US unions file first trade labor complaint against Mexico


MEXICO CITY — U.S. and Mexican unions on Monday filed the first labor complaint against Mexico under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade pact.

The complaint argues that Mexico has not lived up to its pledge under the trade accord, known as the USMCA, to guarantee workers the right to freely organize and join the union of their choice.

The complaint centers on the Tridonex auto parts assembly plant in the Mexican border city of Matamoros where workers have been fighting to join a new union.

The outside organizer of that union, lawyer Susana Prieto, has been jailed, harassed and prohibited from traveling to Tamaulipas, the state where Matamoros is.

“I still cannot go to Tamaulipas, nor travel abroad, nor live in any state other than Chihuahua,” Prieto said.

Prieto said about 600 union supporters have been fired from the Matamoros plant in retaliation for their fight to oust on old-guard union.

In a statement, Prieto said: “We are fighting so that no one ever is afraid of freely electing the union they wish to represent them and to make history, ending several generations of modern slavery.”

In 2019, Prieto led a historic and largely successful battle for higher wages in Matamoros, but she was arrested for allegedly inciting a riot, threats and coercion stemming from a protest at a local labor board that sought to revoke an existing union at a factory and install a new one. In return for the charges being dropped, she had to adhere to the unusual travel restrictions.

Mexico’s old-guard unions — often linked to the former governing party — signed thousands of “protection” labor contracts in the past, often before factories even opened. They guarantee employers labor peace and low wages, but workers often couldn’t vote in their contract negotiations or for their union leaderships, except by show-of-hands votes.

The USMCA sought to stem the flood of manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico to take advantage of wages that amount to a dollar or two an hour. The Tridonex plant operates for a U.S. company that moved part of its manufacturing to Mexico.

Under the trade pact, Mexico agreed to reform its labor laws to guarantee secret-ballot votes on union representation and contracts and the right to organize freely. It also requires that 40% to 45% of auto content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.

If Mexico doesn’t comply with the new rules, under the USMCA it has agreed to dispute-resolution panels, which could include banning a factory’s product from entering the United States.

When the old North American Free Trade Agreement was approved in 1994, leaders promised it would boost Mexico’s wages, something that never happened, in part because of unrepresentative unions. Average Mexican industrial wages remain about one-tenth of prevailing U.S. rates.

The Mexican government has promised to enforce the labor law reforms, but it has been a difficult fight with deeply entrenched old-guard unions.

In April, a vote on whether to keep an old-guard union had to be postponed after the union was caught apparently destroying ballots at a General Motors plant in northern Mexico.

Israel Cervantes, who helps lead the Generating Movement campaign to get a new union at the GM pickup truck and transmission factories in the northern city of Silao, said old-guard union officials had broken open ballot boxes, destroyed “no” votes and replaced them with ballots marked “yes.”

In the past, workers at many factories in Mexico were often unaware they even had a union until they saw dues deducted from their paychecks.

Mexico has begun a process of voting among workers on whether to accept or reject existing unions. Started in 2019, the process calls for such votes to be held at every unionized factory and workplace in Mexico by 2023.

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