Oct. 13-15, 2006.
CYNTHIA EDWARDS, 1L
Life at the border
[Cynthia is a first year law
student at Northern Illinois University; she attended the delegation to
Reynosa, Tamaulipas, October 13-15, 2006]
Photo by Christina Murrey
In October 2006, I participated in a delegation
to the U.S.-Mexico border. As part of the 12 person delegation,
which was partly organized by a professor at Northern Illinois University’s
College of Law I traveled to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, a town on the
U.S.-Mexico border that is next to McAllen, Texas. The group
was comprised of the professor, three other students at my law school,
and National Lawyers’ Guild lawyers and staff.
The purpose of the trip was to meet Mexican
factory workers and hear about their experiences working in American owned
factories on the border, called maquiladoras, which owe their
existence to the North American Free Trade Agreement. While in Mexico
and through a workers’ activist organization called the CFO (Comite
Fronterizo de Obreras) I met several workers, some who had been injured
at work from unsafe conditions at the Emerson factory, others who were
struggling to live on the minimal salaries they earned working at a factory,
and others who were laid off from Delphi Electronics, because they couldn’t
afford to buy the closed-toe shoes their jobs required. A significant
number of the workers were single mothers who told of working long hours
to earn enough money to survive while also struggling to find appropriate
childcare for their children.
One part of the trip involved having a meal in
the home of a former maquiladora worker, Alejandra, whom with a group
of other Delphi workers some years past had pressed a grievance charge
for unfair treatment by their employer and union. She had
won her request for backpay and proper severance benefits and had used
the settlement money to start a business of her own, a taco stand.
In the end, the trip to the border allowed me to better understand corporate
globalization, learn about Mexico's economy and the role of Mexican Federal
Being at the border was a life-changing experience. It showed me
the truth about life for maquiladora workers. Many of the maquiladora workers worked long hours yet still could not afford
the necessary things in life. Most workers lived in small one-level
houses with few rooms. It was amazing to actually go into
their houses and see how they live day-to-day. One bathroom I used
only had a bed sheet as the bathroom door, no light or mirror and no toilet
seat. It was unbelievable to hear people’s first-hand stories
and then see the reality of those stories.
I’ve been interested in Latino culture since I took an introductory
Spanish class in middle school. Taking this trip to the border helped
me learn about the pitfalls of corporate globalization at the U.S.-Mexican
border and also helped me understand why many workers choose to come to
the U.S. for better work. Once I earn my J.D. I plan to assist companies
in establishing policies and programs that follow government regulations
and help businesses deal with international issues such as short-term
work assignments and creating companies abroad and assisting families
in relocation abroad. My trip to Reynosa solidified my future interests,
and I am grateful that I was part of such an exhilarating experience.
* * * *
* * * *
Mexico – Reflection
[Natalie is a second year law student
at Northern Illinois University; she attended the delegation to Reynosa,
Tamaulipas, October 13-15, 2006]
When I decided to attend the Fall 2006 NIU delegation to Mexico I thought
that it would be a good opportunity to learn about how globalization affects
working women in another country. The concept of globalization was
fairly new to me and the delegation offered a unique personal perspective
of another country’s approach to entering the global economy and
how it ultimately affected its citizens. As it turned out, the delegation
experience provided me not only with the educational information I desired
but also an unexpected lesson on empowerment and courage.
The first day that our 12 person delegation arrived in Reynosa, we met
with members of a workers’ group known as the CFO, or Comité
Fronterizo de Obreras, (CFO) and attended a meeting they had planned
with some maquiladora workers. It was early evening and raining lightly
when we all filed into a small backyard of one of the workers to meet
with about 10 male maquiladora workers at the Emerson factory, which makes
motors for large appliances, like washers and dryers. The
group of workers greeted us warmly but also nervously, probably because
they were not sure who we were and what to expect from the meeting with
CFO organizers, in which they were all about to take part. Because
of the rain we all moved into the small house where workers shared their
stories regarding the mistreatment and injuries they and others received
while working at Emerson whose main buyer is Maytag, a well known seller
of washing machines to American consumers. During this meeting,
the stories that I had previously read began to seem more than just a
report from an article but a reality that I was unable to experience until
that moment. As, I looked around the small living room where 30 people
or so were congregated, I noticed a picture on the wall of the male worker’s
home with his wife; the furniture and toys in the photo told me the couple
had a small child. I realized that he was just like any other man in America
or the world for that matter trying to provide and care for his family.
