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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 27, 2010, 1:50 pm

Second Strike’s the Charm: Mexican Workers Win Union Democracy at Johnson Controls Plant

BY Roger Bybee

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Mexican law enforcement agents, and workers, outside the Johnson Controls plant in Puebla, Mexico.   (Photo courtesy United Steelworkers)

Outraged by dozens of armed thugs severely beating newly-elected democratic union leaders after getting inside a Johnson Controls plant on August 16, members of the "Mineros" union in Puebla, Mexico, launched a successful three-day strike to permanently force the American company to sever its relationship with the corrupt COS (the Spanish acronym for Confederation of Union Organizations) at the plant.

As I wrote earlier this week, members of the recently-formed local of the National Metal and Mine workers Union had won recognition for the Mineros at the Johnson Controls Interiors/Resurreccion plant back in May, after another strike.

But as the Maquiladoras Solidarity Network (MSN; "maquiladoras" refers to the highly-profitable U.S.-owned plants in Mexico) reports, Johnson workers have once again asserted control over who represents their interests:

Under the agreement that ended the strike, [the two beaten leaders who were forced to resign] have both since been offered reinstatement.

Quick action by workers and their supporters internationally has once again won workers the right to be represented by the union of their choice, in a country where employers often sign "protection contracts" with corrupt unions in order to prevent their workers from organizing or affiliating with a democratic union.

Over the long haul, MSN aims at enforcing the right of Mexican workers to choose genuine, democratic unions to fight for livable wages, decent working conditions, and a voice on the job.

MSN has been working in Puebla with the CAT (Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador, or Workers Assistance Center) and other labor rights organizations in Mexico and internationally to pressure Johnson Controls to fully comply with the new agreement and win recognition at FINSA, another Johnson Control plant in Puebla.


The task of ensuring Mexican workers their right to organize unions will proceed at a snail's pace without forceful action by the Obama administration, argues Kevin Thomas, the Toronto-based advocacy director of MSN.

"This system of 'protection unions' has worked for years because none of the companies or governments [U.S., Mexico, or Canada] have had a problem. But it is a problem for the workers who suffer under it."

At one point, for example, a Ford executive praised one "protection union" leader to the Wall Street Journal for enforcing passivity among Mexican workers despite a loss of almost 50% of their real wages.

However, the "protection unions" technically qualify as legal under current Mexican law even though workers commonly have no role in choosing them or in negotiating their contracts, Thomas said. "Under Mexican law, the protection unions are legal and the contracts are legal even if it's all arranged before the workers are hired," he notes.


NAFTA's labor "side agreements," signed outside the core investor protections that make up the vast majority of 2,000-page the North American Free Trade Agreement, were supposed to safeguard labor rights in all three signatory nations--Mexico, the US, and Canada.

However, since NAFTA went into effect Jan. 1, 1994, not one single complaint about violations of labor law has ever resulted in a decision. This pattern started under the Clinton administration, continued under the George W. Bush regime, and is still being observed by the Obama administration, Mexican workers told Working In These Times.

This marks a sharp and deeply distressing departure from Obama's standard campaign-trail rhetoric against NAFTA and other "free-trade agreements, as discussed here, here, and here.

Thus far, the Obama administration has placed no real pressure on Mexico about the flagrant, incessant violations of labor rights. "The kind of kind of weak ministerial meetings we've been getting under NAFTA don't mean a thing," says a disgusted Thomas.
"But If the Obama administration were to send some strong signals to Mexican government about observing labor rights, that would make a difference," the MSN leader states.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

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