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.”

Echlin spokesperson Paul Ryder confirms that the work is being moved, although he says it's only going to other U.S. factories. “We have overcapacity for that product line,” he says. “The closure is just the normal course of business.” He wouldn't respond to the allegation that the closure is revenge for workers' solidarity actions.

Says U.E. representative Leanna Noble, “The company also told us that the closure reflected a change in corporate management, that it was an effort to reorganize the production mix and the location of production. What's clear is that the company isn't cutting production back – just moving it.”

Echlin senior vice president Milton Makoski made the company's antipathy to unions perfectly clear in a March 13 letter to Teamster vice president Tom Gilmartin. “We are opposed to union organization of our current nonunion locations,” Makoski wrote. “We will fight every effort to unionize Echlin employees who have chosen not to be represented by a union.” He went on to note that, despite “60 years of determined and relentless efforts” by unions, a majority of its employees are still unorganized.

“There is only one [operation] in existence,” Makoski wrote, “where the employees, while they were part of the Echlin organization, have elected to be represented by a union.” (The company's other unionized plants were already union when Echlin bought the companies.) That operation was the Friction plant.

As the U.S. auto industry relies increasingly on parts made in maquiladoras and other Mexican plants, the battles in Irvine and Los Reyes show a new level of union resolve to reach across borders in dealing with multinational employers in the era of free trade – even as they underscore the difficulties involved.

NAFTA had only been in effect for a few months when Ruben Ruiz got a job at Los Reyes in the summer of 1994. As his new boss showed him around, Ruiz noticed that the machines were old and poorly maintained. He had hardly begun his first shift when a machine suddenly malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it.

Accidents were only part of the problem. Asbestos dust coated machines and people alike. Workers were given X-rays, Ruiz says, and later some would be fired.

Echlin says its Los Reyes plant complies with Mexican health-and-safety laws. But it seemed obvious to Ruiz that things were very wrong. When his friend David Gonzalez asked him to come to a meeting about organizing an independent union, he went. As workers at Los Reyes organized, they discovered that the plant already had a union – Section 15 of the government-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers, Mexico's largest labor federation. But the 300 Echlin employees there had never even seen the union contract.

That shadowy pact is a “protection contract,” insulating the company from labor unrest. Jesus Campos Linas, the dean of Mexican labor lawyers, says there are thousands of such contracts, arrangements of mutual convenience between government-affiliated unions and foreign companies who want to take advantage of Mexico's low wages.

Once Echlin's Los Reyes managers knew about the independent-union campaign, the firings began. In early June 1996, 16 workers were terminated. Ruiz was called into the office of Luis Espinoza de los Monteros, the human-relations director at Los Reyes. “He told me he had received a phone call from the leaders of the Echlin group in the U.S., who told him that any worker organizing a new union should be discharged without further question,” Ruiz recounts. “He told me my name was on a list of those people, and I was discharged right there and then.”

The independent metalworkers union responded by filing a petition with the regional office of Mexico's labor board. An August 28, 1997, election was set for workers to choose between the independent union and the house union.

That morning, the fired workers went to the plant, where they were joined by union supporters from the swing and grave shifts. But the election had been postponed without notice, allowing company supervisors, looking at the off-shift workers assembled at the gate, a very good idea of who was supporting the independent union.

“That afternoon the company began to fire more workers,” says Benedicto Martinez, general secretary of the Authentic Labor Front, Mexico's association of independent unions. He says that 50 workers were eventually terminated – a claim Echlin disputes. “Allegations of retaliation and dismissal of 50 employees as a result of their [union] allegiance are false,” the company says.


The election was finally held 13 days later. The evening before, a member of the state judicial police drove a car into the plant and began to unload rifles. The next morning, two busloads of strangers arrived, armed with clubs and copper rods, and thugs roughed up one of the independent union's organizers. The metalworkers union tried to get the election canceled, but the labor board went ahead.

As workers came to vote, escorted by functionaries of the house union, they passed a gauntlet of the club-wielding strangers. At the voting table, with management looking on, they were asked to state aloud which union they favored. Predictably, the independent metalworkers union lost.

After the election, the trinational alliance of Echlin unions filed a complaint before the administrative body set up to enforce the labor-side agreement of NAFTA, alleging collusion by the Mexican government, the company and the house union to deny workers the right to representation by an independent union. Ruben Ruiz traveled from Mexico to testify. The charges were heard before Irasema Garza, secretary of the National Administrative Office (NAO), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, in Washington on March 23.

Maria Villela also went to Washington to support the Los Reyes workers at the NAO hearing – just days after being told her own Friction plant was closing. “We don't regret what we did for a minute,” she says. “The company is responsible for a great injustice.”

Echlin never showed up to contest the testimony. On July 31, the NAO issued a report finding that workers at Los Reyes “were subjected to retaliation by their employer and the established union in the workplace, including threats of physical harm and dismissal.” The election of last September, the panel found, was marred by “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”

The report concludes by recommending the severest sanctions available for violation of the right to form independent unions: discussion between ranking labor officials in the governments of the U.S. and Mexico.

And that's it.

No fines. No requirement that fired activist workers be rehired. Not even a rerun of the bogus election. Because while NAFTA empowers the NAO to hold hearings on violations of labor law in the U.S., Canada or Mexico, it makes no provisions for enforcement.

Mexican labor law, in fact, is very progressive – scab workers are barred during strikes, for example – but Mexican economic-development policy depends on encouraging foreign investment. “Low wages are part of that policy, and every maquiladora that opens its doors is born with a union that protects it,” says Jorge Robles, general secretary for the independent metalworkers union.

It's no surprise that NAFTA's labor-side agreement has a hard time overcoming both U.S. and Mexican economic policy. “It's an extremely weak tool,” says Robin Alexander, the U.E.'s director for international solidarity. “The lack of penalties for violating union rights is a gaping hole.” Nevertheless, the union alliance persuaded the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress and a new union federation in Mexico, the National Union of Workers, to join in a complaint against Echlin under the side agreement. It is the first time they've taken such action together.

“Wherever I look, I see unions making efforts to figure out how to deal with each other, and face the danger of transnational corporations,” Alexander observes. “Maybe there is no single answer, at least not yet. But we won't find any answers at all without getting out there and looking for them.”

LA Weekly