The Fight for Labor Rights in Mexico
Activists are beginning to undo the damage done by NAFTA.
The recent win of an insurgent union to represent workers at the Tridonex auto parts plant in the city of Matamoros, on the Mexico side of the U.S. border, was a blow to the long unholy alliance between corporations and subservient unions in Mexico.
But Susana Prieto Terrazas, a leader in this struggle, could not be there to celebrate the February 28 win. Until next January, she is banned from setting foot in the state of Tamaulipas, which includes Matamoros, after being arrested in 2020 for her union organizing activities.
The irrepressible Prieto, now also a member of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, was not to be silenced. On election night, she streamed her victory speech live on Facebook to her more than 155,000 followers.
“We are taking a step forward,” she rejoiced. “We hope to do it in the whole republic.”
Prieto’s exile from Tamaulipas—itself a sign of resistance to labor reform—is a condition of her release from three weeks in jail following her June 2020 arrest on charges of inciting a riot and related offenses.
Prieto, in a recent interview with The Progressive, says she expects several new challenges to company unions in Tamaulipas, as she fights for “an egalitarian world, with justice for poor people.”
The February win by the National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers, 20/32 Movement (SNITIS) was the second insurgent victory that month. Four weeks earlier, the National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry won an election to represent workers at the General Motors plant in Silao, central Mexico.
Both Tridonex and GM are among the multitude of U.S.-based corporations that set up shop in Mexico following the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“Finally, the workers have an independent union that is going to be fighting for their rights,” labor organizer Israel Cervantes tells The Progressive. Cervantes led the grassroots effort, Generando Movimiento (Generating Movement), to oust the incumbent union at the GM facility.
These victories, however, are the exceptions, not the rule, in a collective bargaining system dominated by the cozy relationship between corporations and employer-friendly unions that has a history of suppressing wages.
“Protection contracts,” as these collective bargaining agreements are called, have become the norm in Mexico. They account for at least 75 percent of the collective bargaining agreements in Mexico, says a 2021 report by the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board, established by the U.S Congress and the Labor Advisory Committee.
“The purpose of the protection contract,” notes the report, “is to lock in low wages and poor conditions and ‘protect’ the employers from having to negotiate with an independent and democratic union.”
What’s more, the report says, “the employer-dominated union and the government have often colluded to intimidate workers through delays, threats and physical violence, and dismissal.”
Insurgent unions are needed in order to challenge this entrenched system solidified by NAFTA, which opened the door for multinational corportations bent on cheap labor and big profits by reducing trade barriers.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, who was elected in 2018, has raised the national minimum wage, which is about $13 a day for businesses in the border region of Mexico and about $8.60 for the rest of the nation.
But whether workers are actually paid that wage is another question. “Enforcement is the biggest problem,” says Jorge Mujica, who serves in the Chamber of Deputies. Abuses, he says, are common, with workers often not getting the wages owed them.
And there are huge disparities to close.
“NAFTA really polarized Mexican society even more than it already was,” says Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Texas, El Paso who has written four books about Mexico.
Foreign-owned companies in Mexico—maquiladoras—have deservedly been the target of criticism. “The wages are so bad that everybody has to work in the household,” says Carlos Marentes, director of the Border Agricultural Workers Project in El Paso.
He tells of a Mexican woman who recently crossed the border looking for work because she could not make a living as a factory worker across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez.
Tridonex retaliated against workers who signed petitions to stop payments of dues to the incumbent union. As a result, more than 600 workers were fired.
NAFTA has also driven many subsistence farmers off their land. They could not compete with U.S. agribusiness exports. Between 1993 and 2002, the number of Mexicans trying to make a living in agriculture dropped by 1.3 million, according to a Carnegie study. This contributed to the three million Mexicans who migrated to the United States between 1995 and 2000.
Changes in Mexico’s labor law in 2019 have provided an avenue to break the undemocratic hold of company unions. A key provision creates a “legitimization process,” which requires that by May 2023 all collective bargaining agreements be put up for a vote.
If the workers at a plant reject their existing contract, the union representing them is ousted.
“It was intended to get rid of the old system, which was very boss-friendly,” says Daniel Rangel, Research Director for Rethink Trade. Until recently, he held a similar position with Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and has been involved in helping secure labor rights at Tridonex.
The 2020 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaced NAFTA, empowers the U.S Trade Representative to respond to disputes, as happened in the Tridonex and GM cases.
But by the end of last year, according to a January USMCA monitoring report, just sixteen of the 2,749 collective bargaining agreements voted on had been rejected.
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