Just ten kilometers south of the US border in the furthermost part of the industrial city of Juarez home to the largest manufacturing workforce in the country, lies the Lexmark industrial park where more than 2000 workers manufacture and dispose of thousands of printer cartridges every day, the manufacturing and disposal process is a grueling one that requires fast hands and disregard for your health, this very busy factory came to a standstill last Monday when hundreds of workers threw their tools to the floor and rallied under the cry for better pay, working conditions for everyone and the establishment of an independent union.
The situation in the industrial hub has been tense since the year started, economic instability and rising prices have put in jeopardy more than 250 thousand workers that have seen their pay checks shrink every day while the more than 356 industries that dot the city rake in billions of dollars every year.
Through 2015 several worker movements took to the streets under crimson banners and organized struggle to demand better pay and working conditions and in the last month four worker camps have sprung up outside not only Lexmark but also on Foxconn, Eaton and Commscope something never seen before in the industrial city.
And even though the Foxconn and Commscope camps had to be lifted last week after a smear campaign by the mainstream media and state sponsored harassment of activists and protesters the Eaton and Lexmark workers carry on, whilst the representatives of the movement called for solidarity this past Thursday and called all the workers in the city to join up on the eve of the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe since this was no longer a fight for better wages in some factories but a struggle to defend the dignity of the working class in the city.
The camp at Lexmark has stayed strong for more than a month already and with the help of local organizations, activists and the common folk it has raised food and supplies for the families of the workers that got fired or got their paid docked by the unscrupulous factory managers.
Workers said that cheating on payrolls and vacation days from the part of managers was the last straw before starting of the strike.
“They took our vacations, I have 16 days of vacations a year and last February I took 14 so I had 2 days left and now they tell me that those days are gone since I supposedly took them already and that in fact I had taken even more, I asked about my vacation days for next year and they told me that I have had enough already and that in 2016 I wouldn’t get any vacations that I had to wait until 2017,” said an Eaton worker talking about the malpractice of the factory.
She has worked at Eaton for almost 13 years, and her story started when she came to the border town from a small town in the southern state of Chiapas looking for better prospects of life but while at the beginning she found work that gave her enough to live as the years passed wages couldn’t keep up with inflation and what was sufficient in the past is not enough to eat today.
Among other things she says that before the change in administration, the factory conditions were acceptable but now the transport of the workers is abysmal and insufficient, the food was terrible and the harassment by the security guards and supervisors increased by a tenfold.
“They didn’t let us talk to each other, always watching what we were doing and not allowing us to gather in groups bigger than three and when we went to the bathroom they gave us strict time limits and if we were delayed for one second they would send security to drag us out of the stalls”
In Lexmark things were not that different, and even though the salaries start at around 6 USD a day after some time you get a whooping increase to 7 USD but only if you volunteer for the most arduous parts of the production lane. Miriam Delgado a veteran of 6 years at Lexmark tells us how the managers abused this system of pay.
“We are fighting for a fair wage, because what we were being paid before disappeared, the bosses said that we were to start anew and that if we wanted our previous salary we would have to go back to square one and if we wanted a raise we couldn’t be absent even if your mother in law died , there are critical stations were we work in the lanes and I had been there for 3 years already and because I was absent for a day they didn’t gave me the raise and that’s why this movement started not only me but seven hundredth workers, because they ( the bosses) started this not us and that’s why we want to start an independent union so we can defend ourselves”
Another common practice from the Lexmark management was the uneven distribution of security equipment like gloves and masks through quotas in order to lower the costs of production, this created instances in which the workers had to labor without such basic protections because the bosses said that they had already given them some before.
“The backyard of the factory is an area where printer cartridges are disassembled, there is a lot of pollution from the toner in that place and very little protection for us, they sent 32 of us over there and only 4 of us remain everybody else quit, people cried when they were sent back there and said that they didn’t want to be there, that they couldn’t be there and the supervisors yelled at them and told them that if they didn’t want to work that the door was right over there,” said a Lexmark worker.
There is a long list of problems that are afflicting the working class of Juarez through all of the factories and it’s not a coincidence that most of these situations are the same all over the manufacturing hubs of the world, low wages, hazardous working conditions, sexual harassment, human trafficking, forced labor, disregard of labor laws, lack of unions, disease and the list goes on and on.
The standstill at the lanes generated an uproar from the government, the media and the industrialists and they demanded the heads of the activists, lawyers and workers because when there is organized labor they fear for their profits and try to repress the movement, nevertheless there have been repercussions, dozens of workers have been fired without severance and the factory management is specifically targeting veteran personnel and the disabled under the pretext of unlawful association.
“Some of the workers are in an area that is called sub assembly, those people are not considered capable of being at the assembly lane and the bosses think that is very simple to just fire them because they are not essential, in the factory an injured person is worthless they are not eligible for a raise or a fair severance, the only thing management does is pressure them until they quit on their own terms,” said a Lexmark worker describing the discrimination practices of management.
It was a windy night and dozens of white candles brought in solidarity surrounded an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that was placed in the center of the Lexmark camp, bonfires crackled and people huddled together around the fires and a small wooden stove with pots of boiling water for the coffee, leaders of local organizations gave speeches that were only interrupted by the cargo trucks that sounded their horns in support of the workers while they speed across the highway just a few paces behind the tents, chicken tamales were served and the cheerfulness of the season begun when someone with a guitar and a USB stick started playing popular music.
“We didn’t really know each other at most you knew the person that worked next to you but in general the others were just faces that you saw sometimes at the bus, the people that I have met in this struggle had worked alongside me for years but I didn’t really knew them until now that we are really working together,” said an Eaton worker about his new comrades.
Even though the workers have the political will to continue, they are in a dire position with winter coming and snow storms presenting a real threat to the camp. The supplies donated by the community can only last so long, especially if said supporters are being threatened by legal action against them if they continue to help the movement.
One thing that is for sure is the fact that the winter of 2015 will be remembered as one most active in the history of organized labor in a city that sometimes forgets that is not in the shoulders of the rich that it stands but on the sweat of thousands of workers that toil in these hellish factories every day.
The identities of some of the workers have been kept secret for security and legal reasons.