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Home> CFO in the Media 2002
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“Return us to work”
Alcoa’s Exploitation of Mexican Workers Challenged

Steelabor
Volum 67/Number 2 Spring 2002

When Amador Tovar told his boss at Alcoa’s plants in Acuña, Mexico that the workers’ mounting problems were going unresolved and that they had formed an organizing committee that would affiliate with a union in Mexico City, the boss was unfazed.

“I will buy them off,” he said.

“Then we will form an independent union,” Tovar told his supervisor.

The Alcoa manager was shocked. He made no reply. But soon the harassment started. Tovar is 29 years old and had been working in the plant for more that eight years. He is among some 236 workers who were fired for their union activities.

Before he was unjustly discharged, plant management called him in to make an offer. They offered him a severance package of 25,000 pesos, nearly $2,800 –a lot of money, considering the average wage in the plant is just $75 –a-week. When the boss made the offer, he warned Tovar to think really hard before rejecting it. “Tomorrow, you’ll go without anything,” the boss threatened.

Tovar has been out of work for seven months. When he was asked if he had any second thoughts about not taking the money, he did not hesitate with his response.

“We want to build something for the future in Acuña,” he said. “We have to think about our children and the life they will have.” Out of the original 236 Alcoa workers who were fired, most were unable to continue holding out. Blacklisted in the Maquilas, they were unable to support their families. They needed the severance pay to survive. Just 31 remain in the struggle to regain their jobs.

Fighting for Workers Rights

Amparo Reyes is a 40-year-old single mother of two. She witnessed many injustices by local management while she was employed at Alcoa’s Piedras Negras plant. She became active in a workers’ committee that met with management, seeking improvements in working conditions.

Reyes always considered herself a loyal Alcoa employee, efficient and productive, never missing work. Her $75 –a-week earnings were her family’s only income.

Her life changes dramatically following a meeting she attended with Alcoa management in Acuña to air some problems that her committee wanted corrected. Soon after she returned to work at Piedras Negras, she was subjected to tremendous repression.

“I’ve never been in a jail,” Reyes said, “but working in that plant became worse than being in prison.” She was an experienced assembler. Management took her off her job and mover her from one job to another in an effort to show that she was an unfit worker.

“They were trying to force me to quit,” she said. After she refused to leave voluntarily, Alcoa fired her. She is unable to find work. She tearfully tells how her oldest son had to quit school because she did not have the money to pay for it.

USWA Joins Cause

 Tovar, Reyes and Carlos Briones, General-Secretary of the 1,750 member local union in Piedras Negras traveled to Pittsburgh to attend Alcoa stockholders’ meeting where USWA leadership joined in support of their cause in a show of international solidarity.

Several hundred union activists and supporters rallied outside Alcoa’s annual meeting in downtown Pittsburgh where International Vice President Andrew Palm was meeting with top Alcoa officials in an attempt to resolve the issues.

“We want all the discharged workers put back on the job,” Palm said. “Our union must take leadership role in raising the living standards of workers in all nations. If we allow global corporations to oppress workers in other nations, it will come back to hunt us in future negotiations for our members in the U.S. and Canada. If we want to maintain a high standard for our members, we must fight for all workers in global corporations.”

Finally, a delegation was invited to address the stockholders. Tovar, Reyes, Briones, Vice President Palm and Gerald Fernandez, Assistant to the USWA president for International Affairs, entered the building amid cheers of hundreds of supporters.

Alcoa CEO Alain Belda was at the podium when the group arrived. He asked if anyone else had anything to say. Carlos Briones raised his hand. Belda ignored him and adjourned the meeting.

Alcoa’s Ploy

“This is a set-up,” Fernandez fumed as he called out to be recognized. Soon afterward, some top Alcoa officials convened a private session with the Mexican workers, Palm and Fernandez, who passionately narrated the plight of the Mexican workers.

“We sent you 20 letters, explaining our problems,” Carlos Briones said to Belda. “You had better check on who’s reading your mail.”

The meeting ended without any commitments from the company but it represented progress for the workers.

“We got Alcoa’s attention,” said Vice President Palm. “We expect top management to investigate the working conditions and the way they run their plants in Mexico. Our union will continues to support there workers until all of them have been put back on the job and the rights of all Alcoa’s employees are respected.”

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