Lajat Struggle Resolved in Unprecented Negotiations: Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras Press Release
Date of publication: April 20, 2006
Source: Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras
Workers, CJM, and Levi Strauss Force Lajat to Respect Code
Workers Gain Full Severance and Keep Their Independent Union to Take on New Challenges
On March 27 and 28 Joe Macarrone, the Vice-president of Production of Levi’s Latin America, Michael Kobori, the Vice-president of Levi’s Global Code of Conduct, and Miriam Rodriguez, Director of Production for Latin America of Levi’s set an historic precedent in Mexico, when they came to the field and opened negotiations between the management of Lajat, the first independent union of workers in the Laguna region, and CJM. Macarrone and Kobori very clearly stated that Levi’s supports the right of workers to freedom of association. They exhorted both sides - company and workers - to come to an agreement. They also warned Lajat that they did not respect freedom of association Levi’s would reduce and eventually cancel its contracts and move them out of Mexico.
The President of Manufactures Lajat, Oscar Gonzalez, reported that Lajat was committed to respect the right of freedom of association and informed Levi that Lajat has given a course about the workers’ rights to their management as Levi Strauss had suggested. The workers declared that to make its commitment to freedom of association real, Lajat should recognize their independent union, their right to collective bargaining and should reinstate the workers, since they were fired for organizing their union.
Meanwhile the workers and their families waited outside the negotiations in the heat talking to the media and conducting several press conferences.
After long and tense discussions, Lajat informed the workers that they preferred to pay them severance, in accordance with the Federal Labor Law [LFT], instead of recognizing the independent union of the Lajat workers. The LFT permits them to do this, but, several days of difficult discussion followed before the workers finally decided to accept severance. Finally Lajat management and the workers agreed to the following:
o Lajat would pay 100% of what it owed to IMSS (Social Security), and INFONAVIT (government housing program and would give the workers a copy of the receipt by March 30th
o Criminal complaints brought by Lajat against the workers would be dropped. Lajat would withdraw the charges against Fernando Armijo (the worker accused unjustly of theft). The workers would recover the bail bond of 5,000 pesos that they paid to release Fernando Armijo. Lajat would withdraw criminal complaints against other workers since whom they had accused of falsely kidnapping security guards employed by the company.
o Lajat will remove workers from the black lists they circulated to other companies and give a letter of recommendation to each worker that can be used to challenge the blacklists. Lajat will give them a letter of recommendation for CANACINTRA [National Chamber of Industry] where the companies circulate the black lists.
o The workers will withdraw all the criminal charges that they presented for intimidation and threats, when the managers of Lajat threatened them, harassed them and intimidated them in their own homes, etc.
o Overtime pay that Lajat owed the workers would be paid along with 100% of the severance payments according with the law - a total amount of $4,250,000 pesos (about $4.2 milion US) - on April 3rd.
Lajat Dances: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The day after reaching this agreement, Lajat’s Corporate Director Javier Lara began dancing. He had promised to pay INFONAVIT and IMSS in full. Instead he offered to pay 50 % of the workers’ severance on April 3rd, and the rest in one month later. The workers refused.
Lara also demanded that the workers withdraw charges they had made against the President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Board (CAB), Javier Cobarruvias in exchange for withdrawing criminal complaints against the workers. The workers said no and wondered why Lajat was negotiating for the CAB, supposedly a neutral body.
Finally, Lara demanded that the workers dissolve their independent union as a condition to receive their severance payments. Again the workers refused pointing out the price they had paid to win the union which included the lives two babies whose mothers Alejandra Dena and Verónica Aguayo, miscarried because of Lajat actions. Alejandra was one of the workers locked up in the cafeteria when police tear gassed them on October 27, and she lost her baby as a result. Verónica Aguayo lost her baby after supervisor Gabriela Mendoza (who is still working at the Lajat plant in Torreon) exposed her to long extended days of work producing 500 pieces a day while standing up until 8 p.m. Reyes Edelmira Rodríguez, the Secretary General of the independent union of Manufactures Lajat Workers told Lara, “These lives have no price.”. The request to dissolve the union as condition of paying severances was contrary to labor law, Reyes added.
