SAN SALVADOR — For Rosa Maria Mendoza, 1995 was a year of struggle.
For the first eight months, she struggled to meet her quota, sewing 400 dozen buttons a day on MacGregor shirts at the Formosa Textiles factory in a gritty industrial park east of San Salvador.
She struggled to survive on a $90 monthly wage, paying a baby sitter to care for her three children and walking half an hour to work every day because she could not afford bus fare.
She struggled against illnesses brought on by drinking water from the plant's cockroach-infested cistern and against the indignity of supervisors' curses in English she could not understand.
In August, Mendoza decided to struggle a different way. Along with 86 co-workers, she joined a union.
In October, they were fired. When the union members tried to force their way into the factory to demand severance pay, all of the plant's 400 workers were locked out of Formosa Textiles.
"They are punishing not only us but also innocent workers," says the 24-year-old, tucking her long, dark hair inside a baseball cap. "Of course, we are innocent too. Forming a union does not make us criminals."
But in El Salvador, as in many of the countries where contractors make goods sold under brand names in the United States, many employers consider forming a union a crime, punishable by firing. The near certainty that any effort to unionize will result in mass layoffs and probably the closure of the factory has forced labor organizers to look for new tactics, often deeply dividing leadership and impeding efforts at international cooperation.
What's more, many Latin American labor leaders have become convinced that offers of solidarity from U.S. unions are part of a plot to drive factories out of their countries. Some have even given up direct efforts at organizing in favor of outreach programs to make workers aware of their basic legal rights, which they say many export plants do not respect.
"Ultimately, workers and their supporters must find new ways to organize at the international level," concludes Global Production, a recent study of the garment industry worldwide. "Because international competition in effect pits workers against one another--a situation often encouraged by nationalistic campaigns on the part of industry and government--cross-national and cross-regional labor organizing is extremely difficult."
The situation has become particularly difficult in Central America and the Caribbean. Export industries fostered by the Ronald Reagan administration's favorable Caribbean trade initiatives have foundered as the George Bush and Clinton administrations emphasized commerce with Canada and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
"This is what has happened within one year of NAFTA," says Carlos Arias, whose company makes Van Heusen shirts. "In Guatemala, 120 plants are closing down. We have quotas [limiting garment exports to the United States]. We pay duties."
Many manufacturers have decided that cutting labor costs is the only way to compete with the devalued Mexican peso and NAFTA terms that will reduce Mexico's duties to zero and eliminate its quota restrictions over the next 15 years. That view has reinforced anti-union attitudes.
"The demands they make on you assure that you will not be competitive," said Michael Patillo, president of the Central American Sourcing Agency, a contractor that sews for such well-known brands as Leslie Fay in Guatemala. "I would close before I allow a union into my factory."
An Owner's Loss
A year ago, Patillo was on the verge of closing one of his three factories, which employ 800 people, because of a union organizing effort.
Patillo, who is from the United States but has lived in Guatemala a dozen years, was vulnerable to an organizing drive because of a production change that virtually assured that his employees were going to be disgruntled: He lost the Jessica McClintock contract.
To save the business, he had to find another customer. In a matter of weeks, the factory switched from gauzy prom gowns and lacy bridesmaid dresses to nightgowns and sleeveless casual dresses.
"I had 40- to 50-year-old women who were great seamstresses, making great money," Patillo said. "I had people making 50 quetzales [$8.25, double what most factory workers earn] a day. The price structure was geared to a higher wage."
He tried to convince his workers that they could make just as much sewing quickly as they had sewing skillfully, but what they saw was a severe drop in pay and an increase in their hours.
During that turmoil, Patillo said, "the union identified somebody in the factory" who was angry enough to lead an organizing drive.
The way union activist Flor de Maria Salguero remembers the story is that her neighbor Virginia Aguilar was working double shifts at Patillo's Del Prado factory. To keep up the pace, Aguilar was taking 500 grams a day of stimulants, a dose so strong that it gave her tremors, according to Salguero.