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Home> CFO in the Media 2002
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Weekend on the Mexican Border: Free Trade Face to Face

Electrical Union New – IUE-CWA (AFL-CIO)
Tuesday, January 15, 2002

201 member German Ramirez, Bldg. 63, and Executive Board Member Pete Capano recently visited the maquiladora region of the US/Mexican border on a trip organized by the United Electrical Workers (UE). Hosted by the Authentic Workers Front (FAT), an independent Mexican Union, the Border Committee of Women (CFO), and other worker’s rights groups, they got first hand exposure to the contrast between the gleaming foreign factories and the impoverished worker’s neighborhoods called colonias. Here is the conclusion of Pete Capano’s article:

Part Two

General Electric Workers tell their story
As for General Electric and their role in the export of American jobs and the exploitation of Mexican workers, the organizers didn’t have anything good to say about them. Neither did the workers. We had the opportunity to meet workers from a GE lighting plant. They told how the company has a reputation for efficiency, constantly trying to improve efficiency. Many companies work hard to project a positive image for society. G.E. has a reputation for improving work processes.

They are also the lowest paying company, and seldom use their own name in Mexico. They operate under Mexican names, like the plant that we visited, called Sociedad de Motores Domésticos. They assemble fan motors for air conditioners and employ around two thousand workers. There is also a GE lighting plant in nearby Acuña. We were supposed to meet the workers there, but apparently the company found out and held a mandatory “party.” They gave out free blankets to everyone and held raffles for appliances. These are very important items for these workers. Some were afraid of the consequences if they didn’t show up to the company party. The guarantee of a free blanket versus the consequences for meeting with us was very easy for us to understand.

We met with workers from the GE fan motor factory who, like all of the other workers we spoke to, were worried about what would happen to them if the company found out they were talking to us. According to these workers G.E. employs about twenty five thousand workers in ten different cities in Mexico. In 1998, GE associated itself with Carsa (the biggest industrial association in Mexico.) G.E. has some control of finances and the stock exchange and is also involved in services and telecommunications.

GE is also trying to gain influence and control of the privatization of pensions. One worker commented that they not only wanted to exploit us while we were working, but also after we retired. According to the workers’ report, “G.E. is the third or fourth most important company in Mexico. Other companies strive to be recognized for their social programs, but G.E. is recognized as getting financial reports without caring about much else.” G.E. is pushing the government to privatize the energy industry in Cancun, Baja California, and Juarez, and is involved in a project to generate electricity in anticipation of privatization. G.E. is also expected to have some if not major control of the railroads in the near future. Seventy-five G.E. locomotive engines will soon be purchased by the government.

Working Conditions
Workers talked about how workspace has been reduced so much due to efficiency programs that there is no room around the machinery. One worker complained that, “New studies are used to advance new systems in the workplace. There is lots of money for re-engineering the work process to make work more efficient, but no money for workers.”

At the lighting plant in Acuña, lights are hand assembled and tested. After assembly, lights are stamped either “Made in Mexico” or “Made in China” depending on what they are told to do and then shipped. Workers are paid about four hundred pesos a week or about thirty five bucks. In contrast, Alcoa is described as paying the most at 700 pesos a week or around sixty one dollar a week.

The stories of worker abuse were no different at GE than some of the other companies mentioned in Part I. One worker was forced to work with a broken toe. Another told a story of a co-worker who had her hair caught in the conveyor and had half her scalp ripped off her head. The company report indicated it was the workers fault and there was a need in the plant to cut hair. All of these stories of worker abuse begin to take its toll on you after a while and a need to do something to change things suddenly takes hold. After being down there and seeing and hearing first hand about workers on the border, the situation does get clearer. It is more than the fact that we are losing our jobs to cheap labor in foreign countries. The question is also what gives the corporation the right to exploit innocent human beings like this?


RESISTANCE AND HOPE

The Workers Respond
Despite de numerous obstacles and danger for Mexican workers who try to exercise their rights under Mexican labor law, protests in the factories seem to be growing. This seems to indicate that the work of the organizers we met is having an effect. In September of 2001, two hundred workers were fired from Arneses Corporation for participating in a work stoppage to protest the mistreatment of pregnant workers.

One hundred eighty six workers were fired on October 28, 2001 at Alcoa for participating in a work stoppage. Among the fired workers at Alcoa were nine members of a rank and file committee recognized by the company. The committee was able to achieve some important victories including a thirty percent increase in wages and benefits, more safety equipment and improvements in the hygiene of the facility and recognition of the committee by the company.

Members of this committee participated with the CFO (Committee of Border Women) for a few years previous to their organizing work in the company. They were able to achieve these victories with the support of responsible shareholders, individuals and unions. The committee met with Alcoa top executives including Paul O’Neil, the CEO and current US Secretary of the Treasury. Local management however has failed to honor all of the agreements made, and has delayed meetings with the committee. This led to a work stoppage and the subsequent firings by the company. As in other plants on the border the workers continue to fight.

The workers we visit are trying to organize independent unions and workers committees that will fight the corrupt government unions and the company. Their main strategy for doing this is educating workers about their rights under Mexican law, solidarity with other workers rights groups in Mexico and cross border communication with workers in the Unites States and Canada.

Workers rights groups provide support and voice for workers in conflict with their companies. The CFO led workers from a Mexican Delphi plant to the United State to meet with corporate executives to find out if local management in Mexico was hiding the truth from corporate officials about conditions in their plant. They were hosted by IUE/CWA Local 717, which represents Delphi workers in Ohio. Some of their main concerns were the pay of 61 dollars a week when it costs 120 dollars a week just for groceries, not being able to sit while they work, even when the equipment is idle during model change and not being able to take a bathroom brake without a supervisor’s approval. This action, along with strikes at Mexican plants has resulted in improved conditions, according to workers that we spoke to who are involved in the struggle with Delphi.

Perhaps Juan, a worker at BBB Corporation, who refurbishes alternators, can sum up best the nature of the struggle. Juan and a few of his co-workers were fired for their part in a strike for several hours at the factory. They were protesting the miserable wages of thirty-eight dollars a week and wanted the company to clean up the factory. Although they lost their jobs, they were happy for what they did, since within a month after they were fired the company raised wages from thirty-eight to fifty-seven dollars a week. According to Juan, “These events serve as an example that some progress can be made when workers take solidarity based actions. Many employees are struggling to change their union hoping to get them more involved in workers’ struggles.”

What will the future be?
In the U.S. hundreds of acres of unusable contaminated empty lots the size of some airports lay abandoned where manufacturing used to thrive, driving the local economy. In Mexico hundreds upon hundreds of acres of old wooden shacks in some of the most unsanitary and run down conditions the world has ever seen, house the workers that serve the world’s wealthiest corporations. What will these areas be like when the corporations move once again to areas of the world where labor is cheaper, like China? It almost seems like the planet is becoming too small for these companies. We need to continue working with workers across the border to help stop this endless race to the bottom and begin to build a new way of looking at things where the tide lifts all boats and fairness and human decency is respected. This trip may be a first step for us.

The weekend concluded with a summary and a decision to commit to working together by exchanging information and communicating regularly, and trying to build a relationship that can support the self-interest of each of our organizations while building solidarity in our fight for social and economic justice.

 

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