Meeting with the CFO, which teaches workers their rights under the law,
was both a risk and a chance for this father and husband wanting to improve
his opportunities for providing for his family. Little did I know that
the drive and courage this man displayed that night by just having that
meeting at his home, was a theme I would encounter the entire weekend.
On Saturday, the second day of the delegation, we met with another group
of workers, also at a private residence. The workers we met at this particular
meeting were part of a group of women who had been fired from their
jobs at a factory that produced auto parts because they refused to obey
a “closed toe shoe policy” that their employer recently implemented
. At first I thought that it was not a serious issue and all they had
to do was buy some new shoes and the company would give them their jobs
back. However, I was very wrong and it was a more serious issue involving
a newly implemented policy being used as a tactic by the company, Delphi
Electronics, because if they could fire them for cause the company would
be able to avoid paying the severance benefits required by law. These
women had not been working since they were discharged in July and had
filed a grievance against the company but many of them were getting concerned
about the time it was taking for results. These women, like the men we
met the night before, seemed worried that they were doing the right thing
by meeting with the CFO and by deciding to press their actions against
the company, now armed with the information about their rights and possible
strategies that the CFO was providing them. The CFO was making the workers
aware of their particular rights concerning this issue and allowing them
to decide on further actions they should continue to take. I thought how
courageous one would have to be to give up finding another job for three
months so they could take a stand against an unfair policy and unfair
dismissal. Even if the policy is wrong at the same time the workers
must be scared about whether they would in fact get their jobs back or
the severance package they deserved. But the information
provided by the CFO seemed to provide further hope and motivation to pursue
the claim before the labor board. Still these women who had every
reason to be scared and unsure about what they had gotten themselves into,
smiled at and were friendly toward the unexpected guests who were U.S.
citizens and visitors to the border. I also felt a sense of worry
for these women unsure of what would happen to them and whether they would
win their claim against the employer. I wondered whether some
would give up hope and just buy the required shoes and go back to work?
Or would some have to look for another job at another maquiladora with
the fear of being blacklisted because of their actions at their previous
jobs. Uncertainty plagues us all but very few of us rise to meet it head
on as these women were doing.
That same day I was also pleased to hear that a maquiladora woman worker,
Alejandra, who was in the same position as the women we met with earlier
prevailed after two years with other workers in an unfair firing charge
against the very same employer. We had lunch at her home, which
had a small outdoor food stand attached which she ran herself in the evenings.
She had built this food stand with the money she received from her labor
settlement and now was able to support herself and her family. Her story
was also inspirational because she was clearly a mother figure that held
the other workers together to continue with the suit against their employer.
This woman, Doña Alejandra, was able to use her strength and courage
that led others to a victory when she was probably also uncertain
of the outcome herself.
It was refreshing to hear that progress can be made by a single worker
or groups of workers at a time. Although there is much to address along
the border with respect to the maquiladora industry and labor rights,
disseminating knowledge of one’s rights to the workers does in fact
empower them and can push multinational companies to obey the law and
secure for workers the compensation they deserve.
* * * * *
* * *
RACHEL CONRADT-ADAMS, 3L
s a third year law student at Northern Illinois University; she attended
the delegation to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, October 13-15, 2006]
I thought I was being exploited and “treated badly” by radio
and television stations who paid me 16 to 23 thousand dollars a year after
I graduated from Northwestern University in 1998. I left the business
and came to law school specifically because I wanted to join a less “exploitive”
I sincerely believed that until I realized the scandalous treatment and
wages workers along the Texas/Mexico U.S. Border received. The first
night we were there, we visited an average “maquiladora” (Mexican
factory) worker’s home. An entire family lived in a “house”
smaller than the size of my senior year studio apartment in Evanston,
During that night, a secret meeting of male maquiladora workers met at
that home. Those Mexican men in the maquiladoras supporting their
entire families spoke matter of factly that their wages totaled 36 U.S.
