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Mexican Workers Plan To Picket Alcoa's Annual Meeting Today

Pittsburgh Post Gazette  |  April 19, 2007  |  Share

Pittsburgh Post Gazette  

By Jim Mckay
April 19, 2002

Amparos Reyes came from Mexico to stand outside a Pittsburgh hotel this morning to confront shareholders of Alcoa about employment conditions at the company's joint-venture factories south of the border.

Reyes is among a few hundred Mexican workers who have been fired in the past year amid labor disputes at Alcoa Fujikura, a maker of wiring harnesses used in the electrical systems of cars, trucks and farm equipment. Speaking through an interpreter, Reyes said her dismissal came after she spoke out for better pay -- wages now average about $10 a day -- and better job conditions.

"We are not against American companies," Reyes, a single mother of two children, said yesterday. "We want them to be [in Mexico]. But we want them to pay a wage that is adequate for our necessities and to respect us for the human beings that we are. Just that." Alcoa Fujikura Ltd., a joint venture with Japan's Fujikura Ltd., employs 28,000 at operations in six locations near the U.S.-Mexican border. Spokesman Jake Siewert said the plants were extremely safe and that the joint venture pays wages well above the required minimum and above what other comparable factories in the region pay.

Most employees, he said, are very happy to be working for Alcoa. "We've made a concerted effort to improve safety," Siewert said. "We're probably the highest-paying employer of this kind of skill sets in the area."

While saying Alcoa's plants are "top-notch," Siewert acknowledged that living conditions in residential areas near the factories need improvement, which is one reason Alcoa foundations have donated $2 million over five years to bolster local health care near the factories.

"We're trying to work with the government to ensure that the taxes we pay find their way back to those communities," he said. "But have we been 100 percent successful in improving the infrastructure outside plant gates? No. But it's something we work on all the time."

The trip north by Reyes, newly elected union leader Carlos Briones and Amador Tovar Santos, another fired worker, was sponsored by the United Steelworkers union. They plan to protest outside the Westin Convention Center, Downtown, before this morning's 9:30 start of Alcoa's annual meeting.

The USW, which represents Alcoa workers in the United States but not in Mexico, claims Alcoa Fujikura called in armed police in one incident to fire 186 Mexican workers after a series of workplace disruptions, including a walkout over wages at one plant and a hunger strike by two women protesting work assignments of pregnant employees.

Alcoa filed and later dropped lawsuits that sought millions of dollars in damages from nine leaders of a workers committee at one plant for lost production and damages. The workers also have sued Alcoa in Mexican labor courts, claiming Alcoa eliminated some benefits that had been won by the workers' committee, including an annual distribution of blankets as a Christmas bonus and company-provided transportation back to their home villages for the holidays.

Santos, one of the union leaders who came to Pittsburgh for today's meeting, said he and others who were fired were blacklisted from working at other border factories. Since there is no unemployment compensation system in Mexico, most of the dismissed workers accepted a severance package and moved on.

Gerald D. Fernandez, assistant to USW President Leo Gerard, said a small number of about 30 to 40 are holding out, seeking reinstatement for themselves and others who were fired.

"Alcoa, quite frankly, is doing what U.S. employers do," Fernandez said. "They drag it out. They fight. They resist."

In 1996, then-Alcoa Chairman Paul O'Neill was confronted at an annual meeting by Mexican protesters who complained of low wages, substandard working conditions and workplace accidents.

At the time, O'Neill told stockholders that allegations the plants were unsafe were untrue, and he took umbrage at what he considered to be an attack on Alcoa's integrity. He defended wages paid in Mexico as among the highest in that country. But a few months later, in July 1996, the top officer of Alcoa Fujikura, Robert H. Barton III, was forced to step down because he did not inform Alcoa's headquarters in Pittsburgh about three accidents in which a few hundred workers were treated at hospitals for exposure to carbon monoxide.

As they did in 1996, today's protesters call the living conditions of the Mexicans who staff factories that have sprung up all across the U.S. border a shocking example of squalor.

Briones, a newly elected leader of a government-sanctioned union at a plant across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, said the Mexican workers frequently supplemented their wages by crossing into the United States and donating blood to a pharmaceutical company in exchange for a gratuity of $10 to $20.

Many Alcoa Fujikura workers and their families live in tiny dirt-floor huts sometimes constructed of cardboard and shipping skids from the factories, said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights.

Kernaghan, a nationally known opponent of sweat shops, wrote a report on the conditions of Alcoa employees in Mexico, saying families may share one outdoor water faucet and must purchase potable water by the jug. There are no sewers and no garbage collection, he said.

"This wealthy transnational corporation is playing hardball with people who live in mud huts."



Click here to read the NLC's Alcoa report.

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