MEXICO CITY (AP) — It has been nearly two years since the United States began pressuring Mexico for labor rights abuses using rapid dispute resolution methods contained in the free trade agreement between the United States and Mexico.
President Joe Biden’s administration has filed six such complaints and is boasting that, for the first time, someone is challenging Mexico’s undemocratic and old-guard unions that have kept wages painfully low for decades.
But workers and union organizers are mixed on the results, saying it is difficult to build a real labor movement overnight, and that employers and former union bosses continue to resist change.
The first complaint was filed in May 2021 regarding attempts by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) union to interfere with a vote at the GM plant in Silao, in the north-central state of Guanajuato.
Under pressure from the U.S. complaint — which could have potentially led to trade sanctions — Mexican officials and observers oversaw a clean union vote in which the old guard union CTM was kicked out and a new independent union won the right to negotiate.
The new union quickly won an 8.5% wage increase and more bonuses.
“Economically, the truth is that the change came very quickly, although they were a bit slow to give us the raise,” said Manuel Carpio, a GM worker. Carpio credits reformed Mexican labor laws and the pressure exerted on the USMCA complaint.
“I think it has a lot to do with it,” Carpio said.
Previously, pro-company unions signed contracts behind workers’ backs and employed thugs to prevent workers from questioning contracts, or relied on the company to fire dissenters. Carpio, an early supporter of the union, said that before it was impossible to organize.
“There was a lot of retaliation, but now we were protected by the law, which protected us a bit, they couldn’t do so much against us,” he said. Before, “if we had tried to do it, heads would have rolled”.
This does not mean that the problems are all solved; Carpio said the new union, known by its initials as SINTTIA, has a learning curve and has been slow to distribute benefits from union dues. And autoworkers in Mexico still only earn $300 a month, or $12 a day.
The new union has raised the minimum to around $14 a day, but that’s still less than an American autoworker earns in an hour. The US government hopes that one day wages will equalize with those of the United States, stemming the flight of manufacturing jobs, although this will not happen for a very long time.
“It’s a long way off,” said José Guadalupe Alonso, a representative of the new union, who is still trying to come to terms with the fact that the old CTM union has taken everything down to chairs and computers in union offices, and has left the treasury. naked.
Alonso has no doubt that labor complaints in the United States were key to getting the new union at GM.
“What really made the difference here was that US government forces pushed for certain things,” Alonso said.
But Alonso says similar organizing efforts at other factories in the region, which haven’t attracted as much international attention, are still as difficult as ever.
For example, an organizing effort by the same union at a German automobile pipe and tube factory recently met with resistance. Alonso said when Mexican labor authorities attempted to inspect the factory, guards told them they had the wrong address.
“Maybe we should file another complaint with the US government,” Alonso said.
Mexico’s Department of Labor says it is committed to making the country’s new labor law work. The reforms guarantee workers the right to vote by secret ballot, consult their contracts and periodically approve union leaders, which was not the case before. But Mexico still hasn’t put in place the labor commissions, inspectors and education that would make it all work.
But American workers’ complaints are no magic wand: the best example to date is the VU Manufacturing auto parts plant in the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila,
It is the only place the United States has had to file not one, but two labor complaints under the USMCA, asking Mexico to ensure that its laws guaranteeing freedom to organize are enforced.
The factory, located across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, illustrates some of the uphill battles organizers face to make freedom of association a reality.
The VU facility is largely made up of women who often work 12-hour shifts assembling visors, armrests and dashboard parts for the cars. Their base salary is around $15 a day.
Piedras Negras is a relatively small and isolated border town where there is so little union tradition that the old guard union CTM dominated the factory but never even bothered to ask the owners for a contract of employment, explains Pablo Franco, a labor lawyer from Piedras Negras. .
After the US filed an initial labor complaint in July, the company was forced to allow a vote, but they let in the CTM union to try to convince workers to reject the new union, the League Mexican workers’ unions.
“They spoke to the workers and they told them that they couldn’t let an outside union like the league in, that it was better to go with the people they knew,” Franco said. “They (the company) talked to the workers, and allowed the CTM to talk to the workers, to try to convince them. That’s what the company did. »
Even though the new union won a vote in late August by a nearly two-to-one margin, the harassment has not stopped and the company has been loath to negotiate, said union organizer Julia Quiñonez, a labor activist from Piedras Negras.
Quiñonez has been the target of a number of social media videos in which factory workers were allowed to leave the factory – in their company uniforms – and hold a press conference attacking the new union for asking too much in terms of pay raises: an outrageous $32 a day.
“No company can do this,” one of the dissidents said in the video. “Even the owner doesn’t have that much (money).”
Quiñonez disputes this – she says the new union is only asking for $19 a day – but claims the company refused to negotiate and allied with the CTM union to launch a smear campaign against the union.
“They say we’re incentivizing workers to ask for more than companies can give, so they’ll shut down and go back to the United States,” Quiñonez said.
The company is also said to have severely restricted the access of the new union to hold a meeting in the factory and to have refused to pass on information as part of the negotiations.
VU Manufacturing did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
The situation prompted an unprecedented second US complaint on January 30.
“While this facility took positive steps in 2022, some of the failures we previously identified appear to be reoccurring.” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
Mexico’s Department of Labor said in a statement that “VU Manufacturing is obligated to negotiate in good faith” with the new union and “must allow its representatives and advisers to enter the factory, participate in negotiations and inform the workers”.