dollars a week converted into American figures. While making
36 dollars a week, one worker who spoke to us in this secret meeting spoke
of nearly losing his his leg at work because a faulty safety latch fell
on him, requiring about 30 stitches. But his employer tried to avoid
paying him any medical compensation or benefits. He told of finally
getting help on getting proper workers’ compensation benefits from
the CFO, an organization
that is made up of maquiladora workers who teach each other how to organize
for justice using the law and how to receive compensation for work related
We also toured all of the companies that unions complain have left America
for “cheap” Mexican wages. The conditions described
were deplorable, and reminded me of the stories I heard in elementary
school about African American slaves on southern plantations living in
small cabins for their masters. One of the workers showed us deeply
mud infested yards fenced in, with mini shacks, where Mexican workers
must live because they can’t afford to buy better housing or because
the tiny government backed housing ties them down with lifelong debt repayment
Ironically, however, we learned that Mexican law actually offers more
benefits to workers and women with children, in theory, than American
laws. But the problem, C.F.O. members explained, is enforcement.
Not just in Mexico, but the United States, laws serve no purpose unless
people are aware of them. The conditions in these factories frequently
violate Mexican law. But workers do not realize they have legal
rights against these deplorable conditions, and therefore seek no recourse
to enforce them.
* * * * *
The van shot straight down the Texas portion of
interstate 35 and then 57 south
meeting brush, dead armadillos
and the bones of old land and racial wars
buried underneath concrete
and the forgotten archives of what was once
The travelers hailed from the
North to meet women who toil
72 hour weeks to earn un dolar
per 60 minutes of repetitive motion
to feed tiny malnourished kids
playing near railroad tracks
who are then carried by swollen
hands that ache from carpel tunnel syndrome
and that cook the best meal possible
on the cheap budget of the maquiladora worker
The visitors' privilege screamed
quietly from their casual clothes
and backpacks filled with food
that the border Mexicanos never see
their good questions about the life
of the oppressed and the absence
of decent lawyering to enforce their rights
fluttered over increasingly sad scenes
of poverty despite hard work and
occasional gestures of
they offered a handshake and hug of compassion
parted with smiles of gratitude
that those who shared their humble shacks
and photos ops for digital cameras
had also shared the indomitable spirit
of survival, struggle and hope for a brighter
future from making alliance with
those willing to admit they Did Not Know
and now must return to their comfortable homes
guilt and confusion sitting like throw pillows
on the couch of despair
as they sit back and try to make sense
of all they saw, felt and cannot ever forget.
Elvia Arriola, Oct. 12, 2005
following the Delegation to Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Oct. 7-9 (2005))
Yvonne Lapp Cryns, J.D. 2006
Report on the NIU Delegation to Mexico
(Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña, Oct.7-9, 2005).
Have you ever given any thought to who sews
the pants and shirts you wear? Who makes your Nike shoes?
Who put the electrical system together for your car? Five NIU College
of Law students had the opportunity to travel to Mexico and meet some
of the people who work in factories that make those consumer goods and
learn about the effects of globalization on these people who live so close
to our U.S. border.
The Delegation Organizers
The trip was organized by law professor Elvia
Arriola, whose home is in Austin, Texas. A few years ago, Prof.
Arriola, became aware of the horrific labor situation of those toiling
in the maquiladoras (big factories primarily owned and operated by non-Mexicans).
In 1999, organizers of the grass-roots Mexican workers’ organization,
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, CFO, (Border Committee of Women Workers) www.cfomaquiladoras.org,
visited receptive organizations in Austin. Following this visit,
the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition along with the American Friends
Service Committee, AFSC, www.afsc.org/austin,
a branch of the Quaker church that works toward social justice issues,
founded Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border).
Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera promotes solidarity between people in
the States and those defending the rights of maquiladora workers in Mexico.
In 2000, Professor Arriola founded the non-profit
organization, Women on the Border, www.womenontheborder.org,
to call attention to the appalling conditions that exist for those so
close to the United States. About this same time, Austin Tan Cerca
de la Frontera and the American Friends Service Committee, AFSC initiated
meetings between Americans and some of the Maquiladora workers.
The meetings proved successful and were continued because they increase
awareness of the problems the Mexican workers face. Prof. Arriola
participated in a few of these delegations.
