|Detail of poster for artistic exchange & the FAT's 13th convention|
|Artist Beatriz Aurora|
Mexican Labor News & Analysis
January , 2016, Vol. 21, No. 1
Introduction to this issue:
A NOTE TO READERS
I apologize for the lapse in the publication of Mexican Labor News and Analysis. With this issue we resume regular monthly publication.
Dan La Botz, Editor
Contents for this issue:
Mexican Labor Year in Review – 2015
By Dan La Botz
2015 was another in a series of very bad years for Mexico. Mexican working people continued to experience in 2015 the difficulties of a stagnant economy, the violence of the drug war, repression of the labor and social movements, and the rule of corrupt political parties. Few workers had legitimate labor unions with which to resist employer and government policies, and fewer had the desire to engage in strikes. Yet some workers—teachers in southern Mexico, farm workers in Baja California, and maquiladora workers in Juarez—did courageously attempt to fight for their rights and for greater power. We begin this report with the drug wars that have so dominated Mexican life for the last decade.
The Drug War, Crime, Justice
Mexico remains a killing field. The Mexican New Year, January 1, 2016, opened with the assassination of Gisela Raquel Mota Ocampo, the 33-year old woman who had just taken office as mayor of Temixco, Morelos. She was killed by four armed men who arrived in a black van and shot her gangland style. Senators and congressional representatives of her party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), asserted that she had been murdered by organized crime. Her assassination was one of the 100 city council members and 1,000 municipal officials who have been killed in the last decade, principally by organized crime. In addition to government officials murdered, three reporters were killed in Mexico in 2015 and 35 have been killed since 1992, most by drug dealers.
The killings and mass kidnapping of the students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College that took place in Iguala, Guerrero in September 2014 continues to haunt Mexico. With the Mexican government unable to provide a credible explanation for the events that had taken place in Iguala, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts to investigate the situation. The group produced a series of reports that impugned the government’s accounts, but failed to provide any complete explanation that could satisfy the parents of the disappeared students or the Mexican public. Much of the public has concluded that Mexican government officials at various levels, and possibly the Mexican Army as well, were involved with organized crime in either carrying out or covering up the kidnappings and murders.
The New York Times in an editorial on January 4, 2016, excoriated Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for its’ handling of the case: “On Mr. Peña Nieto’s watch, the Mexican government has swiftly and systematically whitewashed ugly truths and played down scandals….”, mentioning the “white house” provided by government contractors to the president and the escape of drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera from prison. “More troubling is the government’s botched effort at investigating the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students, who appear to have been massacred in the state of Guerrero.” The report, referred to the case as “one of Mexico’s worst human rights atrocities in recent history.”
Meanwhile Mexico continued to suffer the effects of the war between the government and the drug traffickers in 2015. Mexicans continued to be killed in extraordinary numbers in many states in the country. Between 2007 and 2014 some 164,000 people have been the victims of homicide, the great majority of those killed in the drug wars. Once source reported over 8,000 homicides between January and June 2015.
The violence is so great that life expectancy has actually declined even as health services were extended. Health Affairs magazine reported in January 2015, “The increase in homicides is at the heart of life expectancy stagnation for males in Mexico between 2000 and 2010. Homicide rates increased from 9.5 homicides per 100,000 in 2005 to more than 22.0 per 100,000 people in 2010. As a result there was a reduction of about .6 years in male life expectancy in the period 2000 to 2010.” This was despite the 2004 health program, Seguro Popular de Salud, for the uninsured population, which appeared to have improved the distribution of health resources.
A Stagnant Economy That Produces Enormous Wealth and Great Poverty
Mexico’s economy remains stagnant, growing last year at a rate of 2.4 percent, according to the World Bank, below the government 3.5 percent goal. Some economists attribute the sluggishness in large part the weakness of the U.S. economy. Oil production, a mainstay of the Mexican economy, fell by 6.7 percent this year, the eleventh straight year of decline. PEMEX posted a US$10.2 billion loss in the third quarter of 2015, and is in debt for US$100 billion. The government is privatizing much of the industry and many of these companies are from the United States. Tens of thousands of workers are expected to lose jobs.Falling oil prices led to a weakening of the Mexican peso, hitting a record low of 17.96 pesos per dollar.
The Mexican economy, like all capitalist economies, manufactures inequality, producing a small group of very rich men and women and tens of millions of poor people. The richest men and women in Mexico and the corporations dominate the entire economy. Mexico’s 1%, much like that in the United States, exerts a tremendous influence over government policy through business organizations such as the Confederation of Mexican Employers (COPARMEX).
