Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs


• Evangelina Argûeta Chinchilla, Coordinator, General Workers Confederation (CGT), and FESITRATEMASH, Honduras
• Julia Quiñonez Amparan, Coordinator, Comitè Fronterizo de Obreros/as (Border Committee of Workers), Mexico
• Gisela Dütting, Coordinator of the Living Wage Campaign at the Clean Clothes Campaign, Netherlands

Lorraine Clewer, Solidarity Center Country Program Director, Mexico

Lorraine Clewer discussed the question of why NGOs and unions would want to work together on issues affecting working women to advance a common agenda on women’s rights.

Julia Quiñonez began by describing the work of Comité Fronterizo de Obreros/as (Border Committee of Workers), a grassroots organization that supports union democracy and worker rights in six cities along the Mexico-U.S. border. With support from the Comité, maquiladora workers have won significant victories, even though organizing maquila workers and engaging in other union activities in border areas has been difficult since the 1980s because organizing activities and independent unions have been prohibited from operating in the area.

Union leaders then developed new strategies to overcome these obstacles, including empowering women to speak out against violations of women’s rights and worker rights. Women enthusiastically embraced empowerment on production lines and in factories, and joined forces in new groups. The groups were registered as NGOs, not unions. Despite the limitations of NGOs, they successfully organized several unions and conducted representation elections.  Unfortunately, these fledgling unions did not last because the companies did not allow them to survive.

The Comité is working in a strategic alliance with the mostly male Miners’ Union, Los Mineros, which is permitted to work with factories along the border. The alliance has strengthened over the past year, with mutual organizing assistance and training workshops with workers in factories. There are more than 500 factories with 100,000 workers in the maquiladora region, and in 2012, unions centered their organizing efforts here among several thousand workers. The Comité has worked with the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW), as well as the Solidarity Center Office in Mexico, which has provided support for worker rights activities for more than 12 years.

Although border factories are highly profitable, mineworkers generally live in poverty, Quiñonez said, showing slides that depicted life along the Mexico side of the border. Numerous multinationals have factories in the area, including General Electric and Alcoa. At Alcoa, which produces components for Ford, workers earn about $50 a week for a 40-hour week.

A Finnish-owned company, PKC, bought an Alcoa factory which now makes components for several major car companies. In March 2012, the Comité arranged for reporters from Finland to visit the area and produce stories and documentaries about the conditions at the Finnish-owned PKC plant. A Finnish television program, “45 Minutes,” devoted an entire episode to the poor working conditions at the PKC plant, where many workers stepped forward to talk about their working conditions, despite the risk of employer retaliation. The campaign took a big step forward when a major pension fund threatened to withdraw all of its investments in the plant if working conditions did not improve.

PKC recently signed an agreement with the Comité, which is now seeking to the right to represent workers at the factory. Comité organizers are reaching out to workers through small labor education workshops and home visits especially aimed at women workers to try and empower them.

Evangelina Argûeta is working to build strategic alliances with two human and labor rights organizations in Honduras that develop women’s leadership skills at the workplace through training in labor rights and labor law. Partnering with these two organizations has been useful, she said, because developing women trade union leaders is not a priority for some unions.

In another example of strategic partnerships, Argûeta described the unity of unions and NGOs during the country’s 2002 economic crisis when many jobs were lost as factories closed. Their ability to mutually confront the crisis led to greater cooperation between unions and NGOs, she said.

However, there are obstacles to building alliances with NGOs and grassroots organizations, and the Central General de Trabajadores de Honduras (CGT) has worked to overcome them. For instance, many unions believe that NGOs are competitors and conduct campaigns against unions—and unfortunately, some do, she said. However, the CGT believes in working together with NGOs when there is a common interest and when an NGO’s work complements that of a union. For instance, many unions do not conduct programs on gender or gender equality as effectively as some NGOs do. Also, NGOs do effective research on issues such as salary levels, research that unions often do not have the capacity to perform.

Argûeta also discussed the CGT’s alliance with the Center for Women’s Rights in which they hold joint training programs in the Honduran manufacturing sector on human, labor, and women’s rights issues. The center also conducts trainings on sexual harassment and domestic violence, because it does a better job in this type of training than the unions do, Argûeta said. The CGT’s cooperative relationship with the center and with another NGO has strengthened union membership and assisted unions in collective bargaining and in safety and health work, which in turn has improved job safety and overall working conditions.

Gisela Dütting of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) said her organization has worked closely with trade unions and NGOs around the world since 1989. Unions differ from country to country, as do NGOs. Some are more hierarchal, she said, and some have greater interest in organizing and in strengthening women’s rights.

The CCC works a lot in Asia with garment workers, unions and NGOs and has tried to add value on gender issues as well. The CCC seeks to expand outreach beyond union leadership to be more inclusive, a strategy that works better in some situations than in others. The CCC is also focusing on activities with migrants and migrant women workers.

