In 1981 former Farah garment workers, many of whom participated in the 1972–74 Farah Strike, and local organizers such as Cecilia Rodríguez founded La Mujer Obrera in El Paso’s south central garment district. La Mujer Obrera (which means “the woman worker”) was established as garment manufacturers began to abandon El Paso to seek cheaper and more easily exploitable labor pools in Ciudad Juárez and other foreign cities. The remaining garment plants and sweatshops paid the mostly female and Mexican-origin garment workforce minimum wages or less. Garment plants and sweatshops often enclosed workers in poor and dangerous conditions and at times refused them basic rights like bathroom breaks. Moreover, El Paso’s garment industry was historically anti-union, and national garment unions were not attempting to organize El Pasoan workers. Hence, founders of La Mujer Obrera sought to address both the loss of jobs and the abuse workers suffered in what remained of El Paso’s garment industry.
After World War II and up to the 1960s and 1970s, the United States garment industry began abandoning its traditional manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest for cheaper and non-unionized regions. These new manufacturing centers not only included foreign cities but also Southwestern cities with large Mexican-origin work forces. In El Paso the garment industry swelled in the city’s poor and traditionally Mexican-American south central neighborhoods. El Paso become the third largest garment manufacturing center, after New York and Los Angeles, and the largest jeans-producing center in the United States. As the industry rapidly grew, employers aimed to hire Mexican-origin women who often did not speak English fluently or had little to no formal education and came from impoverished backgrounds. Essentially, the garment industry moved to El Paso due to the city’s working-class labor pool that had few avenues for education, job options or security, and social mechanisms to defend against labor abuse—the labor pool that would accept some of the lowest wages in the nation.
Yet, garment manufactures began to move across the border in order to further cut labor costs by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Still, labor abuse continued in the garment plants and sweatshops that remained in El Paso. To address both the loss of jobs and labor abuse, La Mujer Obrera focused on empowering Mexican-origin women who made up the majority of El Paso’s garment workers but had historically been excluded from leadership positions in unions and labor movements. For instance, during the Farah Strike, women, mainly Mexican-origin women, picketed and organized a national boycott of Farah goods for two years but were not included in the process of negotiating the end of the strike and subsequent union contracts. This was despite the fact that women made up 85 percent of Farah’s El Paso workers during the time of the strike.
To empower women on the border, La Mujer Obrera was founded with seven broad goals: employment, education, health, housing, nourishment, peace, and political liberty. Therefore, the grassroots organization went beyond the workplace to broadly advocate for El Paso’s women and their families.
Having set its initial goals, La Mujer Obrera began working from South Central El Paso at 3132 Frutas Avenue, originally under the name El Centro del Obrero Fronterizo (Border-Workers’ Center). From there, the organization provided immigration and notary services and circulated a workers’ newspaper in El Paso garment plants and sweatshops. When few, if any, private groups and public institutions in El Paso were doing so, La Mujer Obrera aided women with illiteracy, the lack of English skills, homelessness, and hazardous work conditions. In reaching out to the community, La Mujer Obrera also partnered with several churches in organizing legal services for workers and a health clinic that provided health screenings at no cost.
One focal point of the organization’s early history was popular education programs, or re-education programs, which emphasized critical thinking based on workers’ realities. Founders of La Mujer Obrera recognized that most women they sought to incorporate in the organization had never been trained as leaders. Thus, these programs stressed leadership and organizational skills such as Spanish-English translation and grant writing in order to move towards economic independence. Such programs touched upon several of the seven goals La Mujer Obrera set upon its establishment. Foremost, education was emphasized. Educating women towards independence also opened new employment opportunities, which played a roll in housing and nourishment possibilities and women becoming politically involved in their local community and beyond.
Because of their educational and political training, women workers challenged labor abuse rampant in El Paso’s garment industry during the 1980s. Garment workers were receiving unsustainable wages that fluctuated at or below minimum wage, depending if an employer chose to pay at least that amount. In addition to unsustainable pay, workers lived under threat that their employer could move across the border where manufacturers’ profits would be elevated by paying workers in Mexico far less than workers in El Paso.
Another prevalent form of abuse was wage theft. At times workers labored without pay for weeks or months in hopes of eventually receiving their wages, but garment manufacturers often opened up shop under new names at new locations, moved across the border, or declared bankruptcy. Workers were then left without jobs or their earned wages. More so, government agencies failed to strongly prosecute wage theft. According to the Department of Labor, weak fines were handed out only if wage theft was found to be occurring during more than one investigation.