CJM and the Workers Rock
Lara’s attempt to roll back the agreement occurred presumably because he know that Oscar Gonzalez had gone to Spain to scare up new contracts while Levi’s Macarrone and Rodriguez were in Colombia, and Michael Kabori was in Asia.
But the workers and CJM stepped up the pressure. The workers went to Lajat’s plants in Torreon and Nazareno to leaflet and sign up their co-workers in the independent union. They arrived with a megaphone as the buses lined up waiting for the workers at the end of their shift. Lajat had promised the Levi Vice Presidents to respect the right of the workers to organize, but as soon as Paty Lujan, the chief of security and a member of the owning Bello family, saw the workers arrive; she ordered the buses to enter the plant grounds behind the gates to prevent access to the employees. The organizers shouted, “Lajat you can take the buses inside, but you can’t cover the workers eyes and ears. You can’t stop them from learning their right to organize.” In spite of the guards, the workers came and got the flyers, asking for advice and support since Lajat was firing workers without paying them any severance.
Meanwhile, the members of the CJM Action Committee in Kansas City, LA, New York, San Francisco, and Winipeg began calling and emailing Macarrone and Rodriguez in Colombia and Kobori in Asia to tell them that Lara’s demands were an utter violation of Mexican Labor Law and Levi’s Code.
Levi’s people called Gonzales in Spain, and, on April 5th, after several more moves, Lajat finally dropped the other demands and agreed to pay 100% of severance in accordance with the law.
On April 6th, the workers arrived on time at the CAB. Lara got there an hour late. The workers reviewed each of the payments to INFONAVIT and IMSS delivered by Lajat and discovered that the more than 200 bimonthly payments were missing. The negotiations began again, and finally Lajat agreed to a proposal by the workers’ lawyer, Federico O’Reilly that Lajat deposit a check for 100 thousand pesos ($10,000) in the CAB as guarantee for the missing payments which they’d make in two weeks. If on April 21 the above mentioned payments are not made, then the workers will use the check for the missing payments to the above mentioned institutions.
Lajat delivered the checks of the severance payments to each of the 57 workers in addition to a letter of recommendation to counter the black list circulated by Lajat. Nevertheless the workers discovered that the letters of recommendation were not signed by the president of Lajat as had been agreed to but instead was signed by some Engineer named Salcido who did not have any credibility for the workers, so they demanded that Lara, sign each of the letters too.
The next day the bank did not have sufficient funds to liquidate 425 thousand dollars and the workers spent most of the day in line waiting for their money. Then they went to the police station to verify whether the charges against them and especially against Fernando Armijo had been dropped as agreed, but it was closed. Lajat’s criminal lawyer told them they’d have to wait until April 25th for withdraw of the charges.
As of this writing, Lajat has made the entire payment of the INFONAVIT and IMSS on April 25th, and withdraw the criminal complaints against Fernando Armijo, but despite their commitments, they have not withdrawn the complaints against the rest of the workers. The Chief of Police requested that before Lajat withdraws the complaints against the workers, the workers should withdraw the charges against Lajat and the president of the CAB, Francisco Cobarruvias.
PRECEDENTS, ACHIEVEMENTS AND CHALLENGES:
It took a year of struggle, but progress was made for the labor movement in La Laguna and internationally:
Organizing and Bargaining at Lajat
o The Lajat workers formed the first legally recognized workers coalition in a plant to bargain for their interests.
o They followed that by achieving the first legally registered independent union in the region.
o This union was led by women workers – also a first.
o Although Lajat never formally recognized the independent union it recognized them de facto by negotiating a collective labor agreement with the bargaining committee of the Lajat independent union, bypassing the monopoly of the CTM charro union.
o CJM and its member CJM Laguna both won a place at the table and were recognized parties to the negotiations. This is a first.
o The negotiations forced Lajat to pay 100% of what Federal Labor Law required as severance pay as well as 100% of the overtime owed the workers. Usually companies get away with paying only a portion of what is legally required. The $425,000.00 dollars will go directly into the community of the La Laguna region instead of being hoarded by Lajat.
