A decade of solidarity in El Salto

September 2, 2015

Héctor A. Rivera reports on the 10-year anniversary of the TRADOC workers' strike victory and their succesful operation of a tire factory as a cooperative.

IN THE industrial suburb of El Salto, outside of Guadalajara--Mexico's third-largest city and capital of the state of Jalisco--a worker's cooperative operates one of Mexico's largest tire factories. The cooperative is the Democratic Workers of the West (TRADOC), which owns half of the Western Corporation (Coocsa). The other half of Coocsa is owned by Cooper Tire and Rubber Company--the second-largest U.S.-based tire company after Goodyear.

TRADOC is one of Mexico's largest and strongest worker cooperatives, and in 2015, it celebrated 10 years of running one of the country's biggest tire factories, which is no small feat in a country where neoliberal economic reforms have decimated the working class during the last three decades.

In December 2001, the German giant Continental Tire tried to close the factory it had acquired a few years before. It took a three-year strike and workplace occupation to defeat Continental, stop the plant from shutting down and take over operations of the plant as a workers' cooperative.

One of Mexico's largest tire factories, located in El Salto
One of Mexico's largest tire factories, located in El Salto

The story of how workers came to run the factory--and kept running it--is important because it holds many lessons about organization, solidarity and worker's power.

Euzkadi Workers Go on Strike

In the 1970s, the tire company Euzkadi and the Mexican government opened a factory in El Salto that at the time was the most advanced tire production facility in Latin America. In 1999, the German firm Continental bought Euzkadi and continued to operate the El Salto plant until December 2001.

Then, when workers on the morning shift showed up one Monday, they found the factory's gates shut and a notice, citing Article 5 of Mexico's Constitution, stating that the factory had been closed.

The workers in the El Salto tire factory were organized under the National Revolutionary Union of the Euzkadi Workers (SNRTE), one of Mexico's few independent and combative unions.

Two days after the plant closed, the SNRTE held a general assembly where the workers decided that they didn't want "financial compensation" but to keep their jobs. Instead of accepting the factory's closure, workers voted unanimously to go on strike because of Continental's violations of labor law. More importantly, they also decided to occupy the factory's gates--thus preventing the company from removing its inventory and machinery from the plant.

Since the Department of Labor refused to recognize the strike, the Mexican government declared it unlawful. Several times during the strike, the government sent in police in riot gear to attempt to break through the barricades and allow agents of Continental to take out machinery. Time after time, they were repelled by workers, their families and the community of El Salto.

Workers attribute their success to a broad range of organizational strategies and to their determination to last one day longer than Continental. By January 2002, workers had already organized a nationwide tour that converged in Mexico City. The closing demonstration brought out more than 10,000 workers to demand the reopening of the plant of the Euzkadi workers.

A crucial determinant of the workers' success was that the SNRTE was a democratic and independent union. By contrast, most unions in Mexico are top-down organizations that respond to a strongman, usually known as a "charro"--Spanish for a cowboy that rounds up the cattle. These unions are typically tied to the government and actively negotiate with the bosses against the interests of workers. Given this climate of corruption, democratic and independent unions are often persecuted by bosses and the government.

Women and families also played an important role throughout the three-year strike. Many of the wives of workers became street vendors to support their families while their husbands were on strike. Without a stable income, some families could no longer pay for college tuition, and students had to find work to support their families.

Besides economic support for their families, many of the wives of the workers organized themselves in the Family Movement United with Euzkadi Workers. Organizing fundraisers and potlucks, the Family Movement helped to keep workers' morale high and provide food for the picket lines every day of the strike.

Blackmail from Continental

As if the difficulties of the strike weren't enough, workers had to contend with harassment and intimidation from the government. Whenever workers tried to organize a protest, the government would mobilize helicopters, police dogs and riot cops to confront them. In addition to intimidation, the government denied striking workers access to health care services, at a time when many were suffering from depression and anxiety.

In fighting Continental to keep the occupied factory open, workers had to deal with the company's dirty tactics to break the strike, including efforts to drive workers and their families apart.

Aware of the economic hardships facing families during the strike, Continental would periodically send monetary offers to workers' homes. The families were hungry, and the cash offers were tempting. Continental's divide-and-conquer strategy caused divorces, separations and abandonment. This took a toll on strikers--of the 1,100 workers who originally went on strike, only half stayed to the end three years later.

Like most capitalist enterprises, Continental is no stranger to labor violations and abuse. However, Continental Tire and the rubber industry as a whole has an especially sordid history. The forced labor of West African and South American workers, for example, provided a massive amount of rubber to Germany at the turn of the 20th century.

Continental's shameful labor practices didn't stop there, however. The company is well known for profiting off the forced labor of French and Italian prisoners of war in its factories during the Second World War. Jews in concentration camps were also employed in the company's factories, making gas masks, tires and other rubber equipment for the Nazi war effort.

Most recently in the 1990s, U.S. workers sued Continental for its use of forced labor during the Second World War, which shed further light on the company's disturbing history.

In addition to harassing workers, Continental tried, but failed, to buy off union leaders in order to break the strike. Thus, Continental's dirty tactics of harassment, intimidation and subordination are part and parcel of the company's history.

