For Martha Ojeda, the daunting is routine; the impossible simply takes a little longer. For twenty years, a production worker and labor activist in Mexican maquiladora factories, Martha is now executive director of a remarkable transnational organization, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM).
CJM brings together labor, human rights, religious, and environmental groups from the US, Mexico and Canada in the struggle for basic worker rights. Under Martha’s guidance, CJM works with Mexican maquiladora laborers, instructing them about toxins and other hazards in the workplace and assisting them as they assert their rights under the Mexican constitution and international trade accords. Martha Ojeda organizes at the point of conflict, in the gulf between the sunny promise and the dark realities of the new global economy.
Poor Mexico, goes the saying, so far from God and so close to the United States. Today there are more than 3,000 maquiladora factories on the Mexican side of the US border, employing about 1.4 million workers. Although employed by modern global corporations, maquiladora workers labor in abysmal conditions for miserable wages. The Mexican government colludes with companies to suppress independent union organizing. The labor provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement have helped to expose but failed to limit the brutal suppression. Workers who attempt to organize are still routinely fired, blacklisted, beaten and sometimes jailed. Despite record corporate profits, the value of workers’ wages has fallen over the past seven years.
Martha Ojeda has devoted her life to combating this injustice. As a production worker, she led her fellow workers as they sought to alleviate dangerous conditions. They in turn contributed a portion of their meager 37-peso weekly wages to help support her five-year pursuit of a law degree. When her company shut down, Martha fought successfully to gain the severance pay that her co-workers were due. She then led the effort to create a democratic union at the Sony plant in Nuevo Laredo. Branded a troublemaker, Martha was pressured to leave the country or face arrest or worse.
She joined CJM and in 1996 was selected as the coalition’s first Mexican director. At CJM, Martha created a guide to Mexican labor law using graphics and colloquial Spanish. She coordinated training workshops on the constitutional wage, health, safety and reproductive rights.
Martha has also built bridges between US and Mexican workers. She has appeared before American workers angered by their employers’ decisions to move to Mexico and helped them to understand that they are on the same side in the battle for economic justice. As a result of her efforts, Phillips Electronics workers in Tennessee translated information on toxins for Phillips workers in Mexico who had not been provided with the same information.
Martha has bravely stood shoulder to shoulder with maquiladora workers facing thugs and beatings, legal threats and repression, as they have fought to have a voice at work. In so doing, She has become an international leader in the movement for human rights in the global economy.
The worldwide fight for labor rights, for workplace and consumer safety and environmental protections is central to the kind of society we will live in, the kind of people we are. Martha Ojeda is on the front lines of that struggle.