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FEATURE In the Spirit of NAFTA BY LOUIS DUBOSE “Have you ever been screwed by a ghost?” Maquiladora worker, Reynosa Reynosa, Tamaulipas Consider this a ghost story: a tale of a phantom company, of a chimerical union, of an invisible product and invisible executives, of disappearing dues and benefits, and of private labor lawyers who at one meeting fight to unite workers and at another meeting are transfigured into agents who work to divide them. There is even a “labor boss” who didn’t know she was going to be a labor boss, and had never before organized workers or worked for a union. Mercedes Varela Garcia thought she was applying for a position as secretary to the plant manager when she showed up at the offices of Envisions de Mexico, an American company setting up operations in the industrial park on the western edge of this border almost a year and a half ago. For more than ten years Varela had worked in maquiladoras, but always as one of the gente de confianza literally, “people of confidence,” but in the utilitarian Spanish of the maquila zone, “middle management.” Varela didn’t expect to be offered a job as the director general of a union \(particularly of a agement. In the end, she found out that maybe she was. “They told me that they wanted me to create an internal union for the company,” Varela said in an interview in her modest home, not far from the Parque Industrial del Norte, where Envisions had rented a building from the family that controls industrial parks on this stretch of the border. “I had no experience with unions, but they told me I would be in charge of scholarships [for workers], and loans and funds to help when workers’ children got sick, a lot of things.” The pay was also good, almost thirty percent more than she earned at her previous job. So she accepted. “Everything was set up. This was all set up,” Varela said. Seated on the sofa of her living room, with one of her two Siamese cats seated on the other sofa, Varela, a tall, dark woman with short hair and a full, generous face looks more like a home economics teacher than the founder of a border union. She formed the union, she said, enrolling new hires in the Sindicato de Mecanografos y Trabajadores de . Envisions. But she never saw any union dues and never got the money for scholarships or other programs the company promised. “They deducted the dues from workers’ checks,” Varela said she discovered later. The money just never made it to the union treasury. Varela said she patched together educational programs, directed workers to free courses in Reynosa, worked as a nurse in the plant, and drew her salary. When she asked one manager about the money for union projects, “she told me I was dreaming,” Varela said. So she tried, in small ways, to fulfill the company’s promise to its employees. But to many of the workers at Envisions, Mercedes Varela must have seemed like a benign extension of the company’ s human resources department. For Mexican workers, that was not exactly a departure from standard workplace reality. But if the work is steady and the working conditions are not too bad \(and at Envisions they This is, after all, a country where compromised union leaders derisively referred to as charros or rodeo cowboysoften work against the workers they represent. It’s a country where the largest national labor federation was incorporated into the Institu tional Party of the Revolution so long ago that it’s hard to tell where the party ends and where the union begins. Where one na tional labor leader, THE COMPANY HAD LEFT HER INDIVIDFidel Velasquez, UAL PAYROLL RECORDS IN THE OFFICE, “stabilized” the WHERE WORKERS WOULD LATER FIND Congress of MexiTHEM AND LEARN THAT THEIR UNION can Workers in DELEGATE HAD EARNED CONSIDERABLY 1941, then ran it like MORE MONEY THAN THEY DID. he owned it, reserv ing for himselfand perhaps for the ten presidents he served until he died last year the final word in every labor dispute in the nation. So workers understand that isolated, internal company unions usually collaborate with management to screen employees, then help keep workers in line after they are hired. Varela had nearly figured out what the union business was really about when in late August, fourteen months after she was hired, she showed up for work on Monday to find a sign advising workers that someone from payroll would be at the office on Thursday to hand out final paychecks. “That’s all the notice the workers got. And that’s all the notice I got,” she said, “except that it was unusual for them to let us go home early on Saturday.” She added that the company had cleared out the personnel files of all the plant managers, but left her individual payroll records in the office, where workers would later find them and learn that their union delegate had earned considerably more money than they did. “El show,” Varela said, connecting a Spanish article to an English noun, “was well arranged.” Juan Martin Silva Dominguez agrees. Silva is the federal labor advocate assigned to the city of Reynosa. In his cramped, downtown office, he discussed Envisions. “This case has been marked by a series of strange happenings,” Silva said. “There were several problems with the company, then all of a sudden 319 workers were out of work, and didn’t get the indemnity Mexican law requires when workers are let go. And the owners of the company cannot be found. They have run out. “But,” Silva said, “the supervisors appear to have been indemnified, so you can deduce that they knew the 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 21, 1997