How to Kill a Factory

Was an Irvine plant's closing payback for its union's budding internationalism?

Maria Villela and her husband, Raquel, spent a combined 32 years at Friction, an Irvine auto-parts plant. They were there in 1992, when the business was bought by Echlin Corp., a Connecticut-based multinational that was gobbled up more recently by the Dana Aftermarket Group. They were leaders in the organizing drive that unionized the plant in 1994; Villela became union president. And the Villelas (she's in her 40s; he's in his 50s) were there last summer, when three strangers-workers from an Echlin plant in Mexico City-showed up at lunch time. The Villelas joined a small group who took their lunches, walked through the gate to the street, and sat on the grass outside to hear what the strangers had to say. Like the majority of Friction's workers, who are immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, the strangers spoke Spanish. According to the Villelas, they said their factory was nothing like the Irvine plant. They offered a Dickensian history of accidents, miserly wages one-tenth of those in Irvine, and a government-controlled union that actually prevented workers from organizing. "We were surprised by what they said, and some of us got pretty mad," said Ruben Cabrera, Friction's union steward. "The situation they described was very unjust. I felt they were being treated like slaves." Friction's workers didn't just get mad-they organized on behalf of the workers in Mexico City. And some workers believe that the company's response to their effort to support the Mexico City workers was the beginning of the end of the Friction plant. In February, Echlin formally notified Villela's union that it was closing Friction. By Aug. 31, the gate into the factory will shut for the last time. The ovens will be turned off. The machinery that churned out brake pads and auto parts for more than two decades will be loaded onto trucks and hauled away. The plant's 110 production workers will give the boxy building one last look and move on with their lives. Friction will be gone. A Weekly reporter and photographer were not allowed inside the Friction plant. Reporters' calls to Friction management were referred to the company's headquarters in Connecticut. There, Echlin spokesman Paul Ryder denied the plant closing is payback for the union's budding internationalism. "We have overcapacity for that product line," he said. "The closure is just the normal course of business." Villela's union, Local 1090 of the United Electrical Workers (UE), negotiated severance pay for the laid-off workers, as well as company cooperation with efforts to assist employees in finding other jobs. Nevertheless, many of them are convinced that the company's cooperation disguises a bitter reality: that their ambitious unionizing and especially their willingness to help Echlin workers in Mexico City are the reasons Echlin is shutting the factory's doors. It has come as a shock to Friction workers, who have an average of 11 years on the job. "We think it's revenge," Villela declares. "We work like crazy here and make the best product in the industry. Now they say they're transferring the work to other plants." The Friction plant is a typically anonymous tilt-up building on a typically anonymous industrial boulevard in Irvine. Daimler Street extends for three unimpressive blocks between nameless cracker-box buildings in an aging industrial park next to the Costa Mesa Freeway. It's hard to tell what goes on in these concrete warehouses; in some, it's apparent that nothing goes on at all: real-estate signs hang across vacant facades, advertising that their occupants have moved on. There's already such a sign outside the Friction plant, near the white plywood board that tells truck drivers where to turn to find the loading docks. No other sign announces the company's name; if you don't know the address already, presumably, you've got no business being there. At lunch time a few weeks ago, workers eating on the small grassy strip next to the street speculated that the company would sacrifice quality and efficiency by transferring the work to other plants. One points out that a couple of years ago, Sears Roebuck, one of Friction's principal customers, was so pleased with the quality of the factory's product that it gave the company money to reward its employees. Each worker took home a $100 bonus. Chief Auto Parts also gave workers a commendation, he says. That kind of talk leads some of Friction's workers to their conclusion: revenge, not economic motives, are behind the plant closure. Bob Kingsley, the UE's national organizing director, thinks the company may have "found out about the Mexico City workers' visit to Irvine and concluded that the Irvine workers had a special role in encouraging the organization of their independent union." That conclusion is supported by conversations workers reported to union steward Cabrera. He says supervisors told workers, "This is what you get for what you've done." "What hurts isn't just the shock of losing a job," Cabrera explains. "It's losing friends and people you've known and worked with for years. I came here from a small town in Michoacan, Mexico, 17 years ago. I got a job here right away, and I've been here ever since. Working at Friction has been a big part of my life." Echlin has a well-earned anti-union reputation. In a March 13 letter to Teamsters union vice president Tom Gilmartin, Echlin senior vice-president Milton Makoski made perfectly clear the company's antipathy to unions: "We are opposed to union organization of our current nonunion locations. . . . We are persuaded that the welfare of our employees and their long-term job security is best-served by operating our businesses without the interference of unions and the serious inefficiencies that typically result from unionization. For these reasons, we will oppose the union organization of any of our operations and employees by every legally and morally proper means at our disposal." He went on to note approvingly that despite "60 years of determined and relentless efforts" by unions, a majority of its employees are still unorganized. Although Echlin has acquired already-unionized plants, Makoski pointed out, "There is only one [plant] in existence where the employees, while they were part of the Echlin organization, have elected to be represented by a union." That plant is the Friction plant. In the Irvine factory, workers formed UE Local 1090 in a fierce organizing battle in 1994. "We got tired of having supervisors tell us, 'Do this, or there's the