Albion Monitor /News

Mexico Sued For Union Busting Under NAFTA Rules

Independent unions undermined by government

WASHINGTON -- Invoking an obscure clause in NAFTA, three groups from Mexico and the United States have charged Mexico with labor rights violations, claiming that the government is undermining independent unions in favor of official unions organized by the Mexican government.

The organizations submitted detailed documentation to the U.S. National Administrative Office (USNAO) on June 18, listing violations of due process and freedom of association rights guaranteed to Mexican workers.

"The violations we document fall into a pattern in which the laws and structures of pro-government unions in Mexico are used to inhibit independent union activity," charged Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "We hope that NAFTA's labor rights side agreement will be strong enough to resolve both the case-specific violations and the broader structural problems."

First test of NAFTA worker's rights rules

By filing the petition, the groups also hope to test the effectiveness of the NAFTA rules on worker's rights, according to Vivanco. Before NAFTA was approved in the United States, considerable debate was spent on how, if at all, labor rights should be included in the treaty.

Those rules, called the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) were established to protect, enhance, and enforce basic workers rights in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The three nations agreed to have their own labor rights practices reviewed by the other NAFTA parties. The labor rights side agreement required each country to create a National Administrative Office (NAO) to analyze allegations of labor rights violations in the other nations, and to work with those countries to resolve the problems identified. The USNAO functions within the Labor Department.

The petitioners request the USNAO, which has sixty days in which to rule on the case, to engage the government of Mexico in steps designed to eliminate the violations documented in the petition. The U.S. government does not have authority to impose sanctions in this case.

The USNAO petition was submitted by Human Rights Watch/Americas, the International Labor Rights Fund, and the Mexican Association of Democratic Lawyers.

Government Tribunal withdraws union credentials

Among charges in the petition is the claim that Mexico's powerful Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Tribunal, which hears issues related to federal government employees, dissolved an established independent labor union in favor of a pro-government union.

After Mexico reorganized several government departments in December 1994, the entire Ministry of Fishing and parts of other ministries were merged into a new Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Fishing. The Tribunal refused to recognize the former Fishing Ministry's union, arguing that when the Ministry of Fishing disappeared, the union had likewise vanished. In its place the Tribunal registered the pro-government Federation of Unions of Federal Employees.

The Fishing Ministry's union, known by its Spanish acronym SUTSP, won court decisions that Mexican due process was violated when the Tribunal cancelled SUTSP's union registration without offical hearings. The decisions also obliged the Tribunal to reissue SUTSP's registration and cancel the registration of the replacement union. The final Tribunal decisions on registration are pending.

But because the Tribunal is responsible for implementing court decisions, it has limited the impact of SUTSP's legal victories. While the Tribunal reinstated SUTSP's registration in January 1996, it also ensured that the union would be powerless in labor negotiations. The Tribunal ruled that the union's leadership only had legal standing to act before the courts, not with the Ministry. As a result, the union cannot represent its membership. Although Mexican courts have ruled that the Tribunal had no right to make such restrictions, the prohibition remains in effect.

According to a Human Rights Watch press release, SUTSP has been unable to work as a union since the Federation was registered in March 1995. That replacement union has been able to gain strength in the new ministry by, for example, having official time off for union leaders to attend to union business and to collect union dues. Even after the replacement union lost its registration, it was permitted these benefits, while SUTSP, which was registered but arbitrarily limited by the Tribunal, could not.

Close ties between "offical" union and government

Mexico's labor movement has been an integral part of the Mexican political system. The structure of labor unions, federations, and the law have made independent union activity difficult. According to Kevin Middlebrook, cited by the press release as an expert on Mexico's labor sector: "Over time, Mexico's governing political elite was able to impose legal restrictions on such centrally important forms of worker participation as union formation, internal union activities, and strikes."

As an example, the groups behind the NAFTA petition charge that the Federation of Unions of Federal Employees is a de facto government controlled union. The Federation's Action Plan, published along with its statutes, stipulates that members are to "maintain permanent activism within the PRI [Mexico's long-ruling political party]." The Federation and Mexican government each names one of three Tribunal magistrates, the final judge being decided by the other two.

Further linking the PRI and the Federation is a system of overlapping official positions. For example, at the time that SUTSP lost its registration, Carlos Gamines Macias was both the secretary general of the Federation and a senator representing the PRI in Mexico's congress.

The impact of this conflict of interest was made clear in the SUTSP case. Mario Santos Gomez was elected to head the replacement union and signed the official letter from the replacement union to the Tribunal asking that SUTSP's registration be canceled. Gomez, however, is also an official of the Federation.

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Albion Monitor July 4, 1996 (

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