Factory Workers In Juárez Unionize For Higher Pay, Better Working Conditions

JUAREZ — As labor unrest continues to ripple across this Mexican border city, a group of workers has managed to start the city’s only independently organized factory union.

Close to 200 workers are now members of a new union approved by the Chihuahua state labor tribunal. The union got its registration in December and is now in contract negotiations with the American telecommunications company CommScope.

Most of the workers claim they were fired by the company for their organization efforts and are suing to get their jobs back. In a written statement CommScope denies this saying it fired only eight workers in the fall for violating work rules.

“This is something historic,” said Cuauhtemoc Estrada, the local labor attorney representing the workers. “Independently organized unions are hard to find.”

More common in Mexico are so called paper unions, which are set up and largely controlled by companies. But even those unions are rare in Juárez. For half a century multinational companies have flocked to this city in search of cheap labor located at the doorstep of the United States. Today it has the largest labor force along the U.S./Mexico border which, in good times, employes about 200,000 workers at more than 300 factories. Workers manufacture everything from chew toys to Dell computers to giant wind turbines.

Late last year hundreds of workers from at least four factories, including Lexmark, Eaton-Busman, Scientific Atlanta, and CommScope, began protesting poor working conditions and low wages. CommScope workers are the first to unionize. Estrada, their attorney, said it’s the beginning of what could be a long battle.

“Their union petition was rejected by the state three times,” Estrada said. “These workers have prevailed out of sheer tenacity.”

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Parts of the burn area from the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park, which was fully contained on Friday, February 5, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)

Parts of the burn area from the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park, which was fully contained on Friday, February 5, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)

Wildfire in Big Bend National Park Fully Contained

The “Powerline Fire” that burned almost 1,800 acres in Big Bend National Park last week was fully contained on Friday (February 5).

That fire was sparked from a downed powerline last Monday with heavy winds and dry conditions across the region.

The park said in a Facebook post that smoke from the fire was barely visible late Friday, that it wanted to “enthusiastically” thank all the people involved in bringing the fire under control.

That included crews from the Terlingua Volunteer Fire Department, from BLM and National Park Service offices in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness region, from Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks and more.

The park said a total of 91 people helped fight the fire, including 14 people from “Los Diablos”, the elite firefighting crew from just across the border in Mexico. A helicopter was on hand dumping water on the flames Thursday, and by Friday morning, firefighters had developed a strong perimeter around the fire and stopped it from spreading.

No structures or people were threatened throughout the time the fire was burning. All park roads and the two backcountry campsites that were closed late last week are now back open.

U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at a rally in Dallas on Jan. 6, 2016. (Cooper Neill)

U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at a rally in Dallas on Jan. 6, 2016. (Cooper Neill)

Marco Rubio Announces Texas Leadership Team

WASHINGTON — On the heels of his strong third-place finish in Iowa, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced his Texas leadership team Tuesday morning.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz placed first in Iowa’s Monday evening contest, and is expected to also best Rubio in Texas’ March 1 primary. That said, Texas delegates will be awarded proportionally. That could give Rubio an opportunity to pick up some delegates, if not an all-out statewide win.

Outside of fundraising, Rubio has not invested much infrastructure in the state. But in recent weeks, Texas GOP operatives say they’ve seen an uptick in volunteers, turnout and organization for Rubio at local Republican events.

And the Rubio Texas team now includes current and former state representatives.

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Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Sheriffs Want a Bigger Share of Texas Border Security Funding

There’s been a recent uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the Texas border illegally. In December, Governor Greg Abbott said he was responding by sending more state troopers to the border and keeping the state national guard in place there.

Abbott’s move is just the latest in a string of similar efforts stemming back to Rick Perry’s time as governor.

But some border sheriffs continue to question the way the state’s spending money on border security.

First, let’s be clear about something: border authorities like Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald do not think the border should be less secure.

McDonald made that clear at a state hearing on immigration law in December, where he also echoed the governor’s well known frustration with the federal government.

