June, 01 2002 |  Download PDF |  Share

Alcoa: Fighting for Worker Rights


The Struggle To Climb Out Of Misery

 Fired Alcoa Workers, Mexico



  • There are 3,761 maquiladora factories in Mexico, where 1.3 million workers assemble $79.4 billion worth of goods each year for export to the U.S. (80 percent of these factories are located along the U.S. border.)
  • In 2000, maquila production accounted for 58 percent of Mexico's total exports to the U.S., which were $135.9 billion.
  • Since NAFTA's passage in 1994, maquila exports to the U.S. have increased at an average rate of 20 percent per year. In 2000, maquila exports were up 24 percent over 1999.
  • Auto components make up 30 percent of all maquila exports. Mexico has passed Japan to become the second largest supplier of auto parts to the U.S., and will soon surpass Canada.
  • Since NAFTA, foreign corporations have invested at least $25 billion to build maquila factories in Mexico. Since 1994, average annual direct foreign investment in Mexico has increased by 330 percent over pre-NAFTA years, reaching $24.7 billion in 2001—which was the highest for Latin America.
  • As of 2002, the special duty-free status enjoyed by the Free Trade Zones has been extended throughout the entire country—turning Mexico into one giant FTZ.
  • According to business reports, "Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and various European countries are increasingly showing interest in maquiladoras as assembly sites for products sold into the U.S. market, partly to take advantage of NAFTA." (—EIU, September 28, 2001)
  • The United States takes in 89 percent of Mexico's exports worldwide. After running a $1.5 billion surplus in 1993, the U.S. ran a trade deficit of 34.9 billion with Mexico by 2000. By contrast, Canada takes in just two percent of Mexico's exports, while Germany takes in less than one percent.




Alcoa Workers in Mexico
Struggle to Live on their Feet

by Charles Kernaghan

 Fired Alcoa Workers

One never gets used to seeing sweatshop conditions. Yet sadly, over time, you almost come to expect to find repression, below-subsistence wages, miserable living conditions, firings, threats, union busting and blacklisting in low end T-shirt factories producing for big box discounters like Wal-Mart in places like China, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. However it comes as a real shock to find, just a few hundred yards from the United States, across the border in Mexico, a huge transnational corporation like Alcoa--the largest aluminum company in the world--operating high tech sweatshops under similarly abusive conditions.

In the Mexican border cities of Acuña and Piedras Negras, Alcoa operates 13 maquila factories where 15,600 workers assemble wire harnesses--automotive electrical systems--for export to the U.S. to Ford, Harley Davidson, Mack Trucks, Volkswagon, Subaru and other auto companies. In Acuña, when the workers attempted to organize to defend their basic rights, Alcoa responded by firing more than 236 workers, many of whom were blacklisted and thrown out without even their severance pay. Many Alcoa workers and their families in Acuña are forced to live in misery, in broken down, dirt floored huts put together from shipping crates and cardboard, lacking running water. In Piedras Negras, many Alcoa workers must sell their blood twice a week in order to survive. Some have been doing this for years. When the workers in Piedras Negras recently voted overwhelmingly for an independent union, Alcoa responded again with firings and threats to shut the factory down and take the jobs elsewhere. Alcoa's strategy is to intimidate and try to divide the workers while working to isolate and weaken the new union.

The outcome of this struggle by the Alcoa workers could have an enormous impact. In many ways, it is a symbol for the struggle for worker rights across all of Mexico. There are 1.3 million maquiladora workers in Mexico, in 3,761 factories producing over $80 billion worth of goods for export to the U.S. each year. Yet, despite the systematic worker rights abuses, the below-subsistence wages and miserable living conditions, you can almost count on one hand the number of independent unions in the maquila factories along the border. If the workers at Alcoa can organize and win their rights, so can the workers at some of the other more-than-3,700 maquila plants.

NAFTA is an unprecedented experiment in history, integrating two such disparate economies, one the largest economy in the world, the other a poor developing country with 100 million people. We share a 2,000-mile border.

Alcoa wants to pit the workers in the United States against the desperately poor workers in Mexico--and other developing countries--in a race to the bottom over who will accept the lowest wages and least benefits, the most miserable living and working conditions. In the U.S., when workers try to organize, the company threatens to move to Mexico. In Mexico, when the workers try to organize, the companies threaten to move to China. In fact, Alcoa is building a 5,000-person factory in Leon, Nicaragua where they hope to be able to pay wages as low as 38 cents an hour.

In the global economy, it is becoming clear that workers can no longer organize at the site of production alone. There also needs to be pressure in the marketplace. If Alcoa fires 236 workers in Mexico, if the workers live in dirt floored hovels and must sell their blood to survive, what does Alcoa care--if the people of the U.S. never hear of this? The American people purchase 89 percent of Mexico's exports worldwide! This gives us a voice--a very powerful voice--to demand improvements from Alcoa and other companies operating in Mexico, regarding the conditions under which the goods we purchase are made.

The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) will not allow Alcoa to pit its U.S. and Canadian members against the workers in Mexico. Rather, the Steelworkers are extending a hand of international solidarity to their sisters and brothers in Mexico. The Steelworkers know that if we allow the race to the bottom to advance, there is no place to go, except down--for all of us.

Under NAFTA, Alcoa's trademark is protected by strong enforceable intellectual property and copyright laws. If you are caught imitating Alcoa's logo, you will pay a stiff fine and go to jail. Alcoa and the rest of the companies explain that they cannot operate in the global economy without rules and regulations, without a level playing field, that otherwise everything descends into chaos. This sounds reasonable. Yet, when you ask Alcoa and the other companies: can we not also protect the rights of the workers who make the products, Alcoa responds: no, that would be an "impediment on fair trade." So Alcoa's trademark is protected, but not the worker who makes the product. This is ridiculous.

