By Jefferey Hermanson
The landslide victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) in the Mexican presidential election in July has raised workers’ hopes for a revitalized and democratized labor movement.
Independent unions have formed a new federation. They hope to win progressive labor law reform and finally end the reign of corrupt, pro-employer unions.
The coalition led by AMLO’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) won not only the presidency but also the majority in both houses of the Mexican congress. Till now, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had dominated Mexican politics for decades.
The pro-employer unions that make up Mexico’s main labor federation, the Congress of Labor (CT), especially the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), have historically been part of the PRI’s popular base. Top union leaders were nominated as the party’s senators and congresspersons.
The CT unions are the largest in Mexico, representing around 10 percent of the formal workforce, though they have been in decline in recent years. These unions were enthusiastic cooperators in the low-wage neoliberal economic strategy adopted by the Mexican political and economic elite in the 1990s— including signing on to NAFTA. Their plan was to grow the Mexican economy by attracting U.S. and Canadian investors with cheap labor.
The CT unions have supported the government’s low-wage development strategy by signing sweetheart “protection contracts” with employers before any workers are hired. They use their relationships with employers and with the Mexican federal and state governments to prevent any real negotiations or strikes.
The absence of authentic worker representation in most sectors has kept Mexican workers’ wages low and even declining in real terms over the past decade. Meanwhile CT union leaders have grown incredibly wealthy through their corrupt alliances with employers and government.
Other practitioners of protection unionism are the “gangster unions” of the industrial belt surrounding Mexico City and the employer-controlled “white unions” of Monterrey, a center of industrial growth.
In 1997, several unions broke with this trend and established a federation of independent and democratic unions, the National Union of Workers (UNT). Among them were the unions of telephone workers, social security workers, university workers, and Volkswagen workers.
The UNT has supported labor law reform, pushing for secret-ballot union representation elections, a public registry of union contracts, and workers’ right to vote on strikes and contract ratifications.
However, the UNT has remained a loose grouping unable to seriously challenge the domination of the corrupt CT unions.
Other unions broke with the CT but remained independent, notably the National Mineworkers and Metalworkers Union (Los Mineros). After a mining disaster in 2006 cost the lives of 65 miners, the union waged a bitter campaign against Mexico’s most powerful mining and rail conglomerate, Grupo México.
The company and the government then brought false charges of corruption against the union’s leader, Napoleon Gómez Urrutia, leading to his 12-year exile in Canada. There he was supported by the United Steelworkers, with whom Los Mineros have an affiliation agreement.
Now Gómez Urrutia has been elected senator on MORENA’s ticket and has returned to Mexico to take his seat—giving the independent labor movement a powerful voice in the Senate.
The neoliberal economic model enshrined in NAFTA has been a disaster for the Mexican people. The rural economy collapsed, forcing millions to emigrate to the cities, the northern border, or the U.S.
Wages declined in both domestic industries and maquiladora (export) factories. Corruption and violence grew to unprecedented levels.
Little wonder then that the Mexican people defied the political establishment and media to vote for AMLO and MORENA, who have promised to end corruption and violence and to institute a transformation that puts poor and working people first.
As his Secretary of Labor, AMLO has appointed Luisa María Alcalde, a 31-year-old former federal legislator with close ties to the independent labor movement.
Alcalde has pledged to increase the minimum wage (currently $4.57 a day) and to work to pass labor legislation to outlaw protection contracts and implement much of the independent labor movement’s agenda.
In 2017, Mexico passed a reform of the labor provisions of the Mexican Constitution, under pressure from the Obama administration. The motive was to comply with International Labor Organization rulings against protection unionism in order to gain entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The reform calls for the elimination of the corrupt tripartite labor boards now dominated by the CT unions and employers, and for the establishment of independent labor boards as part of the judiciary.
However, the secondary legislation necessary to implement these reforms has yet to be passed.
An independent federation
In July the three most important independent Mexican auto unions—at Volkswagen and Audi in Puebla, and Nissan in Morelos—announced they were joining with independent unions in auto parts, rubber, and aerospace to form a new industrial federation.
The Volkswagen, Audi, and Nissan unions are single-factory unions, each with several thousand members. The new federation aims to influence labor law reform and to bolster the growth of independent and democratic unions in the auto industry.
This is an important development. Auto, auto parts, tires, and aerospace together make up one of the biggest and most advanced industrial sectors of the Mexican economy. There are around 85,000workers in the country’s auto assembly plants and as many as 850,000 in parts and component suppliers.
The newly formed Independent Union of Goodyear Workers (SINTG) is a part of the new federation. Workers struck for a day at Goodyear’s six-month-old factory in San Luis Potosí in April to protest poor wages, benefits, and working conditions negotiated behind their backs in a protection contract signed in 2015, two years before the factory opened.
“We’ve never seen these so-called [union] representatives,” operator Francisco Javier Cuestas told global union federation IndustriALL. “They don’t know the first thing about us. Because we have nobody to speak for us, the company gets away with paying very low wages—less than a dollar and a half per hour—for what is very dangerous and difficult work.”
In July Goodyear fired 50 workers, allegedly in retaliation for forming an independent union.
Many of the unions in the new federation have gone through similar struggles. The federation is organizing solidarity support for the Goodyear workers for what is likely to be a long fight.
The role of the Volkswagen workers union (SITIAVW) in the new federation is important, given the union’s militant history and the fact that the Puebla plant is the largest manufacturing complex in Mexico.
Originally VW workers were forced to join a protection union established before the plant opened its doors. But they fought for decades against the corrupt CTM, and ultimately established their independence. The union requires secret-ballot votes for leadership, strike authorization, and contract ratification. It has waged militant strikes and negotiated the best wages and benefits in Mexico’s manufacturing sector.
Also important are Los Mineros, whose jurisdiction includes aerospace and auto parts. The union has aided efforts to form independent unions at auto parts manufacturers like Johnson Controls and PKC, and has won representation at a Bombardier subway car plant in Hidalgo.
One of the weaknesses of Mexico’s independent labor movement is that many of the unions are confined to single employers or single factories. In this new federation, the unions are joining together to influence national politics and to confront the auto industry, including its parts and component suppliers, with a united voice and the power of thousands of workers.
Jeff Hermanson is an organizer who has worked since 1977 with the ILGWU (later UNITE), Carpenters, Writers Guild, and AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. He is currently working with the International Union League, an organization of garment and textile unions in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
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