PUEBLA, Mexico - North American unions should have a trinational meeting to look at the impact of trade agreements on workers in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, Mexican union leaders told a U.S. delegation yesterday.
Unions in Puebla, home to Volkswagen of Mexico and many auto parts suppliers, said they need the help of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and other U.S. unions to stop what they say is a ploy by the Mexican government to keep workers from organizing.
“When companies come here and see the flexibility they have with unions, they take advantage of it,” said Jose Luis Rodriguez Salazar, general president of the union that represents workers at Volkswagen of Mexico.
“We should not allow companies to take jobs and move them where there are lower wages. That is labor scabbing,” Mr. Salazar said.
The Teamsters sponsored the trip for the delegation of Democratic Congressmen who came to Mexico to see the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexican workers.
The Congressional group, led by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) leaves Mexico today.
Workers in Mexico, particularly in the maquiladoras, or manufacturing facilities, have been trying to form unions to raise their wages and improve working conditions.
Leaders say they have been faced with intimidation, firings, and government interference.
Only about 10 percent of unions in Mexico are independent; the rest have an affiliation with the Mexican government, said AnaElsa Aviles of the Mexican Solidarity Network.
She said workers in independent unions have better wages and benefits.
One of the largest independent unions represents Volkswagen of Mexico and is hailed by some as a success story for Mexican workers.
At the plant, most of the 10,000 unionized workers make $26 per day. When Volkswagen said it was eliminating 2,000 jobs, the union was able to persuade the company to cut hours for all employees instead of firing anybody.
In 2000, workers saw an 18 percent increase in wages and 3 percent increase in benefits after workers walked off the job.
Yesterday, union leaders said the pay at Volkswagen is not ideal but it provides employees with a livable wage.
Mr. Salazar said the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO have helped members organize and fight for a contract.
But the approximately 8,000 workers at plants that supply Volkswagen with parts and supplies get paid much less. Workers at parts and logistics companies say they are paid $9 per day, often without many benefits.
“It s just enough to exist, and barely exist,” said Guillermo Hernandez, general secretary of a union of workers that supply parts to Volkswagen.
The Congressional delegation also heard from workers in other factories, mostly women, who said they have not been able to unionize without the threat of being fired.
Volkswagen spokesman Mike Patzwaldt said the relationship with the union is improving but criticized the workers for demanding high wage increases in 2000 when the economy was in trouble.
“Everything is going down and you ask for 30 percent increases - is that good? I don t think that s good,” Mr. Patzwaldt said.
Mr. Salazar said the only way to improve working conditions in all three countries since NAFTA was passed is to unite as trinational unions and demand decent working conditions throughout the continent.
“Before globalization, we need solidarity,” he said.
The delegation toured the Volkswagen plant and questioned a company spokesman about the wages and living conditions of workers.
Mr. Patzwaldt said the company offers the highest wages of all auto companies located in Mexico and offers a leasing plan for autos of $60 to $170 per month.
Workers countered that most don t lease the cars because they cannot afford it.
This was the second time in six months an Ohio politician visited the Volkswagen plant.
In May, Gov. Bob Taft brought a delegation of state business leaders to talk to Volkswagen officials about the possibility of making parts in Ohio and exporting them to the Mexican auto giant.