An Assessment of the Kukdong Struggle in Its Second Month

by Erik Brakken

This February 23 update on the Kukdong struggle in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, is by a leader of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Today the violence threatened by the company union did not happen. But the independent workers’ movement is vigilant, and the struggle continues.

At the end of the day there was no move by the pro-government “union” FROC-CROC to attempt to impose a strike on the workers at Kukdong. Today, there was peace in the factory.

As the movement for an independent union at Kukdong remains vigilant, hopefully its international supporters will also. The organizers in the movement think that there is still a very good chance that an attempt by FROC-CROC to impose an illegitimate strike, and the potential violence associated with it, could happen on Monday, March 5. Incidentally, that is the same day when another one of the originally fired five leaders of the movement, along with scores more workers, will attempt to be reinstated into the factory.

The fact is that as of February 13, the FROC-CROC had filed all the necessary legal papers with the local arbitration and reconciliation board, Kukdong, Nike, and Reebok to have a strike at Kukdong. This becomes a constant source of intimidation that hangs over the heads of all the workers, especially when a “union” with such a brutal history-both at Kukdong and elsewhere in past struggles-is involved. When there are constant rumors running through the factory that the FROC-CROC is about to initiate a violent raid, they are taken very seriously. Any pressure that helps to avert such violence is called for.

Gains Won So Far

The movement has so far won tremendous and unprecedented gains, and we should celebrate these victories. Let’s pause a minute and do so. Kukdong has begun to take some appropriate steps. Hundreds of workers and the leadership of the independent union effort, after having been fired, have all been or are soon to be reinstated with their previous benefits and seniority. Charges have been dropped against the leaders of the struggle. Nike and Reebok have had to accept the demands placed before them to direct Kukdong to take these actions, and they have each had to publicly commit to retaining their production in Atlixco de Puebla. This means we have made a huge step forward in pressuring these companies to stop sweatshop practices.

This is happening in an industry that is the epitome of corporate-driven globalization, with huge power differentials between working people and those corporations that make the decisions about what their lives will be like. This is happening in an economic context where more investment in the region is currently based on the premise that workers will never rise up and demand more respect, better wages, and decent working conditions. It is happening in one of the most conservative regions in Mexico, with a state and local government that is intricately tied to the corruption and brutality of the FROC-CROC.

Heroism of the Mexican Women Workers

There has been success so far because of the passion, because of the persistence, and because of the courage of the (mostly) young Mexican women who are risking everything for an independent union that will truly represent their interests because no one else can do it for them. It is they, not us, for whom the threats of violence are most real. It is they who deal daily with the tactics of intimidation in the factory. It is they who bear the weight of knowing that each of them perhaps is the only wage earner in her family, and it is not only they themselves but many others who depend on their continued employment.

Still, they continue to be dedicated to the struggle. They went on strike in early January not only out of a sense of solidarity, but because of the knowledge that in doing so, something better would come, not only for themselves but for their children and their future. They continue to challenge the company tactics of petty harassment that go unreported and yet happen every day as Kukdong tries to reassert its authority over the workers. And after rising at 4 or 5 in the morning and not returning until late in the evening every day of the work week, they give up their nights for meetings and their weekends to travel to one of 200 pueblos to tell more of their compañeros that they may return safely to the factory, that the movement still lives, that it is getting stronger. It is these people, women like Josefina Hernandez Ponce and Marcela Muñoz, who are the heroes of this struggle.

The Climate Has Changed…

This struggle exists in a brand new context. Throughout the state, news of the struggle at Kukdong is at the front of all the newspaper headlines, the topic of conversation at the cafes. Articles and editorials raise questions about why just because multinational corporations bring investment to Puebla, they should have license for super-exploitation of the workers.

The ongoing saga is being closely watched. This week, when two of the originally fired five leaders successfully entered the factory again, it was covered throughout the region on a live radio broadcast. This is not another situation where scores of workers have been fired and no one is held responsible, where the government and the transnational corporations that ultimately employ these women conveniently look the other way and pretend nothing ever happened. The FROC-CROC has not showed up with baseball bats at the factory or in people’s homes to break their legs (the kind of thing they have done in the past). Nor have the state police felt free to arrest any of the leaders. Something is different.

Solidarity is happening everywhere. Not only are human rights groups, women’s groups, and labor unions in Mexico supporting the struggle of these workers in various ways. It is also the students in Connecticut who hand out leaflets at college basketball games in sub-freezing temperatures, or in New Orleans who endlessly raise money to support the workers, or in San Francisco who hold a demonstration in the pouring rain, or in Chicago who take arrests inside a Niketown to bring the level of intensity to another level. It is also the students from throughout the country who stop their lives for weeks on end to go to Atlixco, to accompany workers as they make their house visits and provide an international presence to ensure that violence is not carried out against them. It is also those in Toronto, or London, or Madrid, or Australia who picket and protest in support of the struggle.

It is workers at Nike factories in Thailand and Indonesia who have offered their support. It is the members of the Korean House of International Solidarity who, after years of holding Korean companies accountable for their practices in East and Southeast Asia, made their first foray into Mexico last week to support the Kukdong struggle and maintained a crucial presence as independent observers while the two leaders and many more workers successfully negotiated their reinstatement to the factory. It is the myriad (too many to count) of labor and human rights groups in the U.S., Canada, and Europe-locally and nationally-who give strategy, publicity, and grassroots mobilization to the struggle.

This movement for an independent union now extends a long way, and when it started on the first day of the strike it did so not only out of a sense of solidarity, but because of the knowledge that in doing so something better would come, not only for Kukdong workers but for our children and our future.

…But The Struggle Has Not Been Won

These things have changed the context of this struggle, but they have not won it. In a movement for an independent and democratic union, reinstatement into a factory where an unrepresentative and dangerous company union still reigns is only a step, not a victory.

Now comes the stage when the workers will petition for legal recognition of their own union and call for a free and fair election. They will soon craft new demands to see that this is carried out. If their freedom of association is ever violated in the process, it is not only a violation of an agreement that has been won, but a threat to all of the progress that has been made so far. And so the Kukdong workers never let up; they barely rest. They are struggling for a better future than what they have had, so they remain vigilant. We are following their lead.