CJM and Corporate Codes of Conduct
o This is the first case in Mexico that we know of in which corporate executives of a multinational customer (Levi Strauss) sat down at the table with the supplier company and the workers.
o CJM worked with Levi Strauss & Co for a year to make Levi’s Code of Conduct mean something. Our Action Committee and worker representatives spent hours in conference calls with Levi’s representatives informing, interpreting, and discussing how to make their requirement that suppliers respect the right to Freedom of Association more than just pretty words. When the negotiations stalled, we leafleted stores selling Levi’s jeans across the US and Canada and held a demonstration with strong labor and community support at Levi headquarters in San Francisco. Our postcard campaign generated hundreds of postcards sent by consumers and supporters to Levi Strauss
o All of this contributed to Levi’s unprecedented decision to go to Gomez Palacio for the beginning of the negotiations to reinforce their expectations that good faith negotiations take place that reach an agreement and to let Lajat know that their contract with Levi was hanging in the balance. We learned that enforcement of corporate codes of conduct takes active workers and active international support, but we also are impressed that Levi takes their Code seriously and looked for ways to make it work rather than just ignoring the problem or cutting and running like other contractors did (Mudd Jeans and Aeropostale/SieteLeguas).
o In Mexico CJM coordinated with grassroots organizations to mobilize simultaneous press conferences for the Lajat workers in Oaxaca, Tijuana, Chiapas, Tabasco, Valle Hermoso, Laredo, and Reynosa with the slogan “No struggle will be alone anymore”
o The Canadian Union of Postal Workers spread the word to its members nationally and to other unions.
o In San Francisco diverse organizations from our members the Marin Interfaith Task Force, Global Exchange, and Sweatshop Watch to the San Francisco Labor Council and the Asian Law Caucus gave enthusiastic support.
o At Thanksgiving and Christmas time CJM members and supporters leafleted stores from San Diego to Albany and from San Antonio to Winnipeg.
Building Grassroots Democracy in Mexico
o The Coalition for Justice La Laguna Region built alliances with local social forces to support the Lajat workers. This group included labor, farmers, indigenous people, The Popular and Social Front of the La Laguna Region, the section XVI of the Union of Health Workers of the IMSS in Gómez Palacio, as well as the popular mobilizations of Cuquita Orona, who are affiliated with CJM, and it played an important role in the struggle.
o CJM Laguna exposed the corruption of the labor authorities and particularly the role of the President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Board in stalling and blocking the processing of the workers’ petitions before the CAB, and they exposed the complicity between the CAB and Lajat management. Their tactic of buying full-page ads in the local newspaper to embarrass the CAB and the Governor of Durango put unprecedented political pressure on them.
o The independent union lives on and survived Lajat’s demand for dissolution. The union is legally constituted to represent workers at other Lajat plants.
o Between twenty and twenty-five workers, mostly women, were trained in the struggle and developed organizing and strategic skills. They are committed to continue organizing as agents of social transformation.
o The workers formed a Worker Center which will continue to support maquiladora workers and organize them.
o During their months without work, the Lajat workers explored alternatives to the neoliberal model of dependency by building a soup kitchen and garment co-operative.
o The Lajat struggle occurred in the context of upcoming Presidential elections in Mexico which provided opportunities to hold public officials accountable and demand they respect workers’ right to freedom of association. On the other hand there is the ongoing threat of the movement of the garment and textile industry from its long-time base in La Laguna southward and to Asia. Mudd transferred its production from Lajat to Asia, and Levi threatened to. In this context the challenge for the future is to build on the organizing in La Laguna and build our network throughout North America and beyond.
o One difficult question the Lajat workers’ struggle raises is this: How can independent unions be effective if the law offers the companies the option to pay severance instead of honoring the freedom of association?
o CJM must work to take advantage of the precedent set by the Lajat struggle in forcing corporate accountability by pressuring and working with the executives of the multinationals who buy the product not just to win full indemnification of workers but to win the right to full freedom of association.