Date: Sat, 5 Dec 1998 20:05:04 -0500
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Tom Patterson <tom@QUEERNET.ORG>
Subject: Blow for Cross-Border Organizing
A Blow for Cross-Border Organizing
By David Bacon, San Francisco Guardian, 2 December 1998, p.27
IRVINE, CALIF. Last summer the gate into the Friction auto brake plant in Irvine swung shut for the last time. Its 110 production workers gave the boxy building a last look and moved on with their lives.
It's not unknown for companies to close their factories in the United States as they move production south. But this Orange County plant closed not just because production was moved but because its workers reached across the border to help their coworkers at a Mexican plant belonging to the same company. The battles around both factories show a new level of union resolve to cross borders to deal with a common em in the era of free trade. But they arc also a stark reminder of the obstacles those efforts face.
Friction belongs to a Connecticut-based transnational auto parts manufacturer, Echlin Inc. Throughout 1996 and 1997, workers at Echlin's ITAPSA brake plant in Mexico City endeavored to form an independent union. Last summer three ITAPSA workers visited their Irvine counterparts to find out about conditions in U.S. plants. They held an informal meeting at lunchtime in the street outside the facility.
The largely immigrant Mexican workforce at Friction identified with the effort. "We wanted to help the workers there win their rights," said Maria Villela president of Local 1090 of the United Electrical Workers, the union at the plant.
ITAPSA workers needed all the help they could get.
The North American Free Trade Agreement had been in effect for just a few months when Ruben Ruiz got a job at ITAPSA in the summer of 1994. He had hardly begun his first shift when workers around him began yelling out: a machine had malfunctioned cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it. "I was very scared," he remembered. "I wanted to leave." But he needed the job and stayed.
Accidents were only part of the problem. Ruiz later testified at a hearing into labor violations and health and safety problems at the plant that asbestos dust from the brake parts manufactured at ITAPSA coated machines and people alike. Workers were given Xrays, Ruiz says, and later some would be fired.
Echlin says its ITAPSA plant complies with Mexican health and safety laws. "Medical records indicate that since Echlin has owned the ITAPSA plant, there have been no workrelated employee deaths," a company statement says.
As ITAPSA workers organized, they discovered that they already had a union section 15 of the governmentsanctioned Confederation of Mexican Workers. ITAPSA!s 300 employees had never even seen the union contract. Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of the country's labor lawyers, called the agreement between Echlin and CTM a "protection contract," insulating the company from labor unrest.
When ITAPSA managers discovercd the independent union effort, they allegedly began firing the organizers. In early June 1996, 16 workers were terminated. Ruiz was called into the office of Luis Espinoza de los Monteros, ITAPSA's human relations director. "He told me he had received a phone call from the officials of the Echlin group in the U.S., who told him that any worker organizing a new union should be discharged without further question," Ruiz said. "He told me my name was on a list of those people, and I was discharged right there and then."
Despite the firings, many ITAPSA workers moved to join STIMAHCS, an independent Mexican metalworkers union. The union filed a petition with Mexico's labor board for an election, but more workers were fired as the date approached.
The evening before voting took place, a member of the state judicial police openly unloaded a car filled with rifles in the plant. The next morning two busloads of strangers entered the factory, armed with clubs; and copper rods; they then formed a gauntlet that workers had to pass as they came to vote. At the voting table, employees had to state aloud in front of management and CTM representatives which union they favored.
Predictably, STIMAHCS lost.
After the election at ITAPSA, a new trinational alliance of unions filed a complaint over the violation of workers' rights before the administrative body set up to enforce NAFTA's labor side agreement. At a March 23 hearing in Washington before the National Administrative Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, more than two dozen ITAPSA workers and other union officials submitted testimony. Echlin never showed up.
This year, on July 3 1, the NAO issued its report, declaring that workers "were subjected to retaliation by their employer and the established union in the workplace, including threats of physical harm and dismissal."
In Irvine, Friction workers continued to support their Mexican counterparts after the ITAPSA election. They signed a petition, demanding that Echlin rehire the fired workers and recognize the independent union.
When Villela and other union members presented it to Friction plant manager Mark Levy, "we could see in his face how angry he was. He told us we had drawn a line between the union and the company," she said.
In February, Echlin formally notified the union it was closing the Irvine plant. The move came as a shock to Friction workers, who average 11 years on the job. "We think it's revenge," Villela said. "We work like crazy here and make the best product in the industry."
Echlin spokesperson Paul Ryder confirmed that the work was being moved, although he said it was only going to other U.S. factories.
"We have overcapacity for that product line," he said. "The closure is just the normal course of business." He wouldn't respond to the allegation that the closure is revenge for workers' solidarity actions.
But (he company may have had two other important reasons for its hostility to its Orange County workforce. Workers organized their union there in 1994. Echlin's hostility was evident in a letter from company senior vice president Milton Makoski to another union, in which he wrote, "We are opposed to union organization of our current nonunion locations.... We will fight every effort to unionize Echlin employees." He noted approvingly that, despite "60 years of determined and relentless efforts" by unions, a majority of its employees were still unorganized.
"There is only one [operation] in existence," he wrote, "where the employees, while they were part of the Echlin organization, have elected to be represented by a union." That operation was the Friction plant.
Once they organized their own union, the Irvine workers became the spark plug of a NAFTAzone alliance of unions having contracts with Echlin factories, including the Teamsters, the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Paperworkers, and UNITE in the United States, and the Canadian Steelworkers and Auto Workers. Unions in this unique labor alliance sought to assist each other in bargaining and organizing. "Our primary purpose," said Bob Kingsley, UE director of organizing, "has been to achieve a situation where we're all sitting down at the table with the same company and bargaining together."
As the U.S. auto industry relies increasingly on parts made in maquiladoras, increased union focus on struggles such as those at ITAPSA may just be beginning. Unfortunately NAFTA's labor side agreement contains no penalties for companies or governments that violate workers' labor rights. Neither does it protect workers like those at Friction, who take crossborder action to support their coworkers in other countries.
Mexico's labor law is "very advanced and progressive," according to STIMAHCS attorney Eduardo Diaz. But its government, he said, is afraid to offend companies by enforcing it, as it pursues an economic policy dependent on foreign investment.
U.S. trade policy also seeks favorable conditions for U.S. investment. Corporations like Echlin reap the benefits. According to University of California professor Harley Shaiken, "in Mexican plants U.S. investors get firstworld rates of productivity and a workforce with a thirdworld standard of living."
To meet this challenge "a growing number of unions are trying to deal with each other across borders," said UE director of international solidarity Robin Alexander. "Maybe there is no single answer to their problems, but we won't find any answers at all without looking for them."
Perhaps that was the sin of the Friction workers. They looked.