Our group was the 34th such group
to meet with the Mexican workers. Nikki Cain, Yvonne Lapp Cryns,
Kate Horozny, Sara Phalen, and Heather Vaughn and Prof. Arriola
represented NIU on this trip. The trip was available to any NIU
COL student and our group included three students from Prof. Arriola’s
seminar class and two from the student body at large. (It is hoped
that this opportunity will be available again in the future for NIU COL
students). A presentation of our delegation trip is planned for
Joining us as part of the delegation, once
we were assembled in Austin, was a writer for a Quaker magazine, a psychiatrist
from Austin, Texas, a graduate student in Latin American studies, a bilingual
fellow with 10 years experience with worker solidarity in Chiapas, Mexico,
and Judith Rosenberg, the AFSC representative. It was a delightful
blending of people, which was good because we spent a lot of time in close
quarters with each other. Were fortunate to have four people on
the trip with excellent abilities to translate the fast Spanish of the
people we met.
Meeting Maquiladora Worker-Organizers
Our first day in Mexico we went to the new
office of the CFO, in Piedras Negras in Coahuila. CFO is a Mexican
organization that was formed by and is led by workers and focuses on grass-roots
organizing to promote independent labor unions. Although factories
have unions, most are not separate from the management. This leads
to workers having no real advocate for their labor problems.
With the CFO in place, they have been able
to get independent unions started. The Mexican government, however,
does not necessarily support this kind of independence by workers.
In 2004, CFO’s complaint to the International Labour Organization, ILO
was accepted. This complaint states that the Mexican government
fails to guarantee the right of association of the workers.
We heard of workers who were fired by factories
because they became friendly with another worker or were seen talking
to a couple of other workers. The factory management, paranoid of
union organizers, simply fire those they speculate might be soliciting
for independent unions. Because many workers do not know their rights,
the factories were able to maintain control over the workers with occasional
firings. The CFO tries to keep under the radar by meeting with workers
one-on-one in their homes to educate them about their rights.
Viewing the Maquiladoras
We hustled from the office to the industrial
area where numerous maquiladoras are located so we could see them when
the shifts changed at 5 pm. The factories are large. Except
for the front offices, there are no windows in the factory areas for the
workers. Guards stood at the entrances to all the plants.
We saw the Malcomex plant and others. Malcomex (ALCOA) makes
parts for Ford, Subaru, Harley Davidson, GM and others.
Meeting Maquiladora Workers
Where They Live
We went to the homes of a number of maquiladora
workers during our visit. The paved roads end far from some of their
homes. Although it hadn’t rained recently, when we visited, our
van got stuck on a mud road and needed to be pushed out. The poorest
workers live as squatters in shelters made of whatever materials
they can find: old blankets, tarps, tin, wood slats from platforms.
We visited with one such worker whose house is in the shadow of a huge
maquiladora plant in Piedras Niegras.
Leticia lives in a humble squatter’s home cobbled
together from wood platforms and lined with cardboard. A couple
of years ago she was able to get a cement floor poured. Although
the outside is dusty and barren, the inside is clean. She has adorned
the walls with a few decorations.
Initially the squatters at this area “borrowed”
electricity from the maquiladora, but now pay a fee for it. Like
every home we visited, Leticia has a television and it is turned on.
The very rustic toilet, a one-seat outhouse, is a couple of steps from
the back room. She has running water, although it comes from a two-foot
high faucet that resembles one we’d use for a hose. The home has
two rooms—a dining room/kitchen and a bedroom/living room.
Leticia has three children: an 18-year old
daughter who lives with her, a 16 year-old who is married and a 3 year
old, “Chewey.” She tells us her oldest child cannot work at
the plant next door because they fear independent unions, and prohibit
more than one person from a family working there. There is nowhere
else nearby the daughter can work. So, the daughter stays home with
Chewey while her mother toils at the factory.
A neighbor boy of about 9 arrives. He
is fascinated by my digital camera and grabs my arm and drags me outside
to the home next door. An elderly woman is sewing. He wants
me to take a photo of her. I do, and then let him take one of me
with her. I learn later she is his grandmother. She was a
very good sport and seemed to like the photo I took. I will send
Dinner arrives, made by some other maquiladora
workers: tamales, rice and beans. It is delicious. We
eat and then must leave.
We go back to our tourist-grade hotel.
