Ford Battles Mexican Workers

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

Dianne Feeley

FORD MEXICO HAS been in business for more than a quarter of a century. In 1987, responding to the demands of the 5,000-member workforce in its Cuautitlan plant (outside Mexico City), management fired all the workers and closed the plant.

Later Ford came to an agreement with the government-affiliated federation, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), and reopened the plant. Only 3,800 workers were hired. Workers lost all seniority, pay was cut to less than half of the previous salary, and the work load was increased.

The Cuautitlan plant makes Ford pick-ups and Taurus, Topaz, Thunderbird and Cougar cars. The basic wage is currently $165 a month. Workers are tested for lead exposure, but they have no access to test results. Speedup is at a high pitch—for example, management has placed urinals along the line so that workers wouldn’t need to take time out to go to the bathroom.

The Ford Workers Union, however, backs the company policies. This has forced Cuautitlan workers into a three-pronged fight: against the multinational corporation and against the complicity of both government and union.

In March 1988 the workers in the plant elected a Negotiating Committee of rank-and-file activists. By June 1989 over half of the committee had been summarily dismissed. The workers clearly view this committee as their genuine leadership body, and continue to pay their salaries out of their own pockets.

Until the workers at Cuautitlan are able to have the democratic right to organize themselves they fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Their struggle for a democratic union, therefore, goes hand in hand with their struggle against management schemes.

In order to bring public attention to this harassment of the workers’ rights, one of the members of the Negotiating Committee conducted a thirty-five day hunger strike last fall. At the same time, the workers organized demonstrations both inside the plant and outside. Ford responded by firing thirty more workers.

Key to building a democratic union is creating conditions in which the movement can be run by the workers as a whole. One practice that has proven crucial to the struggle has been organizing union assemblies where union business is discussed, debated and decided not only right outside the plant gates but also in different communities where workers live. This has enabled workers to attend the assemblies more easily. It has enabled family members to attend meetings as well, thereby gaining a greater understanding of the struggle.

Ford Mexico, apparently quite confident that it had everything under control, announced just before Christmas that it was going to slash the traditional bonus by seventy percent, claiming that this was necessary given what workers “owed” in taxes. They announced a similar cut in profit-sharing payments.

To the disgust of the workforce, Hector Uriarte Martinez, secretary-general of the national Ford Workers Union, supported and defended Ford’s cuts The Ford workers then appealed to Fidel Velazquez, general secretary of the CTM, for help against Ford’s illegal action, asking also for help in holding democratically controlled elections in their Ford union. Velazquez pretended to open negotiations with Ford.

CTM in Cahoots with Ford

In order top up the pressure on Ford, the workers began to organize for a work stoppage. They also continued to pressure the CTM to recognize the Negotiating Committee as their legitimately elected body.

On Friday, January 5, a number of the fired workers were passing out leaflets at the plant gates, organizing for a rally the following Monday. About eighty thugs materialized and approximately forty people were beaten up. The police were called, and six of those leafletting were taken to jail.

The workers immediately shut down production, demanding the release of their leaders and security for themselves. No charges were ever leveled against those arrested, and after several hours, they were released.

On January 8, as the workers came up to the gates of the factory to report for work, they noticed a crowd of about 200 men dressed in production uniforms and wearing Ford identity badges, but inappropriately wearing tennis shoes. Fearing a trap, many workers attempted to leave the area, but thugs barred their exit.

The workers decided to go into the production area and regroup. Once inside, they discovered there were another 100 thugs there as well. Deciding to expel them from the production area, the workers began to advance. At that point several armed thugs opened fire, injuring nine workers.

Two days later Cleto Benigno Urbina died from bullet wounds sustained in the attack He is survived by a widow who was seven months pregnant.

The workers trapped three of the thugs, who confessed that they had been hired by Uriarte and given company uniforms by plant management. The workers turned them over to the police, along with descriptions of a number of their attackers and photographs showing the thugs being transported on CTM buses. The CM bailed the three out of jail and although a warrant was issued for Uriarte’s arrest, the police say he cannot be located.

The Occupation of the Plant

In the aftermath of the attack, the workers occupied the plant. They organized a number of committees as the nerve center of the occupation. Two were central to maintaining the plant itself first, to maintain all equipment, second, to keep dust from collecting in critical areas, such as the paint department.