Dütting discussed a 2010 study on alliances between trade union and NGOs that sought to determine the factors that lead to effective alliance. The study arrived at four conclusions:

1. Personal trust is important for success. Alliance building is a multi-year process that involves maintaining regular personal contact. Personal rapport is essential for advancing strategic alliances and there must be trust between high level leaders.

2. Local and national dynamics impact partnerships. Alliances work best in situations which are threatening to both groups, because organizations are seeking alliance partners to broaden the scope of their efforts.

3. It is important to forge common ways of talking about positions on issues of mutual interest.

4. There should be an incentive for each organization to collaborate with each other.

The CCC developed two important principles for its work in alliances:

1. The art of framing an issue is important. For instance, when working as part of an alliance, it is helpful to be able to show that it is not only a women’s issue but is also a broader workers’ issue of importance to many people. This opens space to reach out to other groups, such as young people. It is important to project a common approach which will help persuade a larger audience.

2. It is important to consider people’s multiple identities and affinities in organizing. For example, individuals identify not only as women or men, but also as workers or church-goers, and are open on many levels to different ways of approaching a common issue. Engaging these various identities overcomes tensions and differences in organizational imperatives and strengthens cooperation.

Dütting then turned to discussing how strategic alliances are essential to campaigns involving the global value chain, specifically that of the garment industry. She noted it is impossible to effectively work nationally or locally without addressing the entire supply chain. Clothes are no longer produced only in Asia with the biggest buyers in Europe and the United States—consumers and brands are spread across the globe and it’s important to link up and get all of these folks working together because the combined forces of producers, consumers and concerned citizens make the most impact in effecting change. For instance, campaigns in Europe around retail outlets reach out to customers, with unions engaging in a variety of activities in different countries.

Dütting also cited the example of Cambodia, a major apparel producer, where there have been mass faintings of women garment workers—some believe the women are too poor to afford enough food. The Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian NGO, linked up with groups in different countries to organize mass faint-ins at major stores in Europe. The CCC website has photos of the mass faint-ins.

General Discussion
Question:  What are the deeper and convergent interests between NGOs and unions? What are the difficulties involved?

Quiñonez:  It is a big challenge for unions to work cooperatively with NGOs and to find common interests in working together, but we have had some success in doing this. One big difference is in how the work is conducted by each type of organization. Unions tend to engage in direct actions such as picket lines, demonstrations, and similar types of activities. The CFO NGO has a more horizontal way of operating while unions tend to be more vertical. The different capacity and interests of these groups can complement each other, although it has been challenging to work together and develop a methodology that benefits both types of organizations. Conducting activities to empower women and workers through awareness training, conducting workshops, and one-on-one discussion have helped encourage greater cooperation. While there are sometimes tensions and disagreements, they have continued efforts to make it work because these mutual efforts have had results and there have been a number of success stories that have helped workers.

Last October, government and company-controlled unions beat the independent union in a very close representation election. Because past union elections have been marred by irregularities, an oversight group observing this election ordered that a new election be held. This demonstrated the need for NGOs and unions to keep working together despite their differences and tensions within their alliance so that workers can get fair representation.

Argûeta: In Honduras, unions have common interests with NGOs and there are a number of women in leadership positions. While there are tensions between unions and NGOs, the two groups have worked together to confront injustices that workers face. Some unions in labor federations have criticized her union for reaching out to NGOs.

Some men in unions have been critical and made derogatory remarks such as women involved in these education programs are learning to be lesbians. There has also been bullying by leaders and members in some unions who are opposed to working with women’s rights and feminist groups.  The women activists try to demonstrate that women have the capacity to be union leaders. Some employers have asked why unions are working with NGOs, while some union leaders fear that the NGOs are trying to replace some union leaders. The women explain to them that the NGOs are doing work that the unions have not been doing and should be doing; and that they need to work together to promote gender equality along with unionization.

There are also problems with the way unions are structured. Obtaining legal registration is difficult and time-consuming. On the other hand, some NGOs don’t recognize the right for workers to belong to unions. In response, efforts have been made to work with unions and NGOs to define how workers should be represented and to promote mutual respect and understanding.

They are trying to resolve their differences and to work together. The issue of violence against women has also provided common ground to bring together NGOs and unions. Whenever there is a demonstration on the issue of violence against women, unions should participate along with NGOs on this important issue.

Question: Are these organizations changing because of their relationships and common activities?

Quiñonez: The fundamental mission has not changed, but methods have. It’s an ongoing process with increased contact between NGOs and unions which should continue to progress in future years.

Argûeta: There have been behavior changes rather than a change in mission because the leadership of her union now recognizes the value of working with NGOs. One concern is that NGOs depend on obtaining financial support for projects and if a group loses funding for these activities, it could cause major problems.

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