FREE TRADE OR SLAVE TRADE 

A towering, hefty man with a salt-and-pepper mustache as thick as a bear pelt, Fernández bellowed into a microphone while a fellow demonstrator, a Quaker from the American Friends Service Committee, pointed a small amplifier toward a crowd of protesters assembled in a parking lot. "We're not putting up with the injustices and violations of Alcoa," he proclaimed in Spanish, his back to the San Antonio offices of Alcoa Fujikura, Ltd. (AFL).

A joint venture between American and Japanese companies, AFL is the automotive division of the world's largest aluminum producer.

Margarita Ramírez, who with Fernández, had worked in AFL's plant building wire harnesses for firms such as Ford, Subaru, and Harley-Davidson, is a short, round woman with a face as yet unlined by the drudgery of the maquila or the challenges of raising her four children. She spoke softly, but no less earnestly: "Together we can achieve positive change for workers."

About 35 protesters from Austin and San Antonio had gathered to demand reinstatement for the 20 Mexican workers who were fired from their AFL jobs for daring to defy the Confederación de Trabajadpres Mexicanos (CTM), the established union that is notorious for cozying up to the company. While AFL contends the employees who were '86ed had held an illegal work stoppage and violently tried to overthrow the CTM - allegations union organizers emphatically deny, claiming the CTM has roughed up workers in the plants - it is no coincidence that the dismissed workers had organized a union which was not merely an extension of the company; four of the fired workers had been elected by employees as independent union representatives.

The plight of Fernández and Ramírez serves as a reminder that the only liberating aspect of free trade is the free ride transnationals receive for plopping down a plant on the Mexican side of the border. These corporations - General Electric, General Motors, and AFL, among them - are immutable in their stance that profit reigns über alles. Shielded by NAFTA - which requires them to obey few, if any environmental laws, pay little or no taxes, and ignore labor rights - they have no impetus to change.

In AFL's case, the company was formerly led by Paul O'Neill, who served as CEO before President Bush filled his cabinet with corporate pals and named him Treasury Secretary; last year, The New York Times reported that during an annual shareholder meeting, a Mexican worker from AFL's Ciudad Acuña plant testified to O'Neill about the company's mistreatment of workers: in addition to $6 daily wages, janitors limited workers to three sheets of toilet paper, employees were overcome by fumes from a gas leak (covered up by a Mexican AFL executive), and Mexican police officers lobbed tear gas at disgruntled workers during a confrontation in the factory's parking lot.

O'Neill acted shocked, the Times reported, and wages and factory conditions slightly improved. Yet 18 months later, discontent still runs deep at the plant: AFL pays its employees a meager $70 for a 46-hour work week - which equals about $1.50 an hour, and no benefits. The environmental problems persist - open sewage in the streets, workers living in shacks - and the labor problems, as Fernández and Ramírez explained continue to fester.

The history of labor and management conflicts at AFL, which employs 14,000 workers at its Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña plants, dates back 15 years, when the CTM began representing - or as many employees say, misrepresenting - AFL's Mexican workers. According to Ramírez, Fernández, and other workers, the CTM serves only Alcoa's interests: It negotiated lower wages and severance pay below legal standards - even though average maquila wages have dropped by 20 percent and the cost of living has increased by 243 percent since 1994.

For the past decade, many AFL workers in Mexico have tried to win improvements in their wages and working conditions. But since 2000, employees say, Alcoa has interfered in union elections, videotaped workers inside and outside the plant, and supported - through inaction - the CTM's intimidation of those fighting to displace it.

Last March, workers in AFL's Plant No. 2 called for elections to establish new representatives outside the CTM's control; a week later, the slate of five independent union representatives won the election by secret ballot, 932-532. The independent reps remained officially affiliated with the CTM as a sectional committee, but after the CTM refused to accept the committee's input in September, a majority of employees quit the CTM and began organizing their own union.

In early October, as organizers - with the help of Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, a border group that works for economic and social justice - continued a registration drive in Plant 1, AFL fired 20 workers, including Ramírez and Fernández, from both its Piedras Negras plants. "It was unjustified," complained Fernández, a father of three, about his firing. "They said I took part in illicit acts and I didn't."

Ramírez said AFL has offered to reinstate her - on one condition: "I have to accept the CTM. But I won't."

Nonetheless, on October 18, the majority of Plant 1 workers elected an independent union - although it has no right to engage in collective bargaining. A Third District Court in Piedras Negras has denied the new union's appeal to force the AFL to officially recognize them. The new union has appealed to a Colegial Circuit Court; its decision is due in January.

While workers allege AFL is aiding the CTM, publicly the company is distancing itself from the conflict. In a phone interview from the company's Pittsburgh headquarters, AFL spokesman Kevin Lowery said that workers have "freedom of association," and denied that the company had any ties to the CTM.

"There are two factions looking to represent workers, and we're not going to get in the middle of it," he added. "We are completely independent of this."

Lowery reiterated that the 20 employees had been fired because "disruptions and violence in the workplace are not tolerated. We have our people down there whose jobs it is to monitor what's going on in the workplace. We believe they have taken the appropriate measures."

Back at AFL's San Antonio offices, a sprinkling of white-collar workers tentatively opened the front door - which was locked from the inside - and watched the protest from the sidewalk. One man began filming, but after several minutes retreated inside behind the tinted windows.

About noon, the protesters approached AFL's main entrance carrying a signed petition demanding reinstatement of the fired workers, recognition of the newly elected union, and replacement of two Mexican AFL executives. They had hoped to deliver their message to the director of human resources, but a woman employee blocked their access. "The reception area is closed. I'm asking that you leave," she said through a half-open door.

"I'm a shareholder and I'd like to speak to the human resources director," replied Rosenberg.

"Get out and I will call him," countered the woman. "We're trying to run an office."

The woman dialed the reception room phone. "They want to talk to you," she grumbled into the receiver. "They want to leave a petition."

She turned to Rosenberg: "He said to leave it here."

"Booooooo!" chanted the demonstrators. "Bring out the boss! Bring out the boss!"

"He's not in," the woman insisted. "If he doesn't want it, we can't make him accept it."

About a dozen demonstrators occupied the reception area, and waited for a higher-up to appear. Posted on a bulletin board was a sign listing AFL's principles: "We value human life above all else. We are transparent in our communications, safety, and well-being for our employees. We comply with all laws and set higher standards for ourselves and our suppliers where unacceptable risks are identified."

The protesters headed for the parking lot when the police arrived, and four officers with their arms folded guarded the company's entrance. Apparently, AFL had identified an unacceptable risk - dissent.


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