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In Brazil, GM Cost-Cutting Kills

Ron Lare Apr 13, 2012

A Brazilian General Motors worker, Teodoro Antonio Pereira, was killed in late March while moving a die.

The die slipped from the crane cables and crushed Pereira, 60, against a metal table.

He was working Saturday overtime at GM’s 9,000-worker plant in Sao Jose dos Campos that produces engines, the Corsa, the Classic, and a Chevrolet pickup.

Pereira was working alone on a two-person job. His body was discovered about 9 a.m.

To protest Pereira’s death, on the next work day his co-workers shut down production from 6 a.m. till 8 a.m. for an in-plant meeting. Afternoon shift delayed its start-up from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The workers demanded negotiations over working conditions and an end to layoffs. The layoffs had resulted in more overtime, overloaded jobs, and safety violations.

In 2009, Constantino Aparecido died in the same metal stamping department—also while working overtime.

The union’s secretary general, Luiz Carlos Prates, spoke during the work stoppage meeting: “This is an assembly of grief and struggle. Our brother Teodoro would not be dead if GM invested more in safety, listened to the workers’ safety committees, and stopped laying off and pressuring us so much. What happened here is the result of GM’s restructuring. The time has come to end this.”

One Brazilian worker’s response was, “GM puts profits above human life.”

GM has not properly responded to the plant’s Internal Commission for Prevention of Accidents around this death. By Brazilian law, these commissions are workers’ locally elected bodies charged with defending health and safety.

Herbert Claros, vice president of the Metal Workers Union, told Labor Notes: “The accident happened because GM is laying off workers while increasing pressure for more production. Teodoro was working alone because of that pressure.”

The union has filed criminal complaints with the Minister of Labor against GM. The criminal case around the 2009 death in this plant is still unresolved. But it’s notable that under Brazilian law both deaths became criminal matters.

When six workers were killed in the 1999 powerhouse explosion in the Ford Rouge complex where I worked, no one was criminally charged. There were no work stoppages. The victims’ families were financially compensated, but government officials, Ford, and the union all agreed not to file charges against each other.

I have friends who work in the plant where Pereira died. I toured this Brazilian GM plant in 1999 and was at an outdoor rally that updated the membership on contract negotiations. A 2,200-worker shift walked out to listen. While at the plant I talked to the workers about the Ford Rouge Plant explosion and blamed it on Ford’s cost-cutting.

When I worked at Ford I, too, moved dies with a crane. When I was an apprentice, an old diemaker told me, “If you are in that press and it turns over, they just wipe you out with rags.”

Ford Rouge Walkout

After years of concessions and working conditions that grow worse every year, perhaps consciousness in U.S. Ford plants is changing. Thirty-one workers walked off the job March 20 in one of the Rouge plants where I had worked, in response to sewage vapors.

Management had brought in a truck to pump sewage out of a drain hole in the floor. The smell was so strong that workers started vomiting, but management would give them no relief time. They walked out anyway.

A worker in the department said management demanded to know who started the walkout so they could fire someone, send the rest back to work, and discipline them in various ways. The workers stayed out.

Management told the workers to go back to work. They all refused. By then management had opened large bay doors. They claimed they had “aired out” the department. That did not satisfy the workers.

Next management tried threatening discipline for refusing the back-to-work order. That didn't work either.

The workers called for their committeeperson (steward) and health and safety rep, who came and demanded a complete airing out and disinfection of the area.

The workers had been off the job for about 45 minutes. They had eliminated an immediate threat to their health by taking action and remaining completely united.

This article was originally published by Labor Notes.

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