Violence Explodes at U.S.-Owned Mexican Plant, After Firm Ignored Workers’ Pleas

Roger Bybee

One of the two beaten members of Mineros union's executive committee, outside Johnson Controls' factory in Puebla, Mexico on August 16.

Alarmed by the unresponsiveness of local Johnson Controls management in Puebla, Mexico, over violation of their labor rights by company collaboration with bogus protection unions” at three plants there, a delegation of union members traveled in mid-June to Johnson Controls’ headquarters just outside Milwaukee, Wisc.

But the 1,758-mile trip proved futile. Top executives at the Fortune 500 firm rejected the idea of meeting to dissuss the problem of protection unions,” although the situation had clearly been heating up in Puebla.

Finally, the unresolved tensions boiled over on August 16, when thugs brutally attacked democratic union leaders on Johnson Controls property.

Asked late Monday if the corporation now regretted the chance to meet with the Puebla delegation in the wake of the August 16 violence, Johnson Controls spokeswoman Debora Lacey responded, I’ll look into that.”

In late May, a three-day strike by workers at the Johnson Controls Interiors/​Resurreccion plant succeeded in ousting the COS (the Spanish acronym for Confederation of Union Organizations) protection union. The militant and democratic Mineros union won recognition on May 29. But the corrupt COS was not about to take this setback lying down, any more than the Mafia lets somebody get away without paying their protection money. 

PROTECTION UNION STRIKES BACK

So on August 16, a group of thugs stormed the Interiors/​Resurreccion plant, stated the Maquiladora Solidarity Network (MSN), which supports labor and human rights at mostly U.S.-owned plants in Mexico. According to the Network:

On August 16, 2010, thugs entered a plant owned by Johnson Controls in Puebla, Mexico, and assaulted [Mineros supporters] according to reports, with sticks and stones, leaving many injured.” Two of the members of the Executive Committee of the newly formed union at the plant, Cándido Barreucos and Vigilio Melendez, were beaten in a company office and forced to sign letters of resignation, reportedly at gunpoint. They are currently in a hospital with severe injuries.

Evidence points toward the direct involvement of COS in the attack, the MSN said: The Mineworkers believe that the assailants are members of the COS, the company union that was ejected after the strike,” the Solidarity Network stated.

Given COS’s past close relationship with Johnson Controls, the Solidarity Network sought to contact Johnson Controls to learn more about the assault and how the company intended to prevent future attacks. But this effort produced essentially the same result at the delegation’s trip to Johnson Control headquarters:

MSN has phoned and written to Johnson Controls, but the company has not responded…. That’s why we’re asking you to join in urging the company to act now. 

The Network is asking labor supporters from around the globe to contact Johnson Controls and the Mexican government. Contact information is available here.

Company spokeswoman Debra Lacey e-mailed a statement Monday expressing the corporation’s outrage about anyone raising questions regarding the company’s role in the conflict:

The company added it takes exception to the unfounded allegations that it tried to influence the choice of union representation, or that it had any role in altercations between employees and/​or third parties trying to
influence the choice of union representation.

[The statement was apparently not released generally to the media, as it did not appear on the Johnson Controls website.] But the release fails to address several elments of the attack that took place on company property :

  • Why were non-employees, unaffiliated with the Mineros union, permitted inside the plant gates? 
  • What was the response of Johnson Control security guards when the thugs began to beat Mineros union activists, with some of the beatings taking place inside a company office? 
  • What actions did plant management take to bring the situation under control and summon the police?

These questions are likely only to increase in urgency. Workers at FINSA, another Johnson Controls plant in Puebla, are also pressing for action to remove the corrupt CROM protection union and establish a legitimate unit of the Mineros.

THREATS OF MORE VIOLENCE

On the very same day as the attack at the Interiors/​Resurreccion plant, thugs believed to be affiliated with CROM surrounded democratic union activists and issued threats against those promoting the Mineros union at FINSA One man made a specific threat against CAT [Center for Workers’ Assistance] director Blanca Velasquez, saying she should stop messing with the CROM, ” the Solidarity Network reported.

The role of protection unions” like CROM and COS — which can be found at other major employers like Chrysler and many others — is an essential part of the system by which U.S. corporations and the Mexican government collaborate to keep wages low in Mexico.

For U.S. firms, which operate roughly 2,000 plants in Mexico, the key attractions are ultra-low wages (averaging about 10% of those in the US, according to economist Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute) and proximity to U.S. markets.

The corrupt unions function to prevent the virus of democratic rights from spreading, with the result that Mexican workers are kept in perpetual misery, despite the profits they generate. For example, the city of Ciudad Juarez is besieged by a bloody war among drug gangs, but the U.S.-owned plants are still operating there, according to the reassuring conclusion of a recent NY Times story on the increasingly violent border region of Mexico:

Not all is dire. The big-name international brands that operate maquiladora factories continue to operate, taking advantage of free trade and cut-rate labor.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE DIRE’?

From the perspective of those trying to improve the lives of those barely surviving on cut-rate” wages and working in U.S. plants in Ciudad Juarez, dire” is viewed differently very than in the New York Times, a strong supporter of free trade” in both news coverage and editorials.

By the Times’ logic, Ciudad Juarez should be a shining example of broadly-shared prosperity created by free trade” because it now contains more U.S.-owned plants than any other city in Mexico. But as Mayor Gustavo Ellison poignantly told The Times, long before the current gun battles raging among desperate youths in the shantytowns:

We have no way to provide water, sewage, and sanitation. Every year, we get poorer and poorer even though we create more and more wealth.

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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