In response to the continuation of wage theft in El Paso, La Mujer Obrera began organizing garment workers to strike employers who committed these crimes. Workers and members of La Mujer Obrera began hunger strikes to draw attention to garment plants and sweatshops that were committing wage theft. During one protest, women chained themselves to their sewing machines at their jobs and demanded justice while going on a hunger strike. The hunger strikes succeeded in convincing the Department of Labor to further investigate El Paso’s garment industry. Responding to such protests and the media attention garnered from them, the Texas legislature moved to declare unpaid wages, once a misdemeanor, a felony in cases of unpaid wages amounting to more than $1,500.
La Mujer Obrera also aided in organizing workers committees within the garment industry. Workers committees pushed garment companies to make personnel policies public, disclosing companies’ official relationships with their workers. These committees, in partnership with La Mujer Obrera, took labor abuse cases to the Texas Supreme Court and were able to win several rulings from the Texas Employment Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.
However, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made much of La Mujer Obrera’s work null. In El Paso, poor women faced increased joblessness as garment manufacturers left the city at an accelerated pace after NAFTA to gain additional profits from labor pools which demanded lower wages than those of U.S. border cities. Manufacturers that moved across the border or beyond left thousands of El Paso’s women without a livelihood. More than twenty-five El Paso garment plants closed during the first six months of NAFTA’s implementation. At least 400,000 U.S. jobs were lost due to NAFTA by 1997. El Paso was the most affected city in the nation with 7,000 lost jobs. The federal government estimated that 120,000 skilled jobs were created because of NAFTA nationwide, but the border region lacked the education system to train skilled workers. This meant NAFTA’s job creation outcomes in El Paso were not as positive as in other regions of the country, particularly for garment workers who did not have formal educations.
By 1998 unemployment on the border reached two to three times the national level as major employers like Wrangler, Lee, and Levi left El Paso. To counter these job losses the NAFTA Transitional Adjustment Assistance program was launched. However, the federal program was modeled for Rust Belt states and was largely ineffective for El Paso due to little consideration being placed for language and educational patterns of the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, the Texas Workforce Commission, which administered the federal program, did not provide bilingual job training. This problematic fact was combined with a waiting list of hundreds to enter the program.
Witnessing the abandonment of El Paso by the garment industry, La Mujer Obrera moved from primarily advocating for women workers within the garment industry to working towards full self-sustainment. In 1997 La Mujer Obrera founded El Puente (“The Bridge”), a sister organization meant to retrain workers for a globalized economy. First, El Puente bilingually trained workers, but this was only one step in La Mujer Obrera’s goals when building El Puente.
La Mujer Obrera identified three goals for El Puente: generate economic opportunity, strengthen community members’ skills and knowledge, and promote community development. These were set to generate economic independence for El Paso’s women workers while preserving El Paso’s Chicano/Mexican-American/Mexican culture.
To generate economic opportunity, El Puente promoted job creation through micro-enterprise development, social enterprises, and small business support. Women learned how to create their own jobs through education focused on mental and economic independence. El Puente’s education programs began with basic skills training. For instance, many border women had not been able to acquire skills such as reading prior to joining La Mujer Obrera and El Puente. Education programs progressed to technology training, a basic requirement in a post-NAFTA economy, and finally entrepreneurial training where women learned to create their own jobs, promoting economic independence.
Simultaneously, El Puente began working on neighborhood revitalization (like developing adequate housing in south central El Paso) and community building through cultural arts programs and healthy living initiatives (maintaining La Mujer Obrera’s list of basic human rights from 1981). El Puente, in partnership with La Mujer Obrera, revitalized four decaying buildings in the effort to establish locations to train women and provide employment opportunities while developing south central El Paso. These spaces included Café Mayapán, Rayito de Sol Daycare, the Uxmal Apartments, and Mercado Mayapán. On February 2, 2001, La Mujer Obrera opened Café Mayapán, which the organization calls a social enterprise due to its social purpose. Café Mayapán has aided in developing south central El Paso by providing women jobs, training workers, contracting local venders, and by becoming an event center for local groups. Rayito de Sol Daycare, which was established in 2000, provides low-income families with childcare as well as a learning center for mothers, grandmothers, and children. The Uxmal Apartments are low-income housing that provide a safe environment with “middle class” amenities amidst a deteriorating neighborhood.
Mercado Mayapán was a revitalized former 40,000-square-foot garment plant through which La Mujer Obrera attempted to develop an economic center for south central El Paso. The space opened in 2009 and like Café Mayapán was a social enterprise housed in a Mexican mercado or market that included a local farmer’s market, artisan booths, and a large stage for the performing arts. Mercado Mayapán also included a cultural museum (Museo Mayachén) and a technology center (Chicana Media Center) open to the south central El Paso community. Mercado Mayapán provided a community space where people of Mexican origin could practice their culture while building a local economic hub. After closing for a time, Mercado Mayapán reopened as Café Mayapán at a new location in early 2013. As is evident, La Mujer Obrera has grown and transformed in order to continue addressing border women’s needs into the twenty-first century.