June 30, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
New York — With the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement enabling corporations to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in search of cheap wages, two Mexican labor leaders say unions in both nations need to work together. Such an alliance, said Benedicto Martínez Orozco, vice president of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT, the National Union of Workers), would be able to “make companies that move to Mexico respect workers’ rights.”
Speaking in Spanish at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute June 26, Martínez and Imelda Tovar Morales, an official of the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT, the Authentic Workers’ Front), described problems familiar to U.S. workers: governments weakening labor laws or failing to enforce them, trade treaties that undercut wages, and work becoming increasingly precarious. In Mexico, these are intensified by corrupt unions cutting sweetheart deals with employers and the country’s lower wages.
FAT, founded in 1960, is a three-part movement, said Martinez, its former national coordinator. It includes unions, especially in manufacturing and education; worker-owned and farm cooperatives; and urban neighborhood organizations “providing services that the state hasn’t addressed.” Sonia Ivany of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement praised its “innovative organizing models” and “democratic participation.”
The organization has been allied with the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE) for more than 20 years, says Martinez. That has enabled both unions to put pressure on employers like General Electric, which owns factories on both sides of the border, and FAT has also sent organizers to the U.S. when the UE was trying to unionize Mexican-immigrant and Latino workers. That’s “concrete experience,” he says.” It’s also allied with the Canadian branch of the United Steelworkers.
A 2012 labor-law “reform,” however, was extremely damaging, Martinez says. It eliminated the rule that workers can’t be fired without a cause, and expanded the categories for employment from permanent, specific-assignment (such as a construction job), and limited-time replacement (such as for a pregnant woman) to include training (“to abuse the young people as interns”) and more temporary work. That has enabled companies to lay off large numbers of workers and rehire them as temps.
The law also limited retroactive pay for illegally fired workers to one year. Before, Martinez explains, a worker who won a lawsuit or arbitration got full retroactive pay; now, “if the trial lasts five years, they pay only one year. That is so discouraging.”
Tovar, a salesperson for a company that sells funeral services in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, works under similarly precarious conditions. Her base salary before commissions, she said, is 2,000 pesos (about $154) a month—and the company often won’t pay it for salespeople who don’t make their quota, she said.
Mexican women, she added, also have to cope with the traditional culture of machismo—but are “working through those taboos,” trying to create a culture where “we both work and we’re going to share.”
Martinez, however, said he didn’t want to leave the impression that everything is hopeless. “I believe we’re on the road to reversing this thing,” he said, citing a proverb that “there isn’t a bad thing that can last 100 years.”