Twenty years ago, on September 19th 1985, an 8.0 earthquake struck Mexico City. Over 20,000 people died that day, or in the aftershock the following day. A nation mourned, surrounded by a devastation unimagined in the complacency of urban daily life. But as in the 2005 hurricane that hit New Orleans, the wreckage revealed that the fault lay not so much in the natural disaster as in disasters of the human variety.
In Mexico’s capital, many of the buildings that crumbled were found to be substandard constructions where money saved on cheap materials and feeble foundations had gone straight into the pockets of corrupt politicians.
Among the earthquake victims were hundreds of seamstresses who worked in the sweatshops of a downtown zone called San Antonio Abad. The death toll that mounted in the weeks after the earthquake was boosted by shop owners who used heavy equipment to remove sewing machines and industrial goods while leaving women workers hopelessly trapped in the ruins.
Survivors told horror stories of being locked in overcrowded rooms with no escape routes, no direction, and no hope as the buildings fell. Their indignation turned to rage when, left jobless, their bosses refused to pay wages due and severance pay. Then their rage turned into a union.
The women workers formed Mexico’s first women-led, independent union in decades: the September 19th Seamstresses Union.
The first few years passed quickly in union meetings, street mobilizations, and marches, international solidarity tours. Feminist and labor union activists descended on the union with offers of help and advice. They were heady days of women’s empowerment, confronting the establishment, and discovering newfound talents and challenges.
But at the same time, the struggle for collective contracts was an increasingly uphill battle. Official union thugs beat up seamstresses from the new union and bought off union elections. Owners closed down shops with hard-won union contracts and simply opened up elsewhere. If some walls had fallen in the quake, for the struggling union others were standing as thick and impenetrable as ever.
The clothing industry grew at first under NAFTA, fuelled by investment in the export maquiladora sector and later the 1995 peso devaluation that cut labor costs, but in 2000 it began a steep decline that is expected to deepen in coming years. China’s entry into the WTO and the end of the Multifiber Act have opened up global competition for production that drives wages into the ground and closes factory doors forever. The $2.45 an hour in wages and benefits on average paid legally employed Mexican workers, looks like a fortune next to the 27 cents an Indonesian worker earns, or the 68 cents paid Chinese clothing workers.
Globalization of the clothing industry set off a race to the bottom that has led to the loss of nearly 200,000 jobs in the Mexican clothing industry since 2000. Export jobs have gone to countries where workers earn even less. Many more shops have gone underground. Mexico’s Economy Ministry estimates that 58% of the national market is illegal-including goods produced in the informal economy, contraband, and stolen goods.
Marisol Hernandez, press secretary of the September 19th Union in its early days, comments on the then-and-now of a lifetime of stitching t-shirts. After the union fell apart in the early 90s, she found a job sewing in a large factory owned by a Mexican company. Several years ago, the factory was bought by Sara Lee, producers of the Hanes brand. Not long after, the factory closed its doors on the 6,000 workers in the Mexico City plant and moved to the state of Aguascalientes.
Although Sara Lee paid legal requirements to laid-off workers, this is not the first time that the company has closed a plant to seek greener pastures (lower wages) elsewhere. Workers at the Mexico City factory report that after working up to wages of around $20 a day, the factory was offering Aguascalientes workers only $5 a day.
In a nation facing a deficit of over a million jobs, the prospects for a middle-aged woman in the formal economy are little to none. Mexico City’s Sara Lee workers were sent first to another factory, but the wages were only $30-40 a week. Many, like Marisol, have turned to piecework in the home. A men’s shirt goes for $2 and, according to Marisol, if she really hurries she can earn $90 a week. That’s without any benefits, and the seamstresses themselves have to provide the sewing machine, maintenance, and utilities.
As for the union, infighting among the feminist and labor advisors, free trade, and an industry built on union-busting all contributed to its demise.
The short but luminous history of the “union born of the ruins” left its mark on Mexican labor history in more ways than one. Ultimately, it failed as both a tool for defending the rights of workers and as a catalyst for a feminist-labor movement. Its sad end marked the stark limitations of a national labor movement in a globalized economy and the costs of imposing warring ideologies on a fledgling workers’ organization.
Failed, but not without forging major changes in the lives of its members. As the young son of union leader Rafaela Dominguez put it during the hyperactive days of union organizing, “Mommy, when the earth shook, it left its shaking in you!”
Many continue to shake. Union member Concepción Guerrero worked for years at the cooperative formed by the union. Following the Zapatista uprising, she became a dedicated supporter of the indigenous communities in Chiapas and in her native state of Guerrero. Other members of the union continue to be active in the Urban Popular Movement, and many still work and live together in low-income housing communities won through the struggles of the late 80s.
The experience of leadership, public participation, and empowerment they gained in the union may not have changed the world, but for many it profoundly and permanently modified the parameters of their personal relationships and sense of self. “No-one can take from us what we learned during those years,” says Marisol. “I know where I stand now. I’m a seamstress and I have rights.”
But, 20 years after the earthquake and the surge of popular organizing, Mexico seems to have learned nothing from the experience. The labor movement continues to be controlled by unions bound to management or to the former ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI). In most cases, it’s both. The ever-more-real threat of flight paralyzes workers in a survival mode of existence.
In a recent interview with the Mexican daily La Jornada, Evangelina Corona, former secretary general of the union summed up the experience somewhat bitterly: “We are still victims, though not of the earthquake-but of the government, of the free trade agreement signed by former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari that was the tomb of so many industries and the father of unemployment. We are the victims of corrupt labor and we are trapped by need.”
Indeed, manufacturing wages lost 41% of their value between 1982 when the economy began liberalization and 2000. Mexico’s gender development index of equity for women has remained relatively stagnant over the past years of a radical free trade economy. Women workers continue to be the worst paid and the most vulnerable, as seen by the murders-many of maquiladora workers-in Ciudad Juarez on the northern border. The deep dividing line of race, often unacknowledged in a mestizo (mixed) society, shows up unmistakably in the moreno faces of the seamstresses, the factory workers, and the murdered women.
There is only one gain that natural disaster and the human disasters of free trade, unemployment, and sexism cannot take back-the change within. “Before we were completely submissive,” says Marisol. “If they told us to go back in to work in a falling down building, we went. But now none of us will do what is unjust. As people, our way of thinking has changed.”
Marisol’s young daughter Dulce plays in the next room. With any luck, and, one hopes, without need of a natural disaster as a catalyst, she will carry on where her mother’s generation leaves off.
LAURA CARLSEN directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center, based in Mexico City. She worked with the September 19th Seamstresses Union from 1986-1989.