door,'" Cabrera recalls. "If we stopped our machine just to go to the bathroom, they'd yell at us. Even those of us who had been here for years were only making $6 an hour." Cabrera is a heavyset, soft-spoken man. It's not hard to see why he might inspire confidence in other workers trying to speak up to a hostile management, or why they would later choose him as steward. But if the union had to depend simply on the credibility of leaders like Cabrera or the bravery of workers inside the plant, it still might not have succeeded in overcoming the company's intense opposition. Union organizers found support for them from other factories in the Echlin chain. "We put one of our organizers on the road, meeting with workers and unions at other Echlin plants," Kingsley recalls. "Workers in one Virginia factory where the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers [now UNITE] had a contract and at various Teamsters locals around the country, signed petitions, sent letters of support, and wore buttons at work supporting the local in Irvine. That was the origin of what grew to be the Echlin Workers Alliance." Two years later, during a second round of contract negotiations in the spring of 1996, unions in the Echlin alliance again sent faxes and petitions to plant managers throughout the company in support of the Irvine workers. Villela, who was elected president of Local 1090, credited the alliance's involvement with helping them win big improvements. The second contract included substantial raises, a bonus of a day's pay for good attendance, and two additional personal days off. Friction workers won recognition for their union and grudging respect from Echlin management, but it came at a price. Villela believes company management "began to look at us not as the company's workers, but as its enemies." Then the strangers from Mexico City showed up in Irvine. They had come 3,000 miles from Itapsa, an Echlin plant in Mexico City where, throughout 1996 and 1997, workers tried to shed their membership in a government-run union in favor of the independent metal and steelworkers union STIMAHCS. That effort was thwarted last summer through the combined efforts of Echlin, the government-backed "official" union federation, and the local police. Squelching independent unions in Mexico is nothing out of the ordinary. But unlike many similar instances in the past, the repression at Itapsa was met by a well-organized international response, one that broke new ground in cross-border organizing. Since 1996, STIMAHCS has been part of a North American alliance of unions with contracts in Echlin's factories, including the UE, the Teamsters, the Paperworkers and UNITE in the U.S., and the Canadian Steelworkers and Auto Workers. The most active U.S. local in that campaign was the one at the Irvine Friction plant. "We got 81 cents in raises over two years," says Villela. "We understood the value of solidarity. So when we heard what was happening at Itapsa, we wanted to help the workers there win their rights." Local 1090 members began by hosting the Itapsa visitors last summer. They passed out leaflets inside the Irvine plant describing what was going on in Mexico City. They discussed the events at work and during union meetings. Finally, workers signed a petition demanding that Echlin stop firing Itapsa workers and recognize STIMAHCS. When Villela and other executive-board members presented the petition to a Friction plant official, "we could see in his face how angry he was. He told us we had drawn a line between the union and the company," Villela recalls. In February, Echlin told workers the Friction plant had been scheduled for closure. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been in effect for just a few months when Ruben Ruiz got a job at Itapsa in the summer of 1994. As his new boss showed him around, Ruiz noticed with apprehension that the machines were old and poorly maintained. He had hardly begun his first shift when, he says, workers around him began yelling: a machine had malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man who was operating it. "I was very scared," he remembers. "I wanted to leave." But he needed the job, so he stayed. He heard other stories. Two brothers allegedly drowned in a vat of caustic soda a year before, he was told. 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. 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 work-related employee deaths," a company statement says. "The one incident in which an employee was seriously injured by a machine resulted from an unsafe and unforeseen act by the employee." In an otherwise-critical report on conditions inside the Itapsa plant, the U.S. National Administrative Office (NAO) concluded "that the factory has been subjected to ongoing health-and-safety inspections by the authorities which have noted numerous shortcomings and that corrective action was undertaken on many of these." It seemed obvious to Ruiz, however, that things were very wrong. So when a friend asked him to come to a meeting to talk about organizing an independent union, he went. He wasn't alone. But as Itapsa workers organized, they discovered they already had a union-Section 15 of the government-sanctioned Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), Mexico's largest labor federation. Itapsa's 300 employees evidently had never seen their union contract, and Mexican labor experts say that they wouldn't have been pleased if they had. One of them, 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 discovered the 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 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 recounts. "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, and the union filed a petition with Mexico's labor board. A date was set for a final showdown, a side-by-side election between STIMAHCS and the CTM: Aug. 28, 1997. That morning, the fired workers went to the plant, where they joined union supporters from the swing and graveyard shifts, eager to vote. But the day before, at CTM's insistence, the labor board had postponed the election without notifying STIMAHCS. Company supervisors, looking at the off-shift workers assembled at the gate, got a very good idea of who was supporting the independent union. "That afternoon, the company began to fire more workers," says Benedicto Martinez, general secretary of a federation of non-government unions to which STIMAHCS belongs. He says 50 workers were eventually terminated-a claim Echlin disputes. The election was finally held 13 days later, but not without interference by Mexican officials. According to