Comité Fronterizo
de Obrer@s


For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers

Spanish Version



International Solidarity Takes on Labor Abuses in Mexico

December 2002

By Judith Rosenberg
TAO Program Committee

On October 3 and 4, Alcoa fired 20 workers in Piedras Negras, Mexico, where they employ 2,000 people. With this move, the U.S. corporation signaled their intent to crush an unprecedented democratic movement on the border. In March, the movement had elected a union committee dedicated to representing workers but functioning within the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM or Confederation of Mexican Workers). The CTM usually controls elections and more or less appoints committee members who are willing to represent management. Despite the workers' mandate, from the March election to the October firing, CTM union officials limited the democratic committee to decisions on everyday operations and reserved for themselves the power to negotiate substantive issues.

Greg Norman of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border) shows his support for labor rights in Mexico.

In justifying the firing, Joca San Martín, the human resources manager forMexican operations stated that the company based its decision on careful examination of evidence which proved that those fired were involved in organizing. Despite San Martín's citation of "evidence," it is not a crime to organize or campaign for a union committee--it's a guaranteed right. San Martín further alleges that the organizers conducted an illegal work slow down.

The Alcoa executives' allegations are based on a double bind of historic proportions. The CTM is the prevailing union in many parts of Mexico. If it is present, no work action is legal unless the CTM leads it, and the CTM never leads an action that represents the workers' interests against the company's. The workers' hands are tied and they can take no action, beyond casting ballots to gain relatively powerless positions, unless they form an independent union. This is exactly what workers propose to do in Piedras Negras. On May 1 they began navigating the hazardous state legal system to quit the CTM and register their union. They continue to pursue this avenue as the firings appear not to have intimidated them. On October 18, only two weeks after 20 workers were fired, independents ran the "Unity" slate against Alcoa and CTM-sponsored candidates in another Alcoa plant in Piedras Negras. The upstarts won by solid margins and continue, as of this writing, to function as union representatives, but within the CTM structure.

Having understood the October 4 firings as a rebuke to the whole principle of worker representation, fired workers joined with the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO or Border Committee of Women Workers) in sending out a bi-national call for solidarity in support of three demands: reinstatement of all fired workers; recognition of the independent union; and replacement of Paulino Vargas and José Juan Ortiz, the general and human resources managers of the Alcoa plants.

Responding to the call for solidarity, allies in the U.S. sent hundreds of letters, faxes and emails to Alain Belda, Alcoa's top CEO, located in Pittsburgh. Then supporters took to the streets to make Alcoa feel the pressure in local offices and facilities around the U.S. On November 22, a Texas coalition held a demonstration at the San Antonio Alcoa facility, which directs operations of the Mexican subsidiary and houses engineering, accounting and executive offices. Leading the San Antonio action were the AFSC, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border), two Alcoa shareholders, Fuerza Unida, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Southwest Public Workers Union. After intricate negotiations with the INS, two Mexican workers affiliated with the CFO--Margarita Ramírez and Guillermo Fernández--crossed the border to join the protest.

The objectives of the action were to make Alcoa feel international pressure, to state the workers' case to a wide audience, and to provide an opportunity for exchange and solidarity between workers from both sides of the border. The pressure tactics consisted of picketing, presentations of the workers' case through speeches and information flyers, and, finally, a petition that we attempted to deliver to human resources manager San Martín.
When we found the entrance to the executive offices locked, we entered the reception lobby in an adjoining building where we received a hostile reception. After some polite persistence, however, the office manager called Martín on an interoffice phone. He refused to receive the petition. We decided to stay, and quietly occupied the reception area until a police officer arrived and told us to leave, which we did, reassembling in the parking lot outside. Soon eight police cars arrived. They lined up before the single story glass and steel building to protect the transnational giant from a crowd that had dwindled from 40 to 30.

We still stood on private property and the police officer strolled over and asked, "Who's in charge here?" One protester responded, "No one; we're all leaders." Changing tack the officer appeared to soften. He said, "OK. OK. Group hug." As no one took him up on that, he started to lecture on what "demonstrators" usually do, that is, appoint someone to be in charge. One protester responded, "We're a collective." Another said, "We work by consensus." And another: "If you talk to us, we will listen." He then informed us of the law--get off private property--which we did.

The international solidarity campaign has already achieved some success! The human resource manager at one of the Alcoa plants has resigned, and workers have noted a softening in the attitude of management. At the center of the struggle, Victoria Martínez, a fired leader, maintains an optimistic attitude. In a message to those who have supported the campaign, she says: "Although we were fired, we feel good and keep a positive outlook. I feel a sense of calm, and take great satisfaction in what we have done. The struggle that I carried forth inside the plant, and the changes that we achieved--like getting rid of one of the corrupt union leaders--means real progress for workers who are behind us and who are still at work at the company. We greatly appreciate your support. We see that you act as compañeros, as brothers and sisters. Although we don't know all your faces, we give you our thanks."

Alcoa, Inc. is the world's largest producer of aluminum. The Alcoa Fujikura Ltd. (AFL) Division is one of the world's five largest manufacturers of electrical distribution systems for motor vehicles. In Mexico, AFL manufactures wire harnesses for Ford, Volkswagen, Subaru, Harley-Davidson, and other firms. Its maquiladora operations in Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña employ more than 14,000 production workers.


    is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
Monterrey #1103, Col. Las Fuentes
Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México