David Bacon Stories & Photographs
A Plant Closes in Revenge for Cross-Border Organizing
by David Bacon

IRVINE, CA (11/30/98) -- 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 itself gobbled up more recently by the Dana Aftermarket Group. They were leaders in the organizing drive that unionized the plant in 1994; Maria 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 lunchtime. They 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. They said their own factory was nothing like the Irvine plant. They offered a Dickensian history of accidents, miserly wages a tenth of those in Irvine, and a government-controlled union that actually prevented workers from organizing.

The story wasn't a complete surprise to Friction workers. "We used to get boxes of parts from their plant," says Ruben Cabrera, Friction's union steward. "When we'd open them up, the parts were covered in dust." Friction workers figured the dust for asbestos, the fibrous mineral which causes mesothelioma, a kind of lung cancer, when it's inhaled. Nevertheless, "we were surprised by what they said, and some of us got pretty mad," Cabrera remembers. "The situation they described was very unjust. I felt they were being treated like slaves."

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. On August 31, the gate into the factory shut for the last time. The ovens were turned off. The machinery that churned out brake pads and auto parts for over two decades was loaded onto trucks and hauled away. The plant's 110 production workers gave the boxy building a last look, and moved on with their lives.

Friction was gone.

Echlin spokesperson Paul Ryder denies the plant closing is payback for the union's budding internationalism. "We have overcapacity for that product line," he says. "The closure is just the normal course of business."

Villela's union, Local 1090 of the United Electrical Workers (UE), negotiated severance pay for Friction workers, and company cooperation with efforts to assist employees in finding other jobs. Nevertheless, many of them are convinced that company cooperation disguises a bitter reality -- that their ambitious unionizing, and especially their willingness to help Echlin workers in Mexico City, is the reason Echlin is shutting the factory's doors.

It's come as a shock to Friction workers, who have an average of 11 years on the job. "We think it's revenge," Maria 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. Daimler St. extends for three unimpressive blocks, between nameless crackerbox buildings in an aging Irvine 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 fled or disappeared. 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 here.

At lunchtime before the plant closed, 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 pointed 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. Another reported a rumor that the Virginia plant to which some of the work will be shifted employs "eight people to work on each oven. Here we only need two."

That kind of talk led some of Friction's workers to their conclusion: revenge, not economic motives, are behind the plant closure. "I think it's likely that the company 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," speculates Bob Kingsley, the UE's national organizing director. That conclusion is supported by conversations workers reported to union steward Cabrera. He said 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 from a small town in Michoacan 17 years ago. I got a job there right away, and I was there ever since. Working at Friction was a big part of my life."

Echlin has a well-earned anti-union reputation. On March 13, 1998, Echlin senior vice-president Milton Makoski made perfectly clear the company's antipathy to unions. In a letter to Teamster Union vice president Tom Gilmartin, who had proposed that Echlin negotiate a corporate code of conduct, Makoski wrote, "We are opposed to union organization of our current non-union locations ... We will fight every effort to unionize Echlin employees who have chosen not to be represented by a union." 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. "There is only one [operation] in existence where the employees, while they were part of the Echlin organization, have elected to be represented by a union."

That operation 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. As he describes conditions in the plant before the union vote, there's no whine in his voice; he speaks carefully and slowly. It's a demeanor that would carry credibility even with the foremen themselves.

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 Teamster 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. Says Villela: "They 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 which 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 Teamsters, the United Electrical Workers (UE), 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 eighty-one cents in raises over two years," says Maria 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 that summer. They passed out leaflets inside the Irvine plant describing what was going on in Mexico City. They discussed the events at work and in 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 it to Friction plant manager Mark Levy, "we could see in his face how angry he was. He told us we had drawn a line between the union and the company," she recalls.

(Reporters' calls to Friction management were referred to the company's headquarters in Connecticut.)

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 workers around him began yelling out: a machine had malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it. "I was very scared," he later remembered. "I wanted to leave." But he needed the job, and stayed.

He heard other stories. Two brothers had 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. Workers were given X-rays, Ruiz says, and later some would be fired.

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." 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 that 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 had never even seen the union contract, and Mexican labor experts say that they wouldn't have been pleased if they had seen it. 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 the 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: August 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 FAT, a Mexican independent union federation, to which STIMAHCS belongs. He says 50 workers were eventually terminated--a claim Echlin disputes.

The election was finally held 13 days later. The evening before, 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 strangers entered the factory, armed with clubs and copper rods. STIMAHCS tried immediately to get the election canceled. But the labor board went ahead, even after thugs roughed up one of the independent union's organizers. As workers came to vote, escorted by CTM functionaries, they passed a gauntlet of the club-wielding strangers. At the voting table, 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. People voted who were unknown to the factory's workers. Predictably, STIMAHCS lost.

The unions supporting Itapsa's bid for an independent union 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 the CTM to deny workers the right to representation by an independent union.

The charges were heard before Irasema Garza, secretary of the National Administrative Office, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, in Washington 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--Friction's Maria 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, 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 which 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 which attract companies like Echlin to relocate production to Mexico--lax environmental laws, unenforced health and safety regulations and low wages. It's strange to think of jobs that pay $8-10 an hour, like those at Friction, 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 leads to a movement of jobs southward, affecting far more people than just workers at Friction. In hundreds of small factories scattered across the California southland, 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. Southland workers have agonized for years over the resulting devastation to lives and communities. On Daimler Street, workers moved beyond complaining 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 worker's rights to form independent unions. It recommends 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 University of California Professor 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 each other, 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 at all without getting out there and looking for them."

And in the eyes of their employer, that was the Friction workers' crime: they looked.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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