testimony submitted to the NAO, the evening before the vote, a member of the state judicial police drove a car filled with rifles into the plant, unloading them openly. The next morning, two busloads of CTM supporters entered the factory armed with clubs and copper rods. STIMAHCS immediately tried to get the election canceled. But the vote went ahead, even after thugs allegedly roughed up one of the independent union's organizers. At the voting table, some witnesses say they were asked to state aloud-and in front of management and CTM representatives-which union they favored. STIMAHCS observers couldn't even inspect the credentials of many voters; some of the people who voted were unknown to the factory's workers. Predictably, STIMAHCS lost. The unions supporting Itapsa's bid for an independent union-including unions in the U.S. and Canada-filed a complaint before the administrative body set up to enforce the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. Commonly known as NAFTA's labor side agreement, the treaty allows workers, unions and other organizations to charge that either Mexico, Canada or the U.S. is failing to enforce its laws guaranteeing workers' rights. The complaint against Echlin alleged collusion by the Mexican government, the company and CTM to deny workers the right to representation by an independent union. The charges were heard before Irasema Garza, secretary of the NAO, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, in Washington, D.C., on March 23. Fifteen witnesses, including three Itapsa workers, gave sworn testimony about the firings and other actions. Seventeen witnesses submitted affidavits about the firings and intimidation of workers. And-just days after being told her own plant was closing-Villela went to Washington to support the Itapsa workers at the hearing. "We don't regret what we did for a minute," she says. "The company is responsible for a great injustice." Echlin never showed up to contest the testimony, but, in a prepared statement, it denied the charges, specifically the claim that 50 workers were fired for attempting to organize a union at the Itapsa plant. On July 31, the NAO issued its report. It declared that workers were indeed "subjected to retaliation by their employer and the established union in the workplace, including threats of physical harm and dismissal." The NAO found the election was marred by "an atmosphere of fear and intimidation." Workers asserting their rights "were subjected to physical attack by persons associated with the established union in the plant and in the presence of company officials." The NAO concluded that the Itapsa plant "may suffer serious health-and-safety deficiencies that are hazardous to its employees." The NAO report reveals in chilling detail the obstacles that confront Mexican workers when they try to organize against poverty wages and dangerous conditions. And by showing those obstacles, the report offers eloquent testimony about the very conditions that attract companies like Echlin to relocate production to Mexico: lax environmental laws, unenforced health-and-safety regulations, low wages. Especially low wages: it's strange to think of jobs at Friction (which pay $8-$10 per hour) as high-wage jobs; Friction wages are only half those of union autoworkers in Detroit assembly plants. But wages at Itapsa are a fraction of those at Friction. That wage differential draws jobs southward, affecting far more people than just workers at Friction. In hundreds of small factories scattered across Southern California, job security is evaporating as it did at the Irvine plant. Their parent corporations shift production from plant to plant, country to country, as though borders and distance have vanished. Workers here have agonized for years over the resulting devastation to their lives and communities. On Daimler Street, workers moved beyond worry to action. While NAFTA has accelerated the movement of production south, the treaty's labor side agreement has done almost nothing to help Mexican workers protect themselves in the process. At the NAO report's conclusion, it recommends the severest sanction available for the violation of workers' rights to form independent unions: discussions between the U.S. labor secretary and the Mexican secretary of labor and social development. And that's it. No fines. No requirement that the company rehire fired workers or recognize their union. Not even a rerun of the bogus election. The NAO can recommend none of these things because the treaty simply contains no penalties for those who engage in the conduct seen at Itapsa. Mexican workers don't face a lack of laws to protect them. The country's labor law is "very advanced and progressive," according to STIMAHCS attorney Eduardo Diaz. The problem is that Mexico's government is afraid to offend companies by enforcing it. Mexico is hooked on economic development, which depends on encouraging foreign investment. "Low wages are part of that policy, and every maquiladora that opens its doors is born with a union that protects it," says STIMAHCS general secretary Jorge Robles. U.S. trade policy enforces those priorities, using NAFTA and bailout loans to create favorable conditions for U.S. investment. Corporations like Echlin reap the benefits. According to UC Berkeley professor of labor issues Harley Shaiken, "the productivity of workers in Mexican plants is on a par with plants in the U.S. Investors get First World rates of productivity and a workforce with a Third World standard of living." It's no surprise that NAFTA's labor side agreement has a hard time dealing with these obstacles. "We recognize there's not enough power in the process to overcome the economic incentives of free trade," says Robin Alexander, the UE's director for international solidarity. "It's an extremely weak tool, and the lack of penalties for violating union rights is a gaping hole." Nevertheless, the union alliance convinced the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress and a new union federation in Mexico-the National Union of Workers-to join in the complaint against Echlin. It is the first time they've taken such action together. "Wherever I look, I see unions making efforts to figure out how to deal with one another and face the danger of transnational corporations," Alexander observes. "Maybe there is no single answer, at least not yet. But we won't find any answers without getting out there and looking for them." And in the eyes of their employer, that was the Friction workers' crime: they looked for answers.

 
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