Even those who help multinational companies keep labor peace at operations in Mexico are sometimes loath to deal with traditional union bosses who flourished under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI.
They are warlords, said Jorge A. de Regil, a labor lawyer in Mexico City for Baker & McKenzie, the Chicago-headquartered global firm. They are untouchables because the PRI has protected them and supported them for 75 years.
What happened when workers tried to organize an independent union at the PKC Group factory where Martinez works is a lesson in stifling labor demands for wage increases.
The companys vice president for North America, Frank Sovis, addressed many of the plants 8,000 or so workers on Jan. 30, telling them hed beaten them to the punch. PKC already had signed them up with a branch of the Mexican Confederation of Workers, a PRI-organized labor group, in what experts call a protection contract, short-circuiting any chance at an independent union.
We will continue to operate the business exactly as we have, Sovis said in English, according to a tape recording provided to McClatchy.
That was bad news for workers such as Sergio Chema Perez, whos spent 15 years operating forklifts and cherry pickers at a PKC-owned warehouse.
For 13 years, I earned the same salary: 110 pesos a day, he said, a sum equivalent to $7.85.
Perez has a fit physique at age 48, the result of weekends moonlighting as a soccer referee to earn extra money. As he sat in a chair in his simple home, his wife, Lorenza Montanez, took an interest in the conversation.
The couple has four children. A 19-year-old son already has gone to work at the same plant as his father, while a 15-year-old daughter has dropped out of school.
We couldnt pay, Montanez said, explaining that the public secondary school was charging parents about $11 a month.
As a mother, you want your kids to keep studying so they can get ahead. But its impossible here in Mexico. So she just hangs out with me in the house, she said.
The daughter probably will end up in a factory, too, because the family is falling behind on its bills.
If you pay the power bill, you cant pay the water bill, Perez said, as his wife retrieved a delinquent water bill for about $249, threatening disconnection.
It is maddening to live with the fear that theyll cut off the water or the gas, she said.
Whether Mexico can progress in the decades ahead by leaving Perez and many of the 7 million or so other industrial and assembly workers like him behind is a crucial issue. Cheap labor keeps goods inexpensive in U.S. markets, but it also hinders the growth of a consuming class in Mexico.
If these folks had money, theyd be buying things we make as well as stuff made in Mexico, said Davis, the United Steelworkers representative.
When you have a decent middle-class tax base, you can afford better services, said Pete DeMay, a Mexico organizer for the United Auto Workers. Thats not the case near a lot of these plants.
The desperation of workers is apparent. Many of those who cant find weekend jobs peddle trinkets from their homes or turn to more radical measures, such as crossing the Rio Grande to sell their blood plasma in Del Rio for $25 to $35 per visit.
I donated for about two years. But then my heart rate started going up, said Rogelio Villarreal, a 35-year-old who was sitting in a car outside the one-story offices of Talecris Plasma Resources in Del Rio.
For Maria Teresa Adame, a 40-year-old mother of four and worker at the PKC harness wiring plant, the salary was too low to keep her family out of harms way.
One son dropped out after junior high school, and the next two completed only elementary school. A 9-year-old daughter is still in school.
About a year ago, her third son, Nicolas, went off with bad people. I imagine that they offered him money and drugs. They told him hed earn money, she said.
She could barely bring herself to whisper the name of the crime group that lured her son: Los Zetas, the brutal and perhaps biggest syndicate in Mexico.
He simply vanished for six months, returned for three months and disappeared again. Then she got a call earlier this year. Nicolas had been captured by the army and was being held in a youth detention facility.
She asked for leave for a few days, borrowed the equivalent of about $200 and headed to nearby Tamaulipas state to retrieve him. Hed been shot in a toe. As she spoke, he stayed inside her bare cinder-block one-room house, avoiding a visitor.
Asked whether she feared that her son might run off again with the gang, she shook her head and remained silent, looking at the ground.