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Profile : Mexican Labor Leader Says Tax Evasion Isn't the Issue : * Agapito Gonzalez contends he is being punished for taking on bosses of U.S.-owned assembly plants.


MEXICO CITY — Agapito Gonzalez was a poor boy who left home at the age of 12 to make his way in the railroads and cotton mills of the Mexican border town of Matamoros.

Starting as a shop steward, he quickly climbed the union ladder to become one of Mexico's most powerful labor bosses when labor was a pillar of the ruling party. During half a century as leader of the Matamoros Union of Industrial Workers and Day Laborers, Gonzalez grew very fat and, some say, very rich.

But he also did what no other union boss has managed to do. He took on the American-owned assembly plants that came to dominate industry in Matamoros and won contracts with some of the highest wages and best benefits in the country--including a 40-hour work week.

And that, contended the 76-year-old Gonzalez in an interview, is why he was arrested Jan. 31 on charges that he evaded income taxes back in 1988.

"This is a reprisal because we were in contract negotiations," Gonzalez said. "The businessmen have complained that I am very hard on them. What they want is complete freedom and no union to bargain with."

Other union leaders and outside experts believe that Gonzalez's arrest has less to do with taxes than with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's efforts to "modernize" Mexico's economy and negotiate a free trade pact with the United States and Canada. Salinas, they say, wants to show the auto makers and electronics companies of the world that Mexico offers a cheap and problem-free investment opportunity.

Gonzalez's arrest comes amid difficult negotiations over the free trade agreement. The three countries finished a dicey round of talks in Dallas last week. Mexico hopes to gain agreement this year, but there are fears that a recession in the United States combined with American presidential politics may make that difficult.

In contrast to Gonzalez's arrest, last week the official Mexican Workers Confederation reelected its 92-year-old leader, Fidel Velazquez, to an eighth six-year term. Velazquez, the country's top labor boss, also came to power when labor was strong in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, but has served the Salinas Administration's neo-liberal economic program in keeping wages down. He has also thrown his support behind the free trade agreement.

Treasury officials have insisted there is no political motive behind the Gonzalez case. In its formal charges, the government alleges that Gonzalez understated his earnings and owes about $20,000 in back taxes.

"There's no such thing as tax evasion in Mexican unions," countered a source close to the confederation, called CTM. "Secretary generals are owners and bosses of their unions and they can use union resources as they please.

"Gonzalez has been a part of this system. But he echoed the AFL-CIO opposition to free trade. He raised questions about potential abuse of workers and salaries. That is the fundamental reason he has been arrested."

Gonzalez, who suffers from heart trouble and asthma, is currently confined to a hospital room in Mexico City with plainclothes police posted outside the door. The father of 10 is an imposing man with a huge belly and multiple chins. He roundly denies that he is rich or has evaded taxes.

But he is far too politically savvy to attack either the president (who is "badly informed" on this matter) or Velazquez ("I have his total support.").

For the blustery Gonzalez, company bosses are to blame. "The reality is I'm not going to do what they say. I do what the workers want," he boasted.

Gonzalez oversees 36,000 workers in 60 maquiladoras , predominantly U.S.-owned factories that assemble export goods from imported components. His clash with management is an old fight.

Plant managers complain that Gonzalez was heavy-handed in negotiations and threatened strikes every two years when contracts were up. They charge he tried to force the companies to use his own transportation company, and used costly strikes for personal revenge. Additionally, they said they cannot compete with assembly plants in the rest of the country, which operate on a 48-hour week and pay lower wages.

Shortly after Salinas came into office, they started a campaign to get rid of Gonzalez. "All we want is for Matamoros not to be a conflict zone," said Rolando Gonzalez, president of the Matamoros National Chamber of Industries. "We want the same (labor) conditions as the rest of the country."

In 1990, labor chief Velazquez accused Gonzalez of corruption and dismissed him as president of the confederation's Matamoros branch. But Velazquez was unable to oust Gonzalez from his elected position as secretary general of the industrial workers union. He is too popular with his workers.

"His control over the union has been strong and feudal," said labor expert Raul Trejo Delarbre. "There are no dissident or democratic currents. But at the same time, he has done a lot for the workers. He has a base."

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