A communications committee clipped all articles on the occupation and constructed a wall poster so that everyone could follow the press coverage. Another committee coordinated distribution of food that was brought in from different communities, while the finance committee sought donations from the general community. (Twenty-five percent of what was collected went to the families of the workers who participated, the remaining seventy-five percent went to the movement’s expenses.)

Assemblies were conducted in different areas within the plant during the occupation. These were also attended by the families of the workers and by those community members who identified with the struggle and expressed their solidarity. Through these assemblies workers were organized to go out and speak before a variety of trade union and community meetings. The press came to the plant and interviewed workers, and also verified that workers were maintaining—not destroying—equipment.

The press wandered around the plant; one radio station began broadcasting from inside the plant.

While Mexico does have a number of progressive laws, including the right to strike, in fact it is very difficult to meet the government’s criteria. A plant occupation is not sanctioned by law, but the employers waited two weeks before requesting that the government remove the workers from their property. The government, of course, complied. However, inspectors from the Secretary of Labor and the Justice Department stated publicly that the workers had not damaged the plant.

The company, on the other hand, claimed that it would not take back any of the workers because they were destroying machinery.

The Aftermath

Ford Mexico is determined not to recognize the rank-and-file leadership that has developed in the plant. It stated on the very day Cleto Benigno died that Ford had no legal relations with the Negotiating Committee. However, for the first two months of the year plant production was almost entirely at a standstill. Ford needed to end that situation.

The Negotiating Committee, seeking to maintain the momentum, called for a compromise: Ford would reinstate all 3,800 workers within a thirty-day period, with negotiations to open over the bonus and profit-sharing pay, and union elections to follow.

The company and the CTM were unwilling to allow the Negotiating Committee to sign the very agreement they worked out, and so the agreement was signed on March 1 by the Secretary of Labor, the TFM and Ford management.

The agreement stipulated that if agitation” occurred within the thirty-day period, it would be voided. But just as the autoworkers in Cuautitlan started back to work, a strike broke out at the Modelo Brewery. The 5,200 workers at the brewery had taken control of their union in 1988 and were organizing to improve working conditions, especially health and safety practices, and to raise their basic pay above a daily rate of $9.60.

But the CTM never accepted the democratic leadership elected by the brewery workers. It has openly criticized the workers’ demands and their determination to strike, if necessary.

The government then declared the Modelo strike “non-existent” and therefore illegal. This allowed the company to fire its workers, withdraw recognition from the union and abolish the current union contract. When the workers challenged the government’s ruling, the judge demanded they post a cash bond of one billion pesos ($375,000) within five days or forfeit the right to a hearing. They were able to raise this sum only because workers from many of the multinational companies, along with grassroots community groups, recognized the significance of this struggle.

What Next?

By the end of the thirty-day period Ford had failed to live up to its agreement All but 750 workers have been called back, nothing has been done to schedule union elections or negotiate the bonuses and profit-sharing payments.

But Ford has not succeeded in demoralizing its work force. Within three weeks after the agreement expired, on April 24, the entire second shift was shut down. In order to avoid any victimization of individual workers, the 750 workers who have not been rehired blocked the plant gates. And frequent rallies at the Ford office in downtown Mexico City continue.

Marco Antonio Jimenez, a member of the Negotiating Committee—on a ten-day tour of the mid-western United States and Canada at the end of April—outlined the current strategy of the Cuautitlan workers. They have petitioned the government to replace the CM with a small labor federation, the COR. Because COR also has traditional links with the ruling party this development has put some pressure on the government.

In addition, a new workers front—in defense of the Mexican Constitution and workers’ rights—has been formed, with COR, the Modelo brewery workers, the Cuautitlan workers and other independent unions. The front’s first public activity was on May 1. In Mexico this is an official holiday, one where the CTM organizes the workers’ march and refuses to allow participation from the democratic unions.

On this May 1 the independent unions organized a militant demonstration of 100,000. At the head of the march were 3,000 Ford workers and 4,000 brewery workers, followed by thousands of industrial workers, teachers, and white-collar workers. Despite the presence of provocateurs, who attempted to attack the police, the independent unions’ march and rally continued.

