Las Costureras - Monty Neill and Johnny Machete

Midnight Notes' coverage of women workers organising an independent union after their co-workers were killed in an earthquake.

For a large number of women garment workers, las costureras, sewers, the earthquake and its aftermath was catalyst to a struggle to unionize and to obtain better working conditions and higher wages. Prior to the earthquake, they were working under terrible conditions and few outsiders knew of their situation. They worked in the basements of old, decrepit buildings for 8-10-12 hours a day, making less than the minimum wage, not receiving benefits they were legally entitled to, and subject to harassment from company goons.

The women started before seven in the morning, so that when the earthquake hit many were already working. Because each basement had but one door, the women could not get out and many were killed. It was a disaster akin to New York City's infamous Triangle Factory Fire of 1912 in which 146 women and children burned to death when the building caught fire and they could not escape. As in New York, so in Mexico: the terrible conditions and the tragedy spurred the workers' struggle.

At first, the public did not even know these women were there, and their families could not get any insurance money. Some of the bosses attempted to destroy the buildings quickly, to bury the women in the rubble and prevent anyone from knowing about them.

The surviving women organized themselves and formed one of the most democratic unions in Mexico, "Sindicato 19 de Septiembre." Las costureras set up tents in the area and insisted they would not move until the all the bodies of the workers were pulled out. They remained for weeks until all the dead were recovered. Meanwhile, they carried away the machinery before the bosses could get it, saying that after so many deaths they had the right to the means of production. The police came to the tents and threatened and pressured and beat the women to get the machinery back and to stop the organizing.

The women linked themselves to independent unions. Most unions are part of the state, both officially and practically, but there are a few independent unions and democratic tendencies in some of the official unions. These democratic groups have challenged the charro leadership that controls the vertical union structures and makes corrupt alliances with government officials.

Before the earthquake, there was either no union or one that had a "sweetheart" deal with the owners to protect the company from the workers, a deal negotiated by the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM) that the workers usually were not even told existed. The women denounced the official unions because they never did anything for them. When the women organized, the official unions tried to absorb them, but las costureras resisted, ensuring the enmity of these unions.

The 19th of September Union was officially registered on October 20, 1985, just one month after the earthquake. The quick recognition was due in part to the massive support the women received as their story became known. Since then, however, the union has faced a difficult battle for the actual right to represent the workers. Employers have responded with mass firings, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and forced overtime.

At union elections at one plant, "Comercializadora," workers from other factories were brought in to vote and CTM goons attempted to prevent workers from voting. Despite this, the 19th of September Union won the vote. However, the local Labor Arbitration and Conciliation Board refused to recognize the union's victory.

To protest, the union staged a ten-day sit-in in front of the National Palace. At two in the morning of May 1, 1987, the police drove the workers from the square to clear it for the official International Workers' Day March. (The state had been using the police to ensure that independent worker organizations were excluded from the March.) Finally, the government certified the PRI-controlled CTM as the "representative" of the workers at this one factory.

The union, in addition to continuing the fight for recognition at various factories, has moved in other directions. They opened a childcare center for 100 children of las costureras and started adult education and training classes for the workers. They began to develop contacts throughout Mexico and across the border into the southwestern US. They developed a tour of speakers and a film about their struggle that has reached out to US unions and groups of women, Chicanos, students and cultural workers.

Nonetheless, by the summer of 1987 the women had suffered substantial defeat in their ability to develop recognized unions of costureras. Within the union, many were now arguing that las costureras should not have tried to build an independent union but should have become part of the CTM and thereby entered into the efforts to democratize that union while insisting that the CTM do at least the minimum to ensure legal wages and benefits. The question is whether that sort of retreat, which would likely create despair, pessimism and a gradual withdrawal from union activity, would have ultimately been more disheartening and destructive than the clear cut defeat at the combined hands of CTM, employers and state that they suffered at Comerciali-zadora and other plants.

In any event, and the matter is far from settled, the history of the union indicates the capacity of even the least powerful sectors of the class, very low-waged women, to organize autonomously. Las costureras put the state, the unions and the companies on the defensive and forced concessions from them, and they created international networks and independent organizations to meet their needs.

Information for Las Costureras came from interviews with Guillermo Orozco & Swan Street, the "International Bulletin" of the costureras, and discussions with supporters of the struggle. For information about the union, their tour and film, or to receive their "Intentional Bulletin" (in English and Spanish), contact Sindicato "19 de Septiembre,"Apartad Postal M-10578, Correo Central, 06000 Mexico D. F., Mexico.