The Guardian March 8, 2000


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...."

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