Mexico's Richest Men and Women
Mexico’s richest men and women own many of the major industries of the country where the country’s working people work for wages lower than those paid in China.
1. Carlos Slim Helú is the owner of Grupo Carso a conglomerate with stakes in many major Mexican companies. He was the richest person in the world from 2010 to 2013.His wealth is $75.9 billion dollars.
2. Germán Larrea Motta Velasco has a major stake in Gruppo Mexico a company that is the largest mining and infrastructure company in Mexico. His wealth is $14.2 billion.
3. Alberto Bailleres owns bottling, mining and retail operations. His wealth is $10.2 billion.
4. Ricardo Salinas Pilego heads Grupo Salinas, made up of companies that have interests in telecommunications, media, financial services and retail stores. He owns the large Television Network called Azteca TV. His wealth is 9.8 billion dollars.
5. Eva Gonda Rivera owns a major stake in a beverage company FEMSA that operates both in Mexico and in South America. Her wealth is $6.7 billion.
6. Maria Asunción Aramburzabala holds a stake in Grupo modelo, the company that produces the beers Corona and Negra Modelo. Her wealth is $5.6 billion.
7. Jerónimo Arango and his brothers sold their stake in retail company Cifra to Wall Mart’s Mexican subsidiary in 1997.This brought them substantial wealth and Jerónimo Arango’s net worth is $ 4.4 billion dollars.
8. Emilio Azcarraga Jean is the director of the Mexican Televisa, a broadcasting company that makes soaps called Telenovelas. His wealth is $3 billion.
9. Rufino Vigil González is CEO of Industries CH, a steel and processing company with the annual capacity of more than 5 million tons. Mr. Gonzales owns 64% stake in the company that has numerous subsidiaries and produces commercial steel and wielded steel tubes. His wealth is $2.4 billion.
10. José and Francisco Rojas are the Mexican beverage and snacks magnates. They own more than half of shares in Coca-Cola Philippines. Their wealth is $2.2 billion dollars.
Poverty in Mexico
The top 10 percent of the Mexican population receives 35 percent of the nation’s income, the bottom 10 percent receive only 1.9 percent. The Mexican economy makes some very rich. It, also, makes millions poor and who grow poorer even when the economy grows.
Coneval, a Mexican government agency, found that the overall poverty rate rose in 2014 to 46.2 percent of the population or 55.3 million people from 45.5 percent or 53.3 million in 2012. The growth in poverty took place, despite the fact that the gross domestic product rose 3.9 percent in 2013 and 2.1 percent in 2014.
Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, reports that more than 40 million Mexican children live in poverty and 4.7 million in extreme poverty.
The State of the Working Class and the Labor Unions
What is the size of the Mexican working class? Mexico’s total population in November 2014, according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), consisted of 121,168,094 persons; of those 88,694,199 were 16 years of age or older; but the economically active population numbered just 53,179,919. As of November 2015, the Mexican Institute of Social Security, which covers private sector workers, had 17,239,587 affiliates.
Mexico’s official unemployment rate is only 3.9 percent, but that is largely because the unemployed so often become street vendors or engage in other petit business. Informal employment in Mexico, that is workers who work for private businesses not covered by IMSS or who are self-employed, represents about 60 percent of all Mexican workers. An International Labor Organization study found that 59.1 percent of works labored in the informal market. Workers in this sector not only do not have membership in IMSS, the national workers’ health service, but they do not have labor unions, contract, or standard wages, benefits, or conditions.
Mexican labor unions continue to decline in size, strength, and political power, while remaining largely controlled by the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One study suggests that unions declined from representing just over 30% to just below 20% of workers between 1984 and 2000, while today unionization is about 10%. One expert finds that only 8.6% of the economically active population is unionized.
Still even that figure might be high. A recent article suggested that there are less than three million union members, and perhaps less than one million. Exactly how many union members there are is difficult to ascertain because no one has confidence in the unions’ reported membership figures. While the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) claims to have four million members, an anonymous source told the author of the article mentioned above that it actually has only about 700,000.
Figures regarding labor union contracts are equally difficult to access. The Federal Labor Board (JFCA) claims that there are almost 30,000 labor contracts, though the Secretary of Labor (STPS) has registered only 5,846 contracts and 3,716 other labor agreements.
Those unions that do exist are often creations of the government and the labor bureaucracy operating in collusion with lawyers and sometimes gangsters to create “ghost unions,” often unknown to the workers they represent, that negotiate collective bargaining agreements with minimal wages, benefits, and conditions called “protection contracts.” Independent unions say that there are 12,000 such “protection contracts.”