The court yard must be beautiful in summer, but now the pool is drained
leaving a huge dangerous hole 12-feet deep. In the morning we will
eat in the restaurant, most of us bravely ordering a Mexican version of
The next morning, we travel to visit with Ángela
in Acuña. There are 40 maquiladoras in Acuña. Enroute
we pass signs on the side of the road warning in Spanish, “Danger!” with
pictures of snakes and bugs. Ángela lives in a remote area
called Colonia Morenes. We ditch the van and walk the last couple
Her house is in a little valley. She
works in the Alcoa plant making electrical harnesses for cars. Her
home is one room, made of scavenged wood. The television is on.
There are lots of cracks where daylight shines through. She points
to the electric heater she’ll use in winter. She feels lucky that
she now has water – along with seven neighbors, they hooked up PVC pipe
and brought water to their homes. It is very basic.
Her grandson is with her today because her
daughter works 6 days a week from 7 am to 7 pm at the ALCOA plant
in order to make $950 pesos – about $95 per week. We learn that
the average worker at these plants makes about $500 pesos ($50 per week).
It is not enough money to cover the basic necessities of life.
What the workers want
In our conversations with the CFO, we are told
that the workers only want humane work conditions and a living wage.
It is not uncommon for workers to put in 72 hours in a week every week.
Workers who sew experience some of the most awful abuses because frequently
they are paid per item they sew. We heard of women who forego bathroom
breaks out of fear of losing their pay for falling behind in production.
Their diligence on the job, however results in serious health consequences.
The CFO teaches workers about their rights.
However if a worker decides to stand up for their rights and must go to
court, they frequently discover that it is difficult to find honest lawyers
to take their kinds of cases.
NAFTA: Free Trade does NOT mean Fair
NAFTA, the U.S. trade agreement with Mexico
appears to be a good arrangement. However, it benefits big business
and causes the workers to be forced into greater poverty. Before
NAFTA, the maquiladora workers made about $100-200 per week, I learn.
After NAFTA, they are making $30-$40 per week.
Fair Trade would not mean unduly high costs
for consumers in the U.S. It would take only pennies from the pockets
of shareholders in these large corporations to provide a living wage to
the workers so that they could heat their homes, buy clothes and shoes
for their children, feed them nutritious meals, and pay for school.
Dignidad y Justicia -- “Dignity and
During our last visit with the CFO staff, we
were told about their new venture, Dignidad y Justicia, and given an opportunity
to purchase some of the products they are marketing. The CFO began
a project to provide some former maquiladora garment workers employment.
CFO began its own maquiladora sewing bags and T-shirts. The bags
are well-made and reasonably priced. The T-shirts are made of organic
cotton. In addition, coffee grown in Chiapas through a cooperative
arrangement, is sold for a fair price -- $3.50 per pound. It is
excellent quality and delicious. They need help in marketing these
items in this country. If you are aware of some potential sources,
please contact Judy Rosenberg, Austin Tan Cerca: chelarose@grandecom.
It is uncomfortable to ponder the Nike’s on
my feet and wonder whether some young woman, with small children milling
about her shack-like home, made my shoes and in doing so exposed her family
to the toxic fumes of the adhesives. As I consider which one of
my many pairs of pants I’ll wear today, I think of the garment workers
who are psychologically chained to their sewing machines so they make
quota and get rewarded with less than a living wage. And as I drive
to school, I consider the auto plant workers who made the components in
my car and wonder how many months they and their children have gone without
eating a fresh fruit or vegetable because their wage does not provide
enough to pay for such luxury.
This report is a very short glimpse of what
I experienced over one weekend. I feel so honored to have been part
of the delegation and humbled to have been so graciously invited into
the homes of the maquiladora workers. The poverty was everywhere
and in such enormity I have difficulty comprehending it: Acuña,
a city of 150,000, where the best homes are cement 12 x 30 foot utilitarian
rectangles 3 feet from the next; the worst homes are cardboard boxes;
and, as of 2001, about half the residents use backyard latrines!
Yet in spite of these enormous difficulties,
I witnessed the strong and supportive relationships of the women and men
who struggle to make the lives of those around them better. They
do this by educating one person at a time about their rights. These
people are heroes for the incredible barriers they must overcome daily
to achieve the victories that make life in the Mexican border towns more
humane for the maquiladora workers.
SPECIAL THANK YOU to the NIU COL Italian-American
Organization and the Second Amendment Society for their very generous
donations that made the purchase of school supplies for needy maquiladora
workers’ children possible. The CFO representatives were overwhelmed
by your kindness.