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Boss Man of the Border: Don Agapito, Mexican Labor Leader

May 7, 1990 GMT

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) _ Since 1936, when he rose to the formidable position as union boss in this border city, businesses and politicians have sought favor with Agapito Gonzalez Cavazos.

A big, jowly, potbellied man who charms unionists with his charisma and brags about his fourth-grade education, Gonzalez remains steadfast in the role of working-class advocate.

He dresses simply in faded clothes and describes the labor-management relationship in the same rhetoric as five decades ago: an us-and-them struggle.

The 74-year-old regional general secretary of the Confederation of Mexican Workers says he takes his orders from the workers, whom he calls ″los muchachos,″ or ″the youngsters.″ Rank-and-file union members respond with Don Agapito, a title of respect reserved for the elderly.

But operators of Matamoros’ mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, describe Gonzalez as an example of an influential labor leader who has lost track of the times, a relic on a collision course with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s effort to reform and modernize Mexico’s economy.

Gonzalez, who controls the labor supply for the plants, says he doesn’t trust the maquiladora plants, historicaly one of the fastest growing areas of U.S. business expansion into Mexico. The plants assemble everything from computer disks to cassette tapes to automobile windshield wiper blades.

″They come to exploit us,″ Gonzales said. ″They do not come to help us.″

Yet there are indications the Mexican government wants to throttle Gonzalez and Mexico’s other labor bosses, or ″caciques,″ a Mexican term meaning chieftains.

Last year, in Ciudad Madero about 250 miles down the coast from Matamoros, Mexican troops blasted their way into a house to arrest oil union chief Joaquin Hernandez Galicia on corruption charges.

Later in the year, in Reynosa, about 50 miles west of Matamoros, state and federal governments helped rival union organizer Abel Hernandez successfully challenge would-be cacique Rafael Morales, who wanted his local to hold a monopoly on the city’s maquiladora workers.

In January, when Gonzalez threatened strikes that could have idled up to 60,000 workers at maquiladoras and related industries around Matamoros, the government allowed the talks to move to Mexico City without Gonzalez’s participation.

The companies won concessions allowing them to move equipment to and from their plants and to discipline workers without union permission. Pay raises were held to 15 percent instead of the 25 percent the union had demanded.

Two weeks later, auditors from the Treasury Department in Mexico City showed up at Gonzalez’ headquarters and took a truckload of files back to the capital. Treasury officials refused to discuss why, but the move raised speculation the government might use the threat of investigation to keep Gonzales in line.

″The federal government is really fed up with this guy because of the harassment he’s given our companies and the bad name he’s given Mexico in general,″ said Jim Ebersole, industrial development director with the Economic Development Council in Brownsville, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros.

The labor leader and his defenders maintain that workers are getting squeezed in inflation-racked Mexico.

″A modernization requires a modernization of salaries also,″ said Vicente Sanchez, an economics researcher at the Colegio Frontera del Norte in Matamoros. ″Who will negotiate for the workers, if not the labor leaders?″

Industrial managers say Gonzalez’ tactics drive away those who would open new plants in Matamoros.

″You know what the muchachos say?″ Gonzalez responded. ″Let them leave, because we don’t want them here. We won’t put up with them any more.″

Most Mexican workers at the plants spend an entire day earning what U.S. employees make in an hour, he said.

Joe Lacambra, president of management’s Matamoros Maquiladora Association, blamed Gonzalez and higher-than-average wages for the city’s failure to attract any major new company in 1989.

Including benefits, an average Matamoros maquiladora worker makes about $2.30 an hour, Lacambra said, compared to about $1.50 an hour in the Mexican states of Baja California Norte and Chihuahua.

Matamoros maquiladora workers also receive 56 hours’ pay if they show up for 40 hours in a week, Lacambra said, although workers at maquiladoras in other border areas have to work 48 hours to get the 56 hours of pay.

″If the wages are too high, like they are in Matamoros, the companies are going to go somewhere else,″ said Tito Torres, a McAllen, Texas, attorney who for 18 years has represented such U.S. companies as Zenith Electronics Corp. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in their business dealings in Mexico.

Torres said clients have reported numerous incidents of union harassment in Matamoros. Those included refusal to allow companies to remove equipment for repairs, work stoppages staged apparently when Gonzalez felt management slighted him, and an instance when the union threatened a strike if a company did not withdraw theft accusations against four employees and a plant manager.

In another case, Torres said, the union tried to force a company to buy union-owned equipment it did not need.

But the business climate has improved recently, said Torres, crediting President Salinas with bringing union caciques under control.

″I’m hopeful that they are, because they’re not the new Mexico,″ Torres said. ″The last vestige of the old Mexico is in the labor area.″

Part of the union bosses’ power lies in the labor federation’s position as a wing of the official Institutional Revolutionary Party that maintains one- party rule at the national level. People like Gonzalez are responsible for trucking in hundreds or thousands of union members to party rallies.

Gonzalez himself served two terms in the federal Chamber of Deputies.

But lately he hasn’t been able to bring out the vote like before, and the opposition Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution has won the Matamoros mayoral race twice in 10 years, due partly to the growth of political opposition in Mexico.

The labor leader said his role is to defend workers, not politicians.

″I have people who work all the time and barely subsist,″ Gonzalez said.

End adv for Sunday May 6