The new union struggling to survive at Alcoa Plant #2 in Piedras Negras has a saying they share with the workers in the factory: "It is better to die on our feet, than to live on our knees."

We should join the United Steelworkers of America, People of Faith Network, the National Labor Committee, United Students Against Sweatshops, the American Friends Service Committee, Border Workers Committee and many others in extending a hand of international solidarity, so these workers in Mexico can live on their feet--with dignity. Their battle is our battle. In the global economy, what goes around, comes around.

 Alcoa Workers in Mexico are forced to live in dirt floored shacks



Alcoa Workers in Mexico under Attack

Alcoa "Associates" and their Families Trapped
In Abject Poverty

Alcoa Workers -- faces blacked out for fear of reprisals



  • On August 23, 2001, after management deliberately provoked a work action, Alcoa fired 186 workers. Shortly afterwards, 50 more workers were fired. Many are blacklisted, especially the nine members of the "Workers Committee" which, though not legally recognized, is in fact operating as a union representing the workers.
  • Alcoa called in 80 police--armed with teargas, clubs, shields and weapons--to throw the workers out of the factory.
  • Alcoa brought bogus criminal charges against the nine union leaders on the Workers Committee, suing them for one million dollars in damages. The nine leaders could face six years in prison!
  • With the Workers Committee fired, blacklisted and out of the street, Alcoa is slashing hard-earned benefits which the workers had won--for example, ending the distribution of blankets as a Christmas bonus and no longer providing the workers with transportation back to their home villages for the holidays.
  • Fifteen thousand six hundred Alcoa workers in Mexico are forced to live in misery. In fact, in Piedras Negras, at least one third of Alcoa workers are selling their blood in order to survive. They walk over the bridge to the U.S. twice a week to a Baxter-owned Plasma Center in Eagle Pass, Texas to sell their blood. Many have been doing this every week for years. You can see the track marks on their arms.
  • In Acuña, the Alcoa workers and their families live in shocking squalor, in tiny makeshift dirt-floored huts, often put together with shipping skids, cardboard and some cheap shingles or tarpaper. Ten families share one outdoor faucet, and the water is not potable. There are no sewers; there is no garbage collection; there is no heat in the "houses," which seep with water when it rains. Temperatures are extreme, varying from 104 degrees in the summer to 30 degrees in the winter.
  • Even the most experienced workers, who have been with Alcoa for nine years, cannot afford the $15 it costs for their children's school uniforms. They cannot afford to even purchase cheese, explaining it is "too expensive," and only "sometimes" can they afford to buy a little milk for their kids.
  • Alcoa brags that its wages in Mexico are very good. The base wage of $1.20 an hour is less than seven percent of what unionized Alcoa workers earn in the U.S.
  • What Alcoa does not tell us is that many basic subsistence goods are actually more expensive in Mexico than in the U.S. For example, a gallon of milk costs $3.27 in Mexico, compared to $2.57 in the U.S. A dozen eggs cost $1.55 as compared to 68 cents in the U.S. Chicken legs cost 64 cents a pound in Mexico and 33 cents in the U.S. Gasoline costs $2.31 a gallon in Mexico while across the border in Eagle Pass it costs just $1.15.

That Alcoa's wages are below subsistence level is immediately obvious to any serious observer. In February 2001, a New York Times reporter wrote: "Despite Alcoa's wage increases and improvements in factory conditions, its Acuña workers still live in a squalid grid of dirt streets, rotting garbage and swamps of open sewage."

  • The very highest wage for the most senior and experienced Alcoa workers is $86.58 a week--including all bonuses and incentives. Even this wage does not come close to meeting basic subsistence-level needs: For a family of four per week:

Food (the most minimal diet)


Rent (cheapest government-subsidized housing, 3 tiny rooms)




Bus fare to work (round trip)




And of course this does not even include school fees, clothing, health care or any other daily miscellaneous costs.

  • Many of the Alcoa workers in Mexico say they feel like they are "in prison"--with no rights, no voice. They face arbitrary speed-ups of production lines and obligatory overtime, their bathroom visits are limited to twice per day and they are monitored and timed.
  • All the workers agree that this struggle represents a critical turning point. The real message Alcoa wants to deliver to the workers is that if they raise their voice, if they organize to defend their basic rights, they too will be fired, blacklisted and thrown out on the street with nothing.
  • Even after seven months of being locked out, 31 of the fired workers--including all the leaders of the Workers Committee--are holding out, refusing to accept severance payment. They are fighting for reinstatement. But, without income or savings, their conditions are growing more desperate. They cannot hold out forever.
  • Fighting for a major breakthrough: Just as Alcoa thought it had effectively crushed all dissent and struggle with the mass firings in Acuña, in March 2002, the Alcoa workers in Piedras Negras kicked out the corrupt CTM union officials and won a stunning victory, electing a truly independent union leadership representing the workers. Far from remaining neutral, local Alcoa management immediately began collaborating with the ousted CTM officials in a campaign to intimidate and divide the workers in an attempt to isolate and weaken the union. Alcoa management even allowed the CTM to fire six of the independent unionists! Alcoa is threatening to pull out if the independent union survives.

Security gate: Entrance to Alcoa fatory in Acuña

This is a hugely important struggle, the outcome of which will reverberate throughout Mexico, as the more than one million maquila workers struggle to gain their rights to freedom of association and the right to organize.



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