The Ugly American boss:
Portrait of a New World Order employer
Arthur Price, owner of Global Trading, Inc., a company with offices in South Carolina and New York, has been the subject of some intense scrutiny over recent months. His company is locked in a bitter dispute with the largely female workforce of Congeladora del Rio (CRISA), a Mexican fruit- packing plant he owns in Irapuato. US labour activist Peter Cervantes Gautschi of the labour solidarity organisation Enlace, who visited Irapuato in Mexico, describes conditions at the CRISA plant: "It's all piecework. There's no overtime pay. "Workers would earn between US$5 and US$9 a day, depending on how fast they worked, which is a bit less or a bit more than half of a living wage. Child labour "Some young women and girls I met started working in the plant at age 11. With the parents' permission, children aged 14 to 16 can legally get jobs in Mexico. However, they are limited to six-hour workdays with breaks, and aren't allowed to work after 7 pm. "Girls I met said they worked from 1 pm to as late as 2 am, depending on production requirements. "Armed security guards abound. The company has a sophisticated video security system." Antonio Velazquez Loza, an organiser with the Frente Autentico de Trabajadores (the Authentic Workers' Front, FAT, to which the CRISA workers' union is affiliated), believes Price can watch what the cameras are picking up live at his office in Greenville, South Carolina. He believes this because, from his office, Price commented on Antonio carrying a cell phone on the picket line at the plant at approximately the same moment Antonio was lent the phone by a supporter of the strike. "The strike started when the company refused to give the workers their annual profit-share cheque in May 1999. Every year in late May, going back to when Price opened the plant in 1986, the workers had received a small share of the company's profits, as required by Mexican law. "The amount was generally three to four days' pay. In 1999, the company said there were no profits because of La Nina. The workers didn't believe this because production was up. "The bosses in the plant had been regularly yelling at the workers to work faster and forcing them to work longer shifts for some time. The workers were anticipating a good profit share rather than nothing. "Seven women organised the over 200 workers to walk out. A top manager shouted at them, calling them `brutas' (stupid beasts), and demanded — then pleaded — that they go back to work. "The organisers of the action sought and found help from the only available progressive union in the city, the FAT. Working with Antonio, the workers then re-articulated their demands. "Now they included recognition of their union (a FAT affiliate), and a union contract guaranteeing not only the unpaid profit share, but better wages, an end to numerous long-term violations of federal health, safety and child labour laws, freedom of association, and freedom from firing or discipline except for just cause. Arthur Price went ballistic, [fired the 200 workers] and the strike was on...." The striking workers sought assistance from other workers and solidarity activists in Mexico and the USA, many of whom wrote to Price on behalf of the CRISA workers. They were surprised to discover that Arthur Price is an energetic correspondent on his own behalf. He is also a bully. Even as he fills pages and pages with assertions that he has been a responsible business person, he can't resist insulting and verbally attacking those who have taken the time to express their concern for the CRISA workers. Taking his cue from his government, presumably, Price easily resorts to disinformation and the big lie. He has claimed, for example, that FAT's organiser stole the money of workers who belonged to a credit union in Irapuato and that the respected militant union the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) is under indictment. These, like his other claims, are total fiction. Intimidation Nor does he balk at outright intimidation. In an email to a young student whose article was used to gather support for the strike he wrote: "This is a pick up order for you. "Come on back to Irapuato as they are going to accommodate you with free room and board. Every customs port has been alerted, every immigration office has you listed. You are now on the list... Have a wonderful Christmas." In an email to US unionist Robin Alexander, an activist for solidarity between Mexican and US workers, he was even more direct: "If you show up [in Irapuato], you will find yourself in jail." Price's threats demonstrate the arrogance of many US investors who count on corrupt officials to enforce sweatshop business as usual when they set up factories in Mexico. Thanks to the solidarity and determination of the CRISA workers, in September, 1999, CRISA management were obliged to sign an agreement before representatives of the Mexican Government's Labour Board to reinstate the sacked workers. Hover, CRISA failed to honour the