U.S.-based activists came south of the border Wednesday looking for former Mexican migrant laborers to join a class-action lawsuit to recover money deducted from wages in the 1940s and allegedly never repaid.
Ventura Gutierrez, a labor organizer from California's Coachella Valley, met with dozens of former laborers on a sidewalk facing the Banco de Mexico, the country's central bank, which is among the defendants in the suit filed March 1 in San Francisco.
Gutierrez and other supporters of the so-called braceros hope the combined pressure from the lawsuit and a pending Mexican congressional investigation will produce an acknowledgment that the debt exists--and possibly a cash payout.
The dispute dates to World War II, when a U.S.-Mexico guest worker program brought as many as 2.5 million Mexicans north to toil in fields and railroads, freeing young Americans to serve in the war. From the start of the braceros program in 1942 until possibly as late as 1949, employers deducted 10% of the guest workers' salaries as savings. But many former braceros allege that they never received the money.
With new governments in Mexico and the United States, and with talk afoot of establishing another temporary Mexican labor program, activists have taken up the former braceros' demand for compensation.
Jose Luis Hernandez, head of international affairs for Mexico's National Workers Union, said his federation will ask the Mexican Congress to appoint an auditor to trace the funds. Hernandez said the auditor could exercise congressional subpoena powers.
No one is certain how much money was deducted from workers' wages or how much was repaid. Jonathan A. Rothstein, an attorney for Gessler, Hughes & Socol of Chicago, which is handling the class-action suit, said: "We believe about $60 million was deducted from wages, and this could be worth about $500 million now including accrued interest. . . . We think that less than 50% of the workers received their savings."
However, a 1984 Tulane University graduate school thesis on the subject suggests that much of the money was paid back. David R. Lessard's doctoral dissertation, found by The Times in Mexican archives, says administrative problems plagued the savings program, prompting many complaints. "Nevertheless," Lessard added, "the record does show that the [banking] institutions did a respectable job in distributing the savings to the workers."
The study found that the National Agricultural Bank, one of two Mexican banks responsible for transmitting workers' savings, took in $16.5 million in savings and paid out $11.4 million over four years. The other bank, the National Savings Bank, appears to have paid out all but about $1 million of the $18.2 million it took in during the same four-year period.
Banrural, the Mexican government bank that succeeded the agricultural bank, has said it cannot find records of the savings and that individuals with complaints should file them with the National Consumer Financial Council, which handles such concerns. The council has said that it received complaints but that it cannot disclose details.
Gutierrez, the labor organizer, said about 50,000 former braceros have joined the campaign for repayment. He estimated that 900,000 of the workers may be alive, most of them in Mexico.
Jeff Hermanson, an AFL-CIO representative, endorsed efforts by the Mexican Congress to investigate the allegations and to seek compensation for workers if money is owed.
"We see this issue as a grave injustice. That braceros who helped our country in a moment of need were defrauded of their savings is incredible to us and needs a fair and rapid solution," he said.
As Gutierrez and Rothstein talked with former braceros Wednesday, anxiety mixed with expectations of a breakthrough.
Bernardino Vilchis, 83, said he spent five years working in the U.S. in the 1940s and received only one token savings payment.
"We were the pioneers of the wealth that built that bank," he said, pointing to the central bank building. "Now we have great hopes from these new developments."