[Mexico] Old unions fight against worker's right to choose unions

A new law guaranteeing workers the right to choose which union will represent them came into effect last month but independent labour leaders say that overcoming opposition from politically favoured unions, after decades under the old system, is slow and arduous work, The New York Times reports.

For decades, Mexican workers had little choice over the unions signing contracts with employers in their name. Rather, governments granted their allies in the union movement control over labour. Now the government, under left-wing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has vowed to overturn this system (as previously reported in The New York Times).

In the wake of the law taking effect, as well as taking on the old unions labour leaders also anticipate challenges getting past opposition from employers along with dealing with workers’ suspicions.

Benedicto Martínez - the leader of a smaller independent labour federation, the Authentic Labor Front - said, “We can have a very nice law. But it won’t be easy. There have been many years of control and manipulation.”

Kimberly Nolan - a labour expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Mexico City - said employers forced to reverse old practices are starting to push back, “The way you do business in Mexico is that contracts are bought and sold. The business sector has no sense of how that contradicts freedom of association.”

Under Mexico’s new law, before they can be formally recognized unions will have to earn the support of a minimum of 30 per cent of workers in a workplace. The local labour boards will be replaced by a national registry and specialised courts. Such changes are intended to remove political influence.

The law also sets out a 4-year timeline for the labour ministry to review at least half a million existing contracts. Luisa María Alcalde - the labour minister - said many of these contracts are probably invalid because they were never approved by workers. Ms Alcalde said the old system depressed wages, “The government itself has kept salaries very low, I would argue, because there have been no counterweights in negotiations.”

American unions complained for some time that the old model encouraged companies to move to Mexico to take advantage of flexible unions and low wages. As a reaction, Democrats have used trade negotiations to force Mexico to rewrite its labour laws, making that a condition of their approving a revised North American trade agreement in Congress.

The new law is currently being tested in Mexico with two unions fighting to win the backing of workers at the Bridgestone tire factory outside Monterrey. The competition is between the rubber union - which is independent - and an autoworkers’ union which forms part of a traditional federation. It has represented the workers at the plant for the past few years.

Wages at the Bridgestone plant range from $22 to $26 a day. This is a good salary even for industrial capital Monterrey, where a thriving manufacturing export industry equals a strong demand for labour. Benefits are also generous but current and former workers at Bridgestone said the company had started to cut perks.

The labour board set a mid-April date for workers to choose their representatives. Before the election, workers were harassed and members of the rubber union, together with their lawyers, were reportedly threatened, according to a complaint filed by the union with the labour board.

No one from the board attended to administer the vote on the day of the election so that election was cancelled and a new vote set several weeks later, away from factory property, in the underground car park of a government office building in a Monterrey suburb.

This time, as originally intended, the ballot was secret, and all sides were present. The independent rubber workers union lost by a large margin. Bridgestone Americas gave a statement saying that its Monterrey plant “...under no circumstances intervenes or has ever intervened in free and fair union election matters as these are managed directly by the corresponding employee associations.”

But Patricia Juan Pineda - the rubber worker union’s lawyer - revealed that a bonus of around $1,500 paid to factory workers the previous week before could have helped convince them to reject the independent union. And organizing from outside the plant is hard. Ms Pineda said, “Fear is hard to beat.”