In 2014 there were only 68 strikes called of which 41 were resolved. While this is not a measure of all strikes and workstoppages that might have taken place—many of which take place outside of the cumbersome official process—it does indicate that the level of class struggle in Mexico is low. (We look below at some of the larger and more important workers’ movements.)
Migration to the United States has long been a safety valve for Mexico, permitting Mexicans unable to find good jobs or fearing violence to find employment and relative security across the northern body. The Obama administration deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, expelling 438,421 in the peak year of 2013. The administration carried out a policy shift in 2015, reportedly intended to integrate immigrants rather than deport them, though by December of 2015 Latino immigrant groups around the country were protesting a new wave of holiday season deportations aimed principally at Central Americans.
Mexicans make up the greatest number of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and are those most likely to be deported. According to the PEW Research Center, 33.7 million people of Mexican descent or origin live in the United States, 11.5 million of them immigrants and another 22.3 million who identify themselves as of Mexican descent. Also, of the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 55 percent are believed to be Mexican. Though as the PEW Research Center recently reported, more Mexicans are now voluntarily leaving than coming to the United States, returning to their homeland to unify their families.
The Obama administration acted aggressively in 2015 to deport undocumented immigrants to the United States, expelling some 235,413. While those deported came from 181 countries, the largest numbers came from Latin American countries and principally from Mexico which had 146,132 of its citizens removed from the United States. Many of those returned to Mexico find it difficult to reestablish themselves, and some children and adolescents may not know the country or speak the language. A study by the Mexican Secretary of the Interior (Gobernación) describes the returnees as stigmatized as “failures and delinquents” and often face problems of health, employment, and education, reports La Jornada, the Mexico City daily.
Labor Protests, Strikes, and Issues
Workers have faced enormous difficulties in Mexico in the last decade.Most of the unions, controlled by the government or sometimes by gangsters, have proven to be obstacles to workers, a few independent unions or other workers’ organizations have led important struggles to improve workers’ lives and increase their power.
Teachers Continue Protests
The National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE) of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) remained, as they have been for the last three decades, the most militant sector of the Mexican working class, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of teachers in militant demonstrations. La CNTE and allied dissident teacher organizations in other states have mobilized to oppose the Education Reform Law pushed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and passed by the Mexican Congress. The Education Reform Law strengthens government control over education by requiring testing of teachers, among other measures. Teachers have also been supporting the movement demanding justice in the case of the Iguala disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa Teachers College students.
In the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán where the movement is strongest, teachers engaged in enormous marches, occupied public buildings, and stuck the schools They closed testing centers and burned tests. Teacher activists have attempted to keep teachers who took the tests from entering the schools. At the time of national elections in June, teachers attempted to force voters to honor the call by the Ayotinapa movement and the teachers union dissidents for a boycott, closing polling places and destroying ballot boxes and ballots.
The Mexican and state governments mobilized troops and police to suppress the teachers demonstrations, arresting a number of teacher activists in different cities and states. The dissident teachers accuse the government of criminalizing their protests. Undeterred, la CNTE and its allies entered the new year with calls for more protest marches over education reform.
Farm Worker Uprising in Baja California
In early 2015 farm workers in Baja California Norte surprised their employers and the nation. Thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley of Baja California, just 185 miles south of the U.S. border, struck some 230 farms, including the twelve largest that dominate production in the region, on March 17 interrupting the picking, packing, and shipping of zucchini, tomatoes, berries and other products to stores and restaurants in the United States.
The strike was organized by the Alliance of National, State, and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice (AONEMJS or Alliance) made up of indigenous groups from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and other areas whose members work in the San Quintín Valley. The Alliance combined a call for a general strike in the valley’s fields with the blocking of the Trans-Peninsular Highway that leads north to San Diego, California. Creating roadblocks and burning tires along a stretch of some 120 kilometers of the highway, they succeeded for 26 hours in stopping the delivery of the ripe produce to markets in the United States, with immediate repercussions for grocery stores and restaurants. Costco, for example, reported that its shipments were down. Strikers also seized government buildings and a police station.
Some employers made promises of improvements in wages, but few workers’ saw significant improvements. While both state and federal authorities called for investigations and various agencies sent officials to look into conditions in the fields, in the end the federal and state government took no action that would have improved the workers’ situation significantly.
The Alliance and a number of workers continued to engage in protests and to seek support from the public, but the movement gradually dwindled. Some Alliance activists continue to organize clandestinely in the fields.
Juarez Maquiladora Workers Strike
In November 2015 in Ciudad Juárez across the border from El Paso, Texas, maquiladora workers in several factories began a series of protests that continued into the new year. Juárez has 330 maquiladoras employing some 225,000 workers, about 13 percent of the national maquiladora industry workforce. Just 17 of the largest factories owned by U.S., Japanese, and European capital employ 69,000 workers.