“We see right now that our border is wide open,” McDonald told lawmakers. “We have the laws in Washington, D.C. to secure our border, but the policies in which our nation is enforcing our laws are not allowing the immigration laws to be effective on our southern border.”

Sheriff McDonald’s the current head of a group of 21 Texas border sheriffs who agree in principal with Abbott and other Republicans that the border needs to be tightened up, but they disagree about how to do it.

At the center of that disagreement is money.

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Artifacts at site of Porvenir Massacre (Glenn Justice).

Artifacts at site of Porvenir Massacre (Glenn Justice).

A New Look at the Porvenir Massacre of 1918

January 28 marks a dark period in regional history. In 1918 more than a dozen West Texas residents – of Mexican descent – were executed near the border. The Texas Rangers were implicated in the killings, but said they were defending themselves against Mexican bandits. Now, modern investigations have thrown this version of history into question.

Historian Lonn Taylor is at a topographical map of Far West Texas, pointing to one of the most remote sections. “I’m running my finger along US 90 here on this map.” A few months ago, he was here, at the site of what’s called the Porvenir Massacre. “It’s extremely rugged, mountainous, especially on the Mexican side, lots of arroyos, extremely arid.”

Border life was chaotic back in the second decade of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution was raging and there were skirmishes on both sides of the Rio Grande. “In the Big Bend you just had a river between you and a Civil War, ” said Glenn Justice, an historian who writes about the Big Bend region. A century ago, Pancho Villa and his supporters were leading raids on American ranches and the U.S. military was in turn pursuing bandits into Mexico. “And it caused President Woodrow Wilson to order some 200,000 national guardsmen to the border.”

Most soldiers were off fighting in World War I, but cavalry units and national guardsmen were sent in for protection. Tensions were high in December 1917, when the Brite Ranch, owned by a Marfa family, was looted. According to Taylor, the lawmen thought: “That the people at a little village on this side of the Rio Grande had participated in the Brite Ranch raid and that they had some of the loot from the store.”

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The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KXWT)

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KXWT)


As Oil Labor Force Shrinks, West Texas Food Bank Expands

Oil has been trading below $30 a barrel this week and that’s bad news for the labor force in the Permian Basin. Some workers aren’t just out of a job, they’re barely staying afloat. But there’s one safety net that’s gotten bigger.

This summer in a cramped Odessa office of the West Texas Food Bank, Director Libby Campbell was looking to stretch her wings: “You know we’re in the process of finishing our first building, which is a 61,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility that has triple the size of cooler and freezer than we have now, so we’ll be able to store more fresh foods.”

But she’s there now, with an official opening of the new facility in Odessa. And the new cooler-freezer space is making a difference – for example, when the dairy guys came knocking. “So within the second hour that we were moving in, we were able to take an extra donation of milk that we have never been able to accept before.”

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Staton Awtrey

Staton Awtrey

West Texas Talk :: Staton Awtrey

Midland cardiac surgeon Dr. Staton Awtrey is passionate about diet, specifically the beneficial role vegetables should play in the American diet. Awtrey says that the restorative and preventive nature of fruits, vegetables and grains can reverse certain health metrics meat, chicken and fish are restricted.

Although a vegan, a person who eats no animal products, Awtrey says the is a place for foods such as beef and chicken but only if a person is not already showing signs of deleterious health effects triggered by large intakes of salt, sugars and other processed foods.

In this conversation, conducted on a drive between Marfa and Ft Davis, Texas, Awtrey speaks about a film coming to the screen called Plant Pure Nation. The film, which is connected in several ways to the film Forks Over Knives, is a documentary that examines the effects of a fruit and vegetable-based diet.

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West Texas Talk :: Julian Cardona

On today’s West Texas Talk, Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon is Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico to speak with Mexican photojournalist, author and social researcher Julián Cardona.Cardona is working with Lubbock, Texas-based artist Alice Leora Briggs

on a book that focuses on language, specifically how words have come to take on two or more meanings as Ciudad Juárez, wrestles with the legacy of years of violence that reached a statistical zenith in 2010.