agreement. Instead, in September CRISA management lodged two criminal complaints with the municipal government of Irapuato against FAT organiser Antonio Velazquez and other strike leaders, alleging crimes supposedly committed against CRISA. Suing for damages The company is exerting pressure on the city to issue arrest warrants pursuant to these complaints. Meanwhile, on December 3, CRISA management filed a civil suit against Antonio Velazquez Loza and four women in the strike leadership. The suit asks for almost 280,000 pesos in damages from each defendant, for a total of about US$150,000. These complaints have the objective of intimidating Senor Velazquez and the leaders of the union organising effort at the plant, and preventing them from exercising their basic civil and labour rights. They are a denial of the workers' fundamental right to join the union of their choice. A hearing on the unlawful sacking of the 200 workers set for January 24 before the Federal Labor Board was postponed until March 1 due to inadequate notice to management by the Board itself. As is common in Mexico, the Labor Board appears to be proceeding as slowly as possible in order to make the fired workers lose heart in their quest for reinstatement. This has given additional room for CRISA's management to carry out an intense campaign of visits to workers' homes, pressuring them to sign a pledge to abandon the complaint. About 30 were intimidated into signing. However, as the FAT points out, signatures obtained under duress are not legally valid. The workers have not lost heart, but many of them have had to take other jobs or return to work at CRISA as their strike has dragged on for over seven months. Most of those who have gone back to work remain loyal to the struggle and in touch with those who continue to coordinate the strike. Land not bought Peter Cervantes Gautschi was interested in how Price got his plant in Irapuato in the first place. "The land on which the CRISA processing plant sits is part of an ejido. After the revolution, the great ranchos, whose owners had kept people living and working there in forced servitude for generations, became ejidos. "By government decree, the ejidos were divided into parcels and assigned equally among the families who had lived and worked on the respective ranchos. "In the early '80s, Arthur Price acquired part of a parcel of the ejido which Javier and Ricardo Mendoza had inherited. Rather than pay the brothers for the land, Price gave them jobs in top management in the new fruit processing plant he built on the parcel", Peter Cervantes Gautschi said. "A few years later, Price pressed charges against the brothers, accusing them of stealing from the plant. Javier and Ricardo were sent to prison, and Price got full ownership of the plant." Across the grossly polluted Guanajuato River from the Congeladora del Rio fruit processing plant is the colonia Lazaro Cardenas. Struggle for improvements "This colonia, and its neighbour Emiliano Zapata, were seized by the older generation, which claimed the historic right to live there though they had no formal papers. "Despite the fact that the army was sent in to remove them, they somehow managed to establish for themselves a good-sized neighbourhood. The government made a sort of truce by default. So the colonia now borders the river on one side and a verdant army base on the other. "Subsequent fights secured electricity, telephone lines, a sewage system, and public schools. The current fight is for pavement and a union contract. While the signs of poverty are extreme, nearby colonias with no tradition of militant organising are much worse off" said Gautschi. Until the strike, hundreds of the women and girls worked across the river at Price's plant. The only bridge over the river to the plant consists of two five-inch-wide steel bars about four inches apart, and two half-inch steel cables strung Golden Gate Bridge style. "I found out later that the workers thought of the bridge as the only good thing the company ever did. Before the bridge, between 1986 and 1988, women had to wade across, sometimes up to their armpits, to go home at the lunch hour to check on the little ones. "Anyone old enough to watch siblings was in school or working in the plant. I was quite moved to meet strikers the age of my daughter Isa (13), and strike leaders whose ages ranged from the age of my daughter Maya (19) to mine (51)." Gautschi went to have a look at the plant. "Inside the gates, about 100 slightly better-paid strike replacement workers put processed strawberries, and maybe pineapple, banana, and apple, in shiny dark bright-blue 55-gallon drums and 10-to 15-gallon white plastic tubs marked only with the name `Global Trading'. Some are completely unmarked. "Big shiny Freightliner trucks bearing federal Mexican plates haul the products away for distribution in unknown parts of the United States under unknown labels. "Price has over 800 other employees outside the US and another Congeladora plant in Chihuahua, but little is known about them or it...."