By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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Maria Villela and her husband, Raquel, spent a combined 32 years working at Friction, an auto-parts plant in Irvine. They worked there when the business was bought by Echlin, a Connecticut-based auto-parts giant with global holdings currently valued at $3.9 billion. The Villelas were leaders in the organizing drive that brought in a union in 1994; Maria became its president.
This month, however, the gates of the Friction factory are scheduled to close for the last time. The machinery that churned out brake pads and auto parts for more than two decades will now be loaded onto trucks and hauled away. The plant's 110 production workers, mostly Latino immigrants, have given the boxy building a last look, and moved on with their lives.
"What hurts isn't just the shock of losing a job," explains shop steward Ruben Cabrera. "It's losing friends and people you've known and worked with for years. I came here from a small town in Michoacan 17 years ago. I got a job here right away. Working at Friction has been a big part of my life."
But, in a cautionary tale of work life in the NAFTA age, the Friction plant became a pawn in a cross-border power play that turned on another Echlin plant, a brake factory at Los Reyes on the outskirts of Mexico City. Throughout 1996 and 1997, workers there endeavored to join the independent Steel, Iron and Allied Industries Union - an effort thwarted last summer through the combined efforts of the company, a government-backed "official" union federation and the local police.
While squelching independent unions is routine practice in Mexico, Echlin's reaction at Los Reyes provoked a ground-breaking international response. Since 1996, the independent metalworkers union has been party to a NAFTA-wide alliance of unions with contracts in Echlin factories, including the Teamsters, the United Electrical Workers (U.E.), the Paperworkers and the textiles union UNITE in the U.S., and the Canadian Steelworkers and Auto Workers. This unique labor alliance sought to mobilize the more than 20,000 workers at Echlin's far-flung plants to assist each other in bargaining and organizing. "Our primary purpose," says Bob Kingsley, director of organizing for the U.E., "is to achieve a situation where we're all sitting down at the table with the same company and bargaining together."
When firings began at Los Reyes in June of 1996, the alliance responded. The most active U.S. local in that campaign was the one at the Irvine Friction plant, where employees had organized their own U.E. local in a fierce battle in 1994. "We put one of our organizers on the road," Kingsley recalls, "meeting with workers and unions at other Echlin plants. Workers in one Virginia factory where the Amalgamated Clothing Workers [now UNITE] had a contract and at various Teamster locals around the country signed petitions, sent letters of support and wore buttons at work supporting the local in Irvine. That was the origin of what grew to be the Echlin Workers Alliance."
Two years later, during a second round of contract talks, unions in the Echlin alliance again sent faxes and petitions to plant managers throughout the company in support of the Irvine workers. Raquel Villela, who was elected president of the U.E. local, credited the alliance with helping them win a sizable raise.
As Echlin workers learned more about the company's Mexican plants, they also began reaching across the border. And when the Los Reyes controversy erupted last summer, the largely immigrant membership of the Irvine local got involved. Three Los Reyes workers secretly visited Irvine to learn about conditions in U.S. plants, and after a sham election at the Mexico plant last September, Friction workers signed a petition demanding that Echlin recognize the independent union. When Villela and other executive-board members presented it to Friction plant manager Mark Levy, she recalls, "We could see in his face how angry he was. He told us we had drawn a line between the union and the company."
"I think it's likely that the company found out about the [Mexican] workers' visit to Irvine, and concluded that the Friction workers had a special role in encouraging the organization of the independent union," Kingsley speculates.
In February, Echlin formally notified the union it was closing the Friction plant. The move came as a shock to Friction workers, who have an average of 11 years on the job. "We work like crazy here, and make the best product in the industry," Villela declares. "Now they say they're transferring the work to other plants."
At lunchtime last week, a group of workers eating on the small grassy strip next to the street speculated that the company would actually sacrifice quality and efficiency by transferring the work to other plants. "We hear that in Virginia," one reported, "where some of the work's going, they have eight people working on each oven. Here we only need two."
Kingsley believes that "the way in which the alliance was formed, and its origins, made the U.E. a target. The closure of the plant in Irvine," he charges, "is an act of vengeance and retaliation." According to Cabrera, the Irvine workers were told by plant supervisors, "This is what you get for what you've done."