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11/15/1998
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Mexican autoworkers make less than $6 per day
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

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Judy Ancell
KANSAS CITY - Autoworkers from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Kansas City, U.S.A., were gathered around a table in Kansas City last summer when one U.S. worker told how the Ford Motor Co. had exploited workers during the Great Depression.

The giant automaker, he said, had cut wages 60 years ago to about $6 a day. Rocky, one of the Mexican workers, then spoke up.

"That's more than I make now," he said, as the room fell silent.

That moment illustrated why the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity exists, said it's president, Judy Ancel.

"I heard too many times working people (in the United States) talking about how Mexicans were stealing their jobs," said Ancel, who is also director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Longview Community College.

"They had no understanding how the human rights and standard of living of people in Mexico were interwined with the human rights and standard of living of the people in the United States," Ancel said.

The Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity is among several agencies that last year were awarded Diocesan grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops' domestic anti-poverty program.

The annual Catholic Campaign for Human Development collection will be taken up in parishes at weekend Masses Nov. 21 and 22.

As the largest non-goverment funder of private initiatives that help the poor break the cycle of poverty, the CCHD in its 25 years has raised millions for programs designed to give the poor a voice in the decisions affecting them and to correct the obstacles that prevent the poor from achieving self-sufficiency.

Since its founding in May 1997, Cross Border has sponsored several delegations from Kansas City, with members paying most of their own expenses, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande, where sparkling maquiladoras, U.S.-owned corporate manufacturing plants line the border.

Armed with a $2,000 Diocesan grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Cross Border this year was able to bring Mexican factory workers to Kansas City. During their eight-day visit from July 4 to 12, the workers spoke to hundreds of people at churches and local union halls about working conditions in Mexico.

"If we hadn't gotten that grant, we wouldn't have been able to do it," Ancel said.

Cross Border, she said, grew out of the educational work the Institute of Labor Studies was doing in partnership with union locals and Catholics for Justice concerning the effects of economic globalization on workers on both sides of the border.

Beginning in the early 1980s, U.S. corporations began shutting down unionized factories in the United States and building new ones in Mexico, where labor is cheap and the union movement is still in its infancy.

Surrounding those factories in Mexico are shantytowns called colonias, where shacks fashioned from whatever scrap material is available serve as homes to families who have traveled, many by foot, from unsustainable farms to the promise of a job, any job.

The Cross Border-sponsored visits of delegates to and from Mexico has been an eye-opening experience for both sides, Ancel said.

During a swing through the Fairfax industrial area in Kansas City, Kan., Rocky - the $6 a day Mexican auto worker - urgently asked his driver to stop the car. He went to a pile of broken wooden pallets and begged the men loading them to send them to Nuevo Laredo. The people there build houses out of broken pallets.

And U.S. workers have said there was nothing that could prepare them for the living conditions they saw in the colonias, Ancel said. "Everyone who sees a colonia is appalled by the level of poverty."

One Kansas City worker, Joe Harrington, described his emotions in the network's newsletter, The Cross Border Express: "The thought crossed my mind - even for just a moment - 'Well, it would be rough. But yes, if I had to, I guess I could live in a 10-by-12 cabin made of plywood and wooden pallets.' But then you find that two adults and four (maybe more) children all live in that shack, in blazing heat and stifling humidity, without an (electrical) outlet for a fan. They drink and wash with water sold from trucks - water taken from the same river into which flows the stinking sulfurous effluent that made me gag the day before . . . This is the prosperous part of Mexico. This is where you come if you can't get a decent job back home in Tabasco or Veracruz."

"We're talking about multi-national corporations," Ancel said, "who can afford to pay a living wage. Why is it that someone who works for General Motors, or Sony, or Zenith has a child suffering from malnutrition? And I have seen that so many times.

"They (corporations) go to Mexico so they don't have to be good citizens. They go to duplicate the conditions in the United States before we had unions," she said.

To Ancel, the maquiladoras are a stark reminder of the struggle for workers' rights in the United States.

"Not only can we look at Mexico and see where we have been, but if we don't do something to turn around the economic disparity between the rich and poor in this country, we can look at Mexico and see where are going," she said.

The pressures on Mexican workers just to survive are enormous, Ancel said.

"My great fear is that Mexico will begin to have a revolution," she said. "Then this country will be torn up far more than we were ever torn up during the Vietnam War over what the role of the U.S. government should be in that revolution. It's pretty scary."


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