Innocuous words such as punto, meaning “point” today also means low-level drug dealer, “to be baptized” can sometimes mean “to be killed,” and the Spanish word, montado, or “mounted, has also come to mean a victim of torture.

The discussion about words and their evolution comes against a backdrop of what is commonly referred to in mainstream media as the “War on Drugs.”

And the conversation takes place just as the city prepares to welcome Pope Francis.He has chosen Juárez to send what is expected to be a strong message about the debate over immigration reform, a topic that is expected to be a prominent theme in the upcoming United States presidential election in 2016. Cardona discusses the visit, along with hopes for a more secure Mexico in the new year.


From West Texas, an Eagles Image-Maker Remembers Glenn Frey

Musician Glenn Frey died this week at age 67. With his band, the Eagles, he helped craft a country-rock sound that defined 1970s pop music in California. But there was a West Texas connection to this iconic West Coast band.

Artist Boyd Elder is from the town of Valentine, Texas, where he still lives. But he was in Hawaii when he learned of Glenn Frey’s death. “Glenn and I go back like 40 years.”

One of the Eagles’ first live shows was at Elder’s art opening in Venice, California, “And they only knew like seven songs. They played seven songs, take a break, and then play seven songs again.”

The Eagles had some of the best-selling albums of their time. And it was Elder who painted their album covers. “Without Glenn and his appreciation of my art and my appreciation of his, there wouldn’t be those millions and millions of album covers.”

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The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KXWT)

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon/KXWT)

Oil Prices Drop After U.S. Lifts Sanctions Against Iran

The prospect of Iranian oil adding to the global flood of crude pushed prices further down on Monday, with Brent crude, the international benchmark for crude oil, touching its lowest level since 2003 – below $28 dollars per barrel.

International sanctions against Tehran were lifted over the weekend, and that’ s raising the possibility of an estimated extra half million barrels a day of Iranian crude flooding an already oversupplied market worldwide.

That’s in addition to continuing concern about the Chinese economy. China is the world’s second-biggest oil consumer, and those concerns have already pushed crude down 20% since the beginning of the year.

“It just doesn’t feel like we’ve hit the bottom yet,” says Wall Street Journal energy reporter Russell Gold. Gold is the author of The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World.

“Nobody wants to shut down their operations. So what’s happening is that everyone’s continuing to pump, whether it’s an operator in the Permian Basin or in Saudi Arabia. The glut of oil continues and prices keep going down.”

Notwithstanding developments this past weekend in Iran, Gold says there’s no timeline for the ramp-up of Iranian crude oil exports. But concern is already evident.

“The big concern globally is that Iran comes back onto the market in a large way, Saudi Arabia refuses to back down, and you’re talking about a lot more entering a market that’s already saturated with oil.”

Gold says the glut is trumping old notions about supply and demand.

“You can have things like two members of OPEC cutting their diplomatic ties with each other, I’m talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the price of oil goes down!”

“I mean, for someone like me who has watched the oil markets for over a decade, that’s was just sort of stunning to watch that and watch that reaction,” Gold says. “But that’s the kind of world we’re in right now.”

Market issues that need to be addressed include how much Iranian crude is in storage and could be released immediately and how much Iran might discount its oil to regain its lost market share.

– Lorne Matalon

Pipe for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being staged near Fort Stockton in the spring of 2015 (John Jennings)

Pipe for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being staged near Fort Stockton in the spring of 2015 (John Jennings)

Feds Release Environmental Assessment of Pipeline Border Crossing

This story has been updated to include a comment from Energy Transfer, the pipeline company.

Federal regulators have released an environmental assessment of the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s border crossing section, a 1,093-feet stretch of the 143-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas into Mexico from the Permian Basin.

