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Ciudad Acuña, Mexico: PKC admits signing protection contract to keep out independent union

April 18, 2012

Above: Arneses y Accesorios workers meet at the CFO office


On January 30, 8,000 workers at the Arneses y Accesorios de México auto parts factory in Cuidad Acuña were informed by their employer that the company had signed a collective bargaining agreement with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), without their prior knowledge or consent.

In a recorded message Frank Sovis, President of North American Operations of the PKC Group that owns the factory, said that his company had signed the agreement with the CTM "in order to protect itself and its employees" against "external groups" that were "destabilizing labour peace at the plant" and "so that no other unions get involved."

The "other union" was in fact the local union already established by the factory's workers and affiliated with the independent National Union of Mine and Metal Workers (Los Mineros).

Sovis went on to say: "You may ask ‘what is the best union?' We would say the CTM because it represents workers in the auto parts industry. How much will the union dues be? Nothing, because the company will pay so that the CTM does not even enter the plant and won't have anything to do with you."

When workers in Mexico attempt to form or join Independent unions, their employers often respond by signing what are known as "protection contracts" with corrupt unions willing to sell their services to protect the company from the threat of an independent union and to keep wages and benefits to a minimum.

According to Lorraine Clewer of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, "although protection unionism is common in Mexico, I'm not sure we have ever seen such a blatant case in which a senior official of the company publicly announces to the workers that it has selected the union, signed the agreement and will be paying the dues."

A history of organizing

Workers at the Arneses y Accesorios factory have long been involved in organizing to defend their rights. According to Julia Quiñonez, Coordinator of the Border Workers' Committee (CFO), several years ago the workers formed a committee and were able to negotiate improvements with the factory's former owner, Alcoa.

"The company realized that it could benefit from dialogue with workers," says Quiñonez. "The committee was working like a de facto union, making requests and documenting their cases, and they were able to achieve a lot of improvements."

But that changed in 2009, when the factory was sold to a venture capitalist who told workers that he was not interested in continuing dialogue. As a result, the workers decided to formalize their committee into a union and affiliated with Los Mineros.

In 2011 the factory was sold again, to PKC Group of Finland. Los Mineros contacted PKC shortly after the purchase, asking the company to negotiate with the local section of the independent union, but, according to Clewer, "the company likely relied on its local advisors and chose another route."

Pressure building on PKC

The PKC factory in Ciudad Acuña produces auto parts for Ford, Chevrolet, Volvo, General Motors, the US Army and others. According to Clewer, some of the buyers, many of which are unionized, have been asked to pressure PKC to respect the workers' freedom of association.

In Mexico, Los Mineros have requested that the state government hold an election to determine which union represents more workers at the factory and is thereby entitled to negotiate on their behalf.

The government's absurd response has been that Los Mineros are not authorized to represent the workers because the nature of the work at this plant does not fit within the mandate of the union (mining or metalworking). However the local union and its supporters are clear that their work producing wire cable harnesses does fall within the union's purview and have appealed the decision.

In Mexico, an appeals process like this one can drag on for months or even years and even if won may be fraught with irregularities. For that reason, the union and its supporters are hopeful that PKC's shareholders and other supporters will put sufficient pressure on the company to convince it to eliminate the protection contract and recognize and bargain with the workers' independent union.

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s

The Border Workers’ Committee (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s or CFO) is a grassroots organization working on labour issues in Mexican communities along the US-Mexico border which celebrated its 32nd anniversary this April. The CFO teaches workers about their rights and places a special emphasis on gender issues. Its 16-member team is coordinated by Julia Quiñonez, who’s been with the CFO for over 25 years, having joined when she was a maquila worker.

As a result of its efforts to support workers at the PKC plant, the CFO, and specifically Quiñonez, has been the target of threats and intimidation. Most recently, Quiñonez recounts that while she was accompanying a Finnish journalist reporting on this story, she was followed, photographed and filmed by men in private security guard uniforms. Quiñonez suspects that they work for the company.

This kind of intimidation cannot be taken lightly in a place like Coahuila, a state that suffers high levels of violence and impunity, largely as a result of narco trafficking. But despite these concerns, Quiñonez is committed to this struggle, which she strongly identifies as a women’s struggle.

Quiñonez describes the increasing role and participation of women in workers’ struggles on the border in the following words: “Women are the visionaries behind the campaigns. They work with men, but they are the leaders and they are making improvements for other women. The worker committee at the plant negotiated better working conditions for pregnant workers and was also able to establish this factory as the first in the region where there was a place for women to breastfeed at work. These are achievements that women have won; they were not given to workers because they work for a good employer, they were won by women’s hard work.”

More information about CFO