Workers at the occupied plant didn't succumb to these pressures. But it wasn't until February 2004 that the tide began to change. After more than two years of occupying the factory, the Mexican government finally recognized the strike, lending even more legitimacy to the worker's struggle.

Solidarity Wins

One key to the victory was that striking workers realized they couldn't win if they contained their fight against Continental to Mexico. They decided to take the struggle to Germany and protest at Continental's headquarters. They demanded that Continental treat them as they would treat a German union.

At this stage of their struggle, international solidarity became very important. Support for the Euzkadi workers poured in from all over Germany, especially from other union workers at Continental. During their first tour of Germany, Euzkadi workers built connections that helped them in their second and third tours, at which point their struggle broke into the mainstream press.

Germanwatch, a nonprofit group, provided legal support to the Euzkadi workers, accusing Continental of violating worker's rights as well as the guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition to Germanwatch, workers received support from more than 100 unions and organizations in Latin America and Europe.

Among those supporting the workers were the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, ATTAC Germany, members of the Revolutionary Communist League of France, SEAT autoworkers from Spain, the Mexican Electrician's Union (SME), the community of San Salvador Atenco in the state of Mexico, the Socialist Labor Party of Mexico, the League of Socialist Unity of Mexico, and countless musicians, churches and individuals.

Once in Germany, workers got access to Continental's shareholder meeting with help from the Association of Critical Investors of Germany. At the meeting, they put forward a proposal to reopen the plant, which Continental rejected.

Throughout the three-year strike and plant occupation, the relationship between the workers and Continental was highly fraught, and on various occasions, it appeared that negotiations had reached a dead end. It wasn't until Mexican tire manufacturer Llanti Systems offered to buy the plant from Continental that Continental decided to renegotiate with the workers.

Under the new deal, Continental would sell half of the plant to Llanti Systems, and it would cede half of the plant to workers as backpay for the three years of lost wages and other compensation. The workers accepted this offer unanimously.

Victory for the Euzkadi Workers

Three years, one month and 10 days after their strike began, the workers from the Euzkadi plant could finally declare victory over Continental Tire. On February 18, 2005, the Euzkadi tire factory was turned over to workers. Immediately, workers began cleaning up the grounds and machinery inside.

The SNRTE and the workers didn't know anything about cooperatives when they accepted Continental's offer and took over half of the factory as their own. With help from NGOs and other cooperatives, workers developed a model to organize their new plant. Under the new model, workers in the union voted to disband the SNRTE and become the Democratic Workers of the West (TRADOC) cooperative.

At first, it was difficult for workers to think of themselves as part owners of the plant. The change in mentality has been one of the biggest challenges for new workers at TRADOC.

However, the cooperative takes time to educate new hires about the principles of a co-op. The new hiring process also take into consideration worker's abilities--if a worker is unable to perform well in one part of the plant, he or she isn't fired, but moved to a different part.

Today, TRADOC's partnership has come a long way from the abandoned factory Continental ceded to the workers after their three-year strike. In 2008, Cooper Tires bought Llanti Systems and its 58 percent stake in the tire factory, and TRADOC owns the remaining share. This year, the factory has been producing 21,000 tires per day, more than 10 times greater than production when workers took over the factory. The plant employs 1,200 workers, which is also more than what Continental employed while it was the owner.

In addition to the new pro-labor policies, more women have been hired since the cooperative took over. Although most of the women work in clerical and human-resource positions, 10 percent of the factory's workforce is now women.

Some of the most important shifts for workers have come in the form of wages. Currently, the average wage is about 20,000 Mexican pesos--roughly equivalent to 1,000 U.S. dollars per month. This is the highest wage paid in El Salto and one of the highest wages for industrial workers in all of Mexico.

In addition to better wages, workers also have a generous retirement plan, which both the co-op and Cooper contribute to as workers near retirement age. But with the economic insecurity outside the factory, most workers would prefer not to retire since they fear that the new round of neoliberal reforms under Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will privatize health care and other social security benefits for seniors.

Aware of the circumstances for most Mexican workers and what it took for workers to win their strike, an important part of the cooperative's activities and budget revolve around labor and movement solidarity with other struggles going on in Mexico and around the world.

Locally, they have supported miners in Cananea, glass workers in San Luis Potosí and the struggle of the Mexican Electrician's Union. Internationally, they have supported workers in Ecuador fighting against Continental as well as Panrico workers in Spain.

Currently, they are supporting the ongoing four-year strike of footwear workers in a Sandak plant in the state of Tlaxcala in southern Mexico. Sandal is a Mexican subsidiary of the Swiss multinational Bata. Through their solidarity campaign, TRADOC has sent technical and financial support to the striking workers of Sandak and their democratic union, the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de Calzado Sandak (SUTCS).

The success of the TRADOC workers doesn't amount to "socialism in one factory." But living standards of living for workers are higher compared to the rest of Mexico's industrial sector. Furthermore, the story of the Euzkadi workers can provide lessons about how to fight and how to win a strike.

During the 10 years that followed, TRADOC's operation of this factory is a testament to the power of workers' organization--a real-life lesson in the belief that ordinary people can run their workplaces and society, too.

Further Reading

From the archives