In the assessment, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) writes that if the border segment is built according to plans already laid out in federal filings by Energy Transfer (the pipeline company), any impacts would be “short-term” and “would not contribute meaningfully to cumulative impacts in the area.”

The border crossing segment is the only part of the pipeline under federal jurisdiction. The rest of it is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, though opponents with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) take issue with that and would like to see the entire line regulated by the federal government.

The no-impact finding comes despite hundreds of public comments filed by people who fear the pipeline will harm the region.

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A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine. (Cooper Neill)

A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine. (Cooper Neill)

Protested Big Bend Pipeline Now Closer to Approval

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from an Energy Transfer Partners spokeswoman.

A coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and disgruntled landowners has suffered a major setback in its battle to block a proposed pipeline that would carry natural gas beneath 143 miles of largely untouched Big Bend-area land.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff offered a key endorsement of a stretch of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, writing that it “would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” in a draft environmental assessment issued Monday.

The agency, which would regulate a part of the project that crosses into Mexico, also declined to expand its environmental review to the entire project as opponents had sought.

“Unfortunately, the most negative, worst-case outcome is what we’ve received,” the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, the group leading the protest, said in a statement that accused the agency of “burying its head in the sand.”

The 42-inch-wide pipeline would start at the Waha storage hub near Fort Stockton and cut through Pecos, Brewster and Presidio counties before crossing beneath the Rio Grande near the town of Presidio. It could bring up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas each day into Mexico, where officials have recently opened up the energy sector to private companies.

Its planners include Energy Transfer Partners and Mexico’s Carso Energy — a partnership that links Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren with Carso’s Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men.

Vicki Granado, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman, said Monday that the company was “pleased” with the federal agency’s latest assessment. Energy Transfer plans to start construction in the coming months.

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Photos from Beers of the Basin for West Texas Public Radio

We appreciate everyone who came in support of West Texas Public Radio for our Beers of the Basin: A Craft Beer Festival. Here are some photos from the event from photographer Alan Torre. You can also find photos from our friends at Smile Booth.


Parts of the burn area from the "Powerline Fire" in Big Bend National Park, which was fully contained on Friday, February 5, 2016. (Big Bend National Park)
U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at a rally in Dallas on Jan. 6, 2016. (Cooper Neill)
Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)
Artifacts at site of Porvenir Massacre (Glenn Justice).
The spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Murder Trial of Alpine Resident after First Week

Murders are rare in Brewster County, and a murder trial in Alpine has just wrapped up its first week. Keith Alan McWilliams is on trial for allegedly killing Walter “Trey” Sands III  in late October 2014.

The last murder trial of a Brewster County resident was held in Sierra Blanca, when Tony Flint was acquitted in the death of Glenn Felts – both residents of Terlingua. The case gained a lot of outside exposure, including a television documentary series on the National Geographic Channel called “Badlands.”

The McWilliams case also features South County, this time Terlingua Ranch. It was where Trey Sands body was found buried in a shallow arroyo. He had been shot, beaten, and probably stabbed. Sands had left his Alpine home more than a month before, supposedly to go on a hunting trip with 49-year-old McWilliams, the defendant. Sands was 28 years old and had recently moved to Alpine from his home town of Kilgore.

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The spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Parks and Wildlife Commissioners Approve 50-Acre Expansion Plan for Balmorhea State Park

Updated Thursday, January 21 – 1:50 PM

Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners have unanimously approved a planned 50-acre expansion at Balmorhea State Park. The vote came at a Thursday morning meeting.

Under the proposal, the popular spring-fed swimming hole in West Texas would buy 50 acres of land from the Reeves County Water Improvement District, the local irrigation district.

The new acreage would more than double the size of the park. Cory Kuhlmann, a land conservation manager with parks and wildlife, said at Thursday’s meeting it could really help – the park’s often overcrowded in the summers with more and more people flocking to this rare desert swimming spot.

