At VW’s Mexico plant, the biggest car factory in North America still has room to grow

·Writer

“I’d always had this idea of Mexico as a place of total disorder and chaos,” one of my colleagues was saying. But we were visiting a German car factory, the last place you’re going to find those qualities. As far as we could see, the Volkswagen facility just outside of Puebla, the largest car plant in the Americas and the second-largest VW facility in the world, was an international paragon of order, cleanliness, and organization.

And it may only get bigger — depending on whether VW chooses Tennessee or Mexico for its next big SUV.

Mexico has become the go-to spot for automakers wanting to build cars in the Western Hemisphere, offering easy shipping to many countries via free-trade deals. Last year, several automakers announced new plants or expansions in Mexico; the last new car factory built in the United States was VW's plant in Chattanooga in 2011.

Now VW must decide where to build a seven-passenger SUV in a couple of years, and to show off its manufacturing might, it brought a small and semi-reluctant group of journalists to Puebla on an AeroMexico charter plane from the Detroit auto show. The bullet points we were to optionally emphasize were as follows:

•This was the 50th anniversary of the factory.

•The Volkswagen Group would be investing $7 billion in North America by 2018.

•From here on in, the Golf, VW’s flagship car, would be manufactured in Puebla, with the first one rolling off the line last week.

•In addition, VW makes two versions of the Jetta at the factory, and also the Beetle and Beetle cabrio.

We spent a morning touring the facility. First, they took us to the building that houses their “Training Institute.” Here, hundreds of Mexican high-school students were working lathes or doing repetitive electronic tasks, and a few lucky ones were manipulating a robot arm. The Puebla plant has graduated nearly 5,000 kids from this institute, many of whom have gone on to work at the factory.

Every year, they get more than 1,000 applicants and accept 110. They choose, the school’s managing director, Sergio Mata Sanchez, told us, the students with the “greatest abilities in mathematics and physics.” Then they put them through a rigid curriculum that is “20 percent theory and 80 percent practice.”

The school has three precepts: Discipline, Order, and Cleanliness, of which the students have to display much if they want to survive the program. “It’s important for us to see how many cycles a person can go through in an eight-hour day,” the school director said. “And if they can’t cut it, they won’t be accepted into our plans.”

On our short bus ride to the next part of the factory, we learned some facts about the Puebla plant. It employs 15,000 people. About 12,000 of those actually work in manufacturing. They all get free bus rides, courtesy of VW, to and from work for every shift. On-site cafeterias feed them all. “And of course,” the tour guide said to us, “we have preserved green space all around the facility to allow Mexico’s vibrant wildlife to thrive.”

As she said that, we looked out the window at a strip of preserved wetlands. Along the edge, a stray dog was taking a dump.

Next, we met with a German functionary, who showed us a bunch of impressive VW sales-figures slides, numbers that we’d all seen a hundred times before. I asked him questions about the labor situation at the Puebla plant. Like most industrial facilities, it has a history of strife. The strike in 1987 sounds like it was particularly vicious. It lasted nearly two months and ended with workers receiving a 78 percent pay raise. The one that happened in September 2001 was no fiesta, either, when a decade of vicious NAFTA debates came to a head in a three-week strike that ended with workers getting a 10 percent raise, up to an average of $28 or $29 a day, hardly a great fortune. There was also a five-day strike at the end of 2009. Volkswagen’s global sales were plummeting. The workers demanded an 8.5 percent raise and ended up getting a little over three percent, which barely got them to over $30 a day.

They remain strongly unionized, with an independent union that renegotiates a contract with VW every year. The factory is open 24 hours, with three eight-hour shifts. Workers get 40 hours a week, sometimes pulling weekends or overtime shifts if orders are high. According to the VW functionary, the average wage of a plant employee is about $20,000 a year, which, if true, provides workers with a decent middle-class living. But that seemed awfully high compared with the $30-a-day figures from just a few years before. I couldn’t determine if higher executive salaries were mixed into that average.

The day progressed. It would have been nice to actually have seen cars getting made, considering we’d traveled 1,200 miles in the middle of the night to do so. But someone decided we didn’t need that. We skirted the edges of an industrial area, getting to see a few tantalizing warehouse glimpses of robot arms moving quickly and efficiently, and then it was over. We went deep into the heart of Mexico to see a car factory, but didn’t really get to see the factory part.

Instead, we were shuttled to a luxury-grade tent complex that VW had set up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Puebla plant. Along with a crowd of at least a thousand people, all of whom seemed to be wearing identical gray suits, we listened to dull speeches from various government officials and VW Chairman Martin Winterkorn, among others. The theme seemed to be: Volkswagen is an enormously successful company that cannot be stopped, and Mexico is a key part of its march toward total world domination.

“Over 10 million Volkswagens have already been driven off the assembly line here,” Winterkorn said. “Every single one of these cars is a calling card for our brand and for Mexico as an industrial location.”

Then, with great and cheesy fanfare, the 2014 Golf drove onto the stage, accompanied by more than a dozen flag-waving factory workers. This was followed by a two-door Golf and a Golf station wagon. People around the world, if not necessarily the United States, will be seeing a lot of these cars, but we saw the first ones, and they looked like Volkswagens.

Other than the fact that all the workers were Mexican, the only distinctly Mexican attributes I could suss around the factory, given my limited exposure, were a large Catholic shrine that the workers had set up on the inside of one of the buildings, and the fact that reporters were able to take photos of whatever they wanted. If we’d gotten that close to the machines and workers in Germany, they’d have had cuffs on us faster than we could have said “Modular Transverse Toolkit.”

Afterward, there was an enormous party. It felt like I was the last guest invited to some sort of weird German-Mexican wedding. A DJ played the theme music to “The Last of the Mohicans” as well as lots of terrible forgotten hits from the ’80s. Tequila-based drinks flowed liberally. There were hundreds of tables. They served our first course, a chile relleño shaped like a Beetle, served atop “un carretera de molé,” which translates as “a highway of molé sauce,” but it looked more like the Beetle relleño was sitting in a huge puddle of leaked oil.

The party was many things: A genuine celebration of an extremely successful international industrial collaboration, a PR boondoggle and the largest launch party for a reasonably decent car that I’ve ever seen. But disorder and chaos were nowhere to be found. Except maybe in the drinks line.

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