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La Ford The Sad Familiarity of Union Battles at a Mexican Motor Plant BY BARBARA BELEJACK . Mexico City WHEN WE drove to Cuautitlan, a dusty industrial town north of Mexico City, a black flag was flying at half mast outside the Ford plant, in honor of Cleto Nigmo Urbina. On January 8. the 35-year-old worker was shot in the neck and stomach during an earlymorning outbreak of violence at the plant. His fellow workers say that when they arrived for the early shift, there were strangers on the line dressed in Ford uniforms and carrying phony IDs, along with clubs and pistols. Parked outside the plant were buses belonging to special battalions of long-time labor boss Fidel Velazquez, head of the Conarm of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary what happened next, but when the shooting was over, about a dozen men were wounded, Nigmo Urbina most seriously. Two days later he died. Following the shooting, Ford workers decided to occupy the plant. They seized three of the “worker-imposters,” who admitted ties to Ford union boss Hector Uriarte \(a used by the CTM, and proceeded to make statements before judicial officials in Cuautitian. The three men have since been released on bond, posted by union officials. Ford de Mexico declared the Cuautitlan plant temporarily closed because the corporation was no longer able to guarantee the “physical safety” of the workers. Ford filed criminal charges with the district attorney’s office in the state of Mexico, and petitions with labor officials seeking permission to workers. The Cuautitlan plant is one of three major Ford operations in Mexico whose total value has been estimated at $2 billion. In the grand scheme of things, the plant is small change; it produces motors and assembles vehicles for domestic sale. Yet all three operations \(Cuautitlan, Chihuahua, and the massive have been plagued by a long history of labor disputes. At issue in Cuautitlan is Uriarte, the Barbara Belejack, a frequent contributor to the Observer, is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City. 14 MARCH 23, 1990 Velazquez protege. Two years ago a dissident movement succeeded in ousting another boss, who was also the mayor of Cuautitlan. His replacement, however, proved no better and dissidents soon found themselves unemployed. Last summer a group declared a hunger strike to protest the general malaise known as “lack of union democracy.” For weeks they camped in front of the Mexico City monument known as the Angel of Independence, until they were relocated during Independence Day celebrations. Displeasure with Uriarte intensified , in December when Cuautitlan. workers discovered they would be receiving less than half in some cases nothing at all of the traditional holiday bonus mandated by Mexican law. Ford spokesman Carlos Bandala says the aguinaldos, or bonus cuts, resulted from a “readjustment in taxes that should have been taken out of workers’ checks during the year.” Neither Labor Ministry nor Treasury officials have offered to adjust tax payments at holiday time. Throughout December dissidents clamored for Uriarte’s ouster. Their position, as outlined by spokesman Gabriel Abogado, is that Uriarte was operating in conjunction with Ford to deprive them of lawful benefits, and that Uriarte in turn was protected by Velazquez. Bandala rejected those claims and denies that Ford had anything to do with the events of January 8. Whoever provided will be determined through the judicial process, he insisted. When we arrived at “La Ford,” you could still see one of the buses linked to Velazquez parked outside the plant. Along the wire fence separating the plant grounds from the highway were a row of signs and caricatures denouncing Velazquez and Uriarte. In one of them, justice was depicted as a long-haired woman being dragged off by a charro, an old-style corrupt union leader, resembling Velazquez. We were met at the entrance by a team of dissident workers in charge of security. The workers said about 1,500 of them were taking turns at various brigades at the plant. Bandala insisted that the dissidents numbered no more than 600. Inside the plant we listened to Salvador Fuentes, a dissident who had been fired over a year ago, as he tried to relate a story of thwarted labor congresses, committees, and interim bosses. As Fuentes spoke, an attorney for the dissidents paced back and forth, shuffling in the walking wounded: a worker whose left ear had been grazed by a bullet on January 8, another whose head was wrapped in bandages and whose left eye had been severely injured following a beating by one of the pseudoworkers. “It’s very simple,” Fuentes explained. “We just want to be treated like adults. We’re tired of this prehistoric business of guns, gangsters, and blood.” Two days later, about 500 Cuautitlan workers and their families marched in downtown Mexico City. Velazquez reportedly was summoned to a meeting with Interior Minister Fernando Guttierrez Barrios. Then on Monday, January 22, the inevitable happened. With a police-to-worker ratio of about 10:1 \(and notaries public on hand to workers occupying the Ford plant were evicted. FORD SUDDENLY began to talk of repaying aguinaldos, while publishing notices in Mexico City newspa pers specifying which workers were supposed to return to the plant. On January 25, the first of a series of administrative and judicial proceedings was ‘underway at the federal labor board. Outside the hearing room, about 2,000 angry workers showed up, vowing to dissociate from the CTM. Throughout the past few weeks, the man who is the subject of their contempt, Uriarte, had made several appearances at CTM headquarters. Although a warrant is out for him to appear before state of Mexico judicial authorities, no one seems to be able to locate him. There is a sad familiarity to this story. If you talk to Ford workers, you hear the same complaints voiced by musicians’ union dissidents who have been maintaining a sit-in year. Their complaints are the same as those of the hundreds of thousands of teachers who marched last spring and were relocated prior to Independence Day. What they are seeking is something vague –union democracy something that seems to be out of vogue these days. In Salinas’s Mexico it is easier to privatize the economy by selling off staterun businesses than it is to get rid of state-run unions. The president has no fondness for Velazquez, who represents the old-style PRI politics. The violence at the Ford plant comes at the worst possible time for a nation that is desperately seeking foreign invest