Workers at Foxconn, Lexmark, ADC/Commscope, and Eaton demanded better pay, improved working conditions, and union representation. The workers handed out leaflets, marched in the streets, picketed in front of industrial parks, participated in hunger strikes. Workers base pay was typically about $50 per week plus another $40 in bonuses in a high cost of living border city.
The protests in December focused on the Lexmark, a multinational company that produces printer cartridges, paying workers 70.10 pesos of US$4.03 per day. Workers are demanding an increase to 120 pesos or US$7.00 per day. On December 8, some 700 employees stopped work to that demand, as well as insisting on the annual holiday bonus, required under Mexican law, which the company had withheld.
The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, issued a statement in solidarity:
“The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with the workers at Commscope, Eaton, Foxconn, Lexmark and all of the maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez. To improve conditions, the labor movement calls for:
• Companies to end their repressive practices, reinstate the workers who have been fired and negotiate contracts that establish living wages and decent working conditions.
• The Labor Board to order the reinstatement of workers who have been fired and grant legal registration to the unions that have requested it.
• Mexico’s federal government to intervene to ensure that events in Ciudad Juárez do not make a mockery of its proposed labor reforms before they are even enacted.
• The U.S. government, as well as state and local ones, to any review any government purchases from these suppliers that may be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to subsidize violations of labor rights.
“More holistically, when Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juárez next month to conduct a cross-border mass, we hope his call for the faithful “to fight for social benefits, a dignified retirement, holidays, rest and freedom for trade unions” will be heard loud and clear.”
On December 28, the Local Labor Board (JLCA) denied the Lexmark workers petition to create and register a labor union (registro).
As the new year began, workers at Lexmark and some other workplaces continued their plantónes (sit-ins) while working to organize and win recognition for independent labor unions.
Cross-Border Solidarity in Fight Against Chedraui
Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Los Angeles and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent labor federation in Mexico, as well as other labor union and community organizations have been fighting the multinational Chedraui corporation both in Mexico and in Los Angeles. Chedraui is the third largest retailer in Mexico after Walmar and Soriana and operates super markets and big box stores in Mexico and in 50 stores in Southern California and Arizona.
In Los Angeles, a dozen workers and their allies were arrested in mid-December 2015 when they blocked the Five-Points intersection.
The UFCW has also succeeded in persuading U.S. law makers, led by Representative Alan Lowenthal, Democrat of California, to write a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Pérez calling for an investigation of the company practices.
The two unions, UFCW and FAT, have also pursued a unique legal strategy, filing charges simultaneously against the company's policies under both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Lance Compa, an international labor law expert at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations said that, “The simultaneous NAFTA and OECD complaints reflect an innovative union strategy for putting local and national labor disputes under an international spotlight. No one has ever tried this before. Unions have filed complaints under the NAFTA labor agreement, and under the OECD guidelines, but in unrelated cases.”
In the NAFTA portion of the case, the FAT accuses Chedraui of maintaining phony unions with protection contracts to keep out legitimate labor organizations. At the same time, when Chedraui took over the Mexican Gigante chain in 2008, it refused to bargain in good faith with the UFCW.
Electrical Workers Win Some Jobs for Members
The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), after six years of struggle in the streets, won a victory in November 2015 when as a result of negotiations with the Mexican government a new private, Portuguese company called Fenix, a subsidiary of Mota Engil, agreed to hire some of the unions 16,000 active, jobless members.
The problems began several years ago. In October 2009, President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PSN) sent the military and the police to seize the Light and Power Company of Mexico City plants, then liquidated the company, resulting in the termination of 40,000 unionized electrical workers. Calderón’s motivation was both to break the power of the independent union, to destroy the anti-privatization coalition that it led, and simultaneously to destroy a bastion of more independent voters, many of whom cast their ballots for the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Most of those who were terminated accepted their severance pay and went in search of other work, but 15,000 continued to fight for their jobs under the leadership of the SME which organized every imaginable sort of protest while also pursuing both legislative and legal options. The Fenix/Mota-Engil company has so far agreed to hire 541 workers, or 4 percent of the workers fighting for their jobs. While the numbers so far are small, the union sees this as an important victory in beginning to win jobs for all of those still seeking employment.
Domestic Workers Organize Labor Union
Domestic workers, those who clean, cook, and watch children homes of wealthier people, formed the Domestic Workers Union (SINACTTRAHO) in August of 2015, the first in the country’s history. The union is affiliated with the independent National Union of Workers (UNT). (A Spanish language news clip about the documentary Día de descanso [