The May 1 action was seen as proof that there is a growing combativity within the Mexican working class. That militancy, in turn, is accelerating an internal crisis inside the CTM. Some observers are willing to predict that the CTM may split in the next few months.

It is especially important that there is a working agreement between the workers of two key struggles. This provides greater strengthen to each individual struggle—each being conducted under incredible odds. But both also represent the emergence of a conscious and combative layer that has been forged in opposition to the growing corporate offensive and governmental collusion. This development has the possibility of bringing to the forefront a militant workers movement—reversing the tide of the past decade.

Although the corporate offensive in Mexico clearly predated President Salinas’ inauguration, it has intensified under his administration. Salinas’ strategy of “modernization” is to maintain Mexico as a country attractive to the multinationals. Thus he must reverse the historic gains of the Mexican Revolution, imposing even greater austerity and selling off nationalized property. There is some discussion about revising the labor laws which are, on paper, quite progressive. But from the perspective of the multinationals, a constitutional right to strike represents a big obstacle to profitability.

In order to win the struggle at Cuautitlan three factors are crucial: 1) The rank and file must find the political space in which to organize their democratic structures by moving from the CTM to the COR 2) There must be support from the workers at other key Ford assembly plants in Mexico; 3) There must be international solidarity to put pressure on both Ford and the Mexican government.

Cuautitlan workers have spoken to the workers at both the Hermosillo and Chihuahua Ford plants. A workers’ assembly in Chihuahua voted that if the situation was not resolved by May 1 they would begin expressing their solidarity through escalating work stoppages.

International Solidarity

The focus of Marco Antonio Jimenez’s short tour to the United States and Canada was to develop a relationship with North American autoworkers, and most especially with those who work in Ford plants. In his talks, Jimenez spoke primarily about the background to the current struggle at Cuautitlan. He stressed the need of workers to develop links in the face of the corporate policy of integrating their operations world-wide.

The response from U.S. autoworkers was genuine interest in understanding the concrete conditions Mexican workers face. They felt that whatever was being done in Mexico might very well be a dry run for their plants They pointed out how top management in their plant had only recently returned from having administered plants in Mexico.

ATC asked Jimenez what differences he saw between auto plants he was able to visit in the United States with his own plant, which is twenty-five years old. He was most surprised by the number of women working in U.S. plants—in Mexico women are not hired in the auto industry. He explained that Mexican women are employed primarily in the service sector or in “light” assembly.

Jimenez pointed out that the reason given by employers—that women can’t do heavy work—is obviously false. For instance, his conversations with women telephone workers made it clear that their work is just as taxing as the so-called heavy work a man is expected to do.

Second, he found “break rooms” throughout U.S. plants, while in his plant even the most minimal facilities for workers are lacking.

Third, he was surprised by the degree with which robots and new technology has been introduced. In one U.S. plant he visited the entire body shop was robotized, whereas in Cuautitlan there are only two robots in the entire plant (Hermosillo has newer technology.)

Please send letter/resolutions demanding:

1) Immediate, free elections and recognition of the workers’ democratically elected leadership instead of the union officials imposed by the CTM;

2) Payment of all earnings due the workers under their contract and Mexican labor law, including full year-end bonuses and profit-sharing payments, as well as wages lost since the January 8 attack;

3) Reinstatement of all workers and no reprisals against any who have protested company actions;

4) Guarantee of security inside the plant, including withdrawal of police and a guarantee that the violence of the January 8 armed attack will not be repeated; 5) Prompt and aggressive prosecution of all persons who played a role in ordering planning and carrying out the January 8 armed attack on the workers. Send to: Ford Motor Company, Paseo de la Reforma 333, Col. Cuauhtemoc, Mexico DF 06500, Mexico, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Los Pinos, Mexico, DF, Mexico. Please send copies to the workers at the address listed below.

To contact the workers: Movimiento Democratico de Trabajadores de la Ford, Dr. Lucio, #103, Ediflcio Orion A4, Despacho 103, Mexico, DF, Mexico, or fax to 2 86 89 26 or 2 86 89 76 (prior notification to Sr. Raul Escobar, telephone 578l5 56). They need letter/resolutions to be sent to both Ford Motor Company & President Salinas, as well as financial support, and solidarity actions.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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