“We’re thinking in the future about going to some kind of system where we have to alternate use for the pool, because you can only let so many people in the pool at the same time,” he said. “And if we have to turn people away or they have to wait, there’s really no place for them to go.”

Kulhmann said the extra space could give people a place to hang out even if the pool is full.

Balmorhea State Park Superintendent Karl Coughlin says any opportunity to grow the park is “welcome with open arms,” but he is aware the expansion could entice even more people to come to the park.

“Of course we always have to worry about the number of visitors we get at the park, because we have to balance the visitation with maintaining our resources,” he said.

“Right now we don’t have any firm plans with what we’re going to do with that land. I’m assuming that eventually we’re going to sit down and have those discussions, but until it becomes official on our end, those are kind of just hopes and dreams.”

There’s other work to be done before the Balmorhea park expansion becomes a reality. The purchase of the 50 acres from the irrigation district depends on the park’s ability to acquire a separate, small tract of private land. That part of the deal is still in the works.

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Sunrise at Big Bend Ranch State Park. (Travis Bubenik/KXWT)

Land Swap Will Give Nearly 600 New Acres to Big Bend Ranch State Park

Updated Thursday, January 21, 1:45 PM

Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioners have unanimously approved a proposed land swap that will give nearly 600 new acres of public lands to Big Bend Ranch State Park in West Texas.

The vote came at a Thursday morning meeting that also included a handful of other proposals related to public lands. Commissioners also voted to approve a 50-acre expansion plan for Balmorhea State Park.

Under the plan, the privately-owned LaMota Ranch will hand over about 1,200 acres of its land to the park, and the private will get about 600 acres from Big Bend Ranch in return.

The state park will come away with about 578 acres of new public lands located off Casa Piedra Road, a scenic dirt road through the area.

The land swap is aimed at straightening up a meandering part of the boundary between the park and LaMota Ranch, and to make it easier to fence that line.

Still, Ted Hollingsworth with the parks and wildlife department’s land conservation program said the new lands near the Cienega Mountains will be an asset.

“We would not give up any special natural resource features or cultural resource features, we would gain some property that’s pretty high, with nice views,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “More importantly, in my view, we would gain the best road down into the Cienega bottom. That’s a road we have not had access to for several years – the fella that owned that property previously prevented our use of that road.”

Big Bend Ranch Superintendent Sean Dungan said Wednesday the plan sounds like a good deal.

“It’s something that’s exciting for us, it’s exciting for LaMota Ranch, and for the public,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”

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Energy Outlook, with Reporter Lorne Matalon

TUESDAY, JANUARY 12: This is a transcript of our discussion on the drop in oil prices and outlook for the future, with reporter Lorne Matalon and host Tom Michael.

MICHAEL: Monday was a rough day for oil and gas markets. Prices fell more than 6 percent to 12-year lows. At one point yesterday, U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude dipped below $32 a barrel. One of the lowest points since December 2003. Our Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon is in Austin today, surrounded by energy policy experts, academics, and other industry insiders. We go to him now. Hello, Lorne.

MATALON: Hello, Tom. MICHAEL: So, what are you doing there in Austin?

MATALON: On behalf of the station, myself, and morning anchor Travis Bubenik, (we) are invitees at UT Austin’s first annual Energy Journalism Conference. Real “A-List” energy reporters like Russell Gold from the Wall Street Journal and Clifford Krauss from the NY Times, now based in Houston

MICHAEL: What are some of the factors behind this sell-off?

MATALON: The bottom line, to answer your question directly, is there’s a persistent global glut of crude. And Tom, it continues to weigh on the market. Oil prices have plunged since mid-2014. They’re down more than 10% already this year. It’s the talk of this conference.

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Christmas Holiday Family Radio

Holiday Programming on West Texas Public Radio

We hope you’ve been enjoying the holiday specials on West Texas Public Radio, from our original music shows “Rock-A-Billy” to “Classical Midday.” Here’s an overview of Christmas programs.

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