Lexmark workers in Juarez continue fight for justice

Workers at a Lexmark factory in Juárez, Mexico are staging a sit-in at an encampment near the entrance to their plant.

The sit-in began after Lexmark, a multi-national manufacturer of laser printers, fired 120 workers at the company’s printer cartridge plant in Juárez , which lies just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

The firings took place on December 9, a day after Lexmark workers walked off the job to protest poor pay, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, and wage theft.

After the strike, state police arrived at the encampment in an effort to intimidate the workers, but they continued their sit-in and vowed to continue doing so until they get justice.

“If the workers do not fight for their rights, no one will,” said Susana Prieto Terrazas, an attorney representing many of the fired workers, in Spanish at a December 10 candlelight vigil to support the sit-in.

Prieto said that workers like those at Lexmark can’t continue live on the poverty wages that maquiladora companies are paying.

Maquiladoras are factories that sprang up in Mexican border towns to take advantage of low-wage labor in Mexico. These maquiladoras mushroomed after passage of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The growth of maquiladoras has helped companies like Lexmark prosper, but wages in the maquiladoras remain abysmally low.

According to Kathy Staudt and Oscar Martínez, two professors who have researched and written about border issues, “stagnant (maquiladoras) workers’ wages have lost considerable value. In real terms, today’s line workers make about half of what they made in 1975.”

The strike that led to the firings and the sit-in at Lexmark had its origins back in August when Lexmark workers were expecting a pay raise.

When the workers were told that they wouldn’t be getting their anticipated raise, some of them began talking about forming a union.

In November, 78 Lexmark workers signed a request to register as a union with state agency in charge of labor relations.

They also set up their encampment outside of Lexmark’s gates to press their demand for an independent union.

On December 8, 700 Lexmark workers went on strike to demand a $0.35 a day pay raise, which would have increased pay for many of the workers to $4.38 a day.

Lexmark retaliated by firing the workers who signed the union registration form and 40 others.

To make matters worse, Lexmark has refused to pay the fired workers their year-end bonus, a payment required by Mexican law.

Those supporting the strike are asking others to contribute to a fund that will pay the workers an amount equal to their year-end bonuses.

“Because they were fired before December 18th, Lexmark. . . withheld their holiday bonuses that they would have used to feed their families for the next 15 days,” writes Miguel Juarez on the Obrer@Power Facebook page. “Now, they have nothing, but hope that we can help them. Let’s not kill that off for them. Thank you to all of you who have given. I too have already given. Please consider giving what you can: https://www.gofundme.com/bufgv7u4 Thank you.”

So far, more than 20 workers have received what amounts to their year-end bonus.

While Lexmark was refusing to pay a $0.35 a day pay raise and a year-end bonus of about $115, it was treating its shareholders to what the The Street describes as a “robust” quarterly dividend of $0.36 per share.

The total amount of the dividend, which shareholders began receiving on December 11, is $22 million.

This quarterly dividend payment marks the 16th consecutive quarter in which Lexmark has paid shareholders a $0.36 a share dividend.

In its most recent financial report, Lexmark tells investors and potential investors that it plans to use 50 percent of its free cash flow to pay future dividends and to repurchase company stock.

Lexmark, a spinoff of IBM, is a world leader in the manufacturing of laser printers. According to The Guardian, in 2014, Lexmark was worth $2.01 billion and had revenues of $3.7 billion “though (revenue) has fallen this year.”

Lexmark isn’t the only maquiladora in Juárez where workers have set up encampments near factory gates to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

David Bacon writing in The Nation reports that encampments demanding the recognition of workers’ independent unions have been set up at Eaton, an auto parts manufacturer, ADC CommScope, an electronics and telecommunication manufacturer, and Foxcomm, a digital device manufacturer.

After more than a decade of silence, maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez have found their voice,” writes Bacon. “The city . . . is now the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories.”