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US and Mexican trade unions have filed their first labour complaint against the government of Mexico under the under the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement (USMCA).
The complaint, backed by union federation AFL-CIO in the US, argues that Mexico has not lived up to its pledge under the deal to guarantee workers the right to organise and join the union of their choice, rather than one previously hand picked by then employer.
Their case centres on the Tridonex auto parts assembly plant in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, where workers have been fighting to form a new independent union rather than join existing pro-company “yellow” union SITPME.
The organiser for the new union is lawyer Susana Prieto, who has been jailed, harassed and prohibited from travelling 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 reports that 600 union supporters have been fired from the Matamoros plant in retaliation for their fight to oust SITPME.
In a statement, Prieto said: “We are fighting so that no-one is ever afraid of freely electing the union they wish to represent them and to make history, ending several generations of modern slavery.”
Prieto led a successful battle for higher wages in Matamoros in 2019, but she was arrested for allegedly inciting a riot, threats and coercion stemming from a protest at a local labour board that sought to revoke an existing factory union in favour of a new independent one. In return for the charges being dropped she had to adhere to the unusual travel restrictions.
Mexico’s right-wing unions are linked to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CT)M and the former governing party. They have a policy of signing “protection contracts” often before factories even open.
They guarantee employers low wages and a complaint workforce, who don’t vote in their contract negotiations or for union officials except by show-of-hands votes.
The USMCA deal has sought to stem the flood of manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico to take advantage of wages of $1 or $2 an hour.
The Tridonex plant operates for a US company that moved part of its manufacturing to Mexico.
Under the trade deal, Mexico agreed to reform its labour laws to guarantee secret-ballot votes on union representation and contracts and the right to organise freely.
It also requires that 40 to 45 per cent 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 (NAFTA) was approved in 1994, leaders promised it would boost Mexico’s wages, something that has never happened, in part because of stooge unions.
Average Mexican industrial wages remain about one-tenth of prevailing US rates.
The Mexican government has promised to enforce the labour law reforms, but it has been a difficult fight with deeply entrenched and often violent and corrupt yellow unions.
In April, a vote on whether to keep a yellow “in house” union had to be postponed after yellow union officials were caught destroying “No” ballots at a General Motors plant in northern Mexico and replacing them with ballots marked “Yes.” GM officials had also removed independent inspectors, among other intimidation tactics aimed at staff.
Mexican authorities have now ordered the General Motors Company union in the city of Silao to repeat the vote following pressure from US legislators for the automaker to address alleged abuses that could potentially violate a new trade deal.
In the past, workers at many factories in Mexico were often unaware they even had a union until they saw union subscriptions deducted from their pay cheques.
The new process calls for workplace votes to be held at every unionised factory and workplace in Mexico by 2023.
The Tridonex case will not just be a test for the new US trade negotiator Katherine Tai but also for President Joe Biden, who has come out strongly in favour of trade unions in the US and placed a number of trade unionists in his administration.
Tony Burke is Unite assistant general secretary and the TUC General Council lead on workers’ and union rights
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