flesl.net paired story 1-10a (Juan Santos)

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Juan Santos

In 2001, Juan Tovar Santos was living in Acuña, Mexico. He and his wife, Arcelia had a two-room house made of concrete blocks. Their bed was in their kitchen.

Acuña is in northern Mexico on the Rio Grande River. The river is the border between the US and Mexico. There is a bridge at Acuña and, on the other side, is the American city of Del Rio.

Juan was working for a big American company called Alcoa. Alcoa had a factory in Acuña where they made electrical systems for automobiles. In 1996, Juan travelled to Pittsburgh in the northern United States to attend a meeting of the owners of Alcoa. The leader of the meeting was Paul H. O’Neill who later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. (In the US the Secretary of the Treasury is in charge of the country’s financial policies. )

At the time he attended the meeting, Juan was earning six dollars a day and Paul was earning $11,500 a day. After he had listened to Paul speaking about how much money Alcoa was making, Juan stood up and began speaking with the help of an interpreter. He told Paul that the managers of the factory were very ‘cheap’. As an example, he mentioned that a worker was always waiting at the door of the washrooms. His job was to hand out toilet paper; everyone was allowed three pieces every day. He also told the people at the meeting that more than a hundred workers had been taken to the hospital because gas had leaked into the factory.

When he heard this, Paul became angry. He said, “Our factories in Mexico are so clean you can eat off the floor.” Then Juan shouted, “That’s a lie!” and he showed Paul some newspaper stories about the gas leak. After the meeting, Paul found out that another executive at Alcoa had kept the leak a secret from him. He fired that executive. He also started to make improvements in the pay and working conditions at Juan’s factory and the seven other factories that Alcoa owned in Acuña.

A few months after Juan spoke at the meeting in Pittsburgh, workers at two of the Alcoa factories in Acuña went on strike. They were quickly surrounded by the police who shot tear gas at them. The strike spread and the company was forced to agree to some of worker’s demands. By November of last year, Juan’s daily pay had gone up to $6.70. Now the Mexicans who work for Alcoa in Acuña earn an average of $83US a week. The average weekly pay of for workers in Acuña is only $70US a week. Working conditions at his factory have improved too: the cafeterias are clean now and the workers wear eyeglasses.