Mexican labor rights activists threatened for supporting independent unions

Intruders last week in Puebla, Mexico broke into the office of the Center for Worker Support (CAT, the Spanish abbreviation), scrawled a threat on the wall, hacked into the e-mail account of CAT’s executive director, and ransacked the building. Earlier this month, CAT members received email threats. No one has been arrested in either incident. These acts of intimidation are likely tied to CAT’s efforts to help workers organize independent unions.

Most unions in Mexico are “protectionist unions.” Their role is to help companies enforce labor discipline rather than to stand up for worker rights. There is no democracy in protectionist unions.

Until May, a protectionist union had an agreement with Johnson Controls, a Wisconsin-based company, to “represent” its workers at Johnson Control’s car seat manufacturing plant in the Resurrection industrial park near Puebla.

CAT since 2006 had been helping Johnson Control workers in the Puebla area organize an independent union. One of those plants was the Resurrecion plant, which makes car seats and car seat parts for Ford and Mercedes-Benz .

Workers organized by CAT confronted the company on a number of issues including low pay, unpaid work, and unsafe working conditions. With the help of CAT, they also contacted the National Union of Miners and Metalworkers (Los Mineros), a powerful independent union, which began collecting authorization cards to demonstrate that workers wanted Los Mineros to represent them, not the protectionist union. Johnson Control preferred to deal with the protectionist union, which had political connections to PRI, the party that controls the Puebla state government.

In May, the company announced that its profit-sharing bonus for workers at the Resurrection plant would be 60 pesos ($5). The workers were expecting more. Workers began to talk about striking. About 70 thugs from the protectionist union gathered outside the plant hoping that their show of force would intimidate workers and discourage them from striking.

Workers struck anyway, and after three days, Johnson Controls agreed to recognize Los Mineros, pay the workers for wages lost during the strike, and pay them a bonus for returning to work.

The protectionist union lost but didn’t go away. It continued to harass workers, and in August, thugs from the protectionist union invaded the plant, beat workers, and forced under duress two of union leaders to sign letters of resignation. The two leaders were badly beaten and had to be hospitalized.

To protest the invasion, workers struck again. The strike ended after three days when Johnson Controls reaffirmed its recognition of Los Mineros, offered the two workers who signed forced resignation letters their jobs back, and agreed to pay five seriously injured workers 5,000 pesos in compensation.

In the meantime, CAT has continued to help other Johnson Control workers at the company’s other plants in the Puebla area get rid of their protectionist union and join Los Mineros.  CAT staff who have been active in these campaigns have been harassed, threatened, and beaten.

The US Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP) is urging workers in the US to show their support for the labor rights activists in CAT by writing letters to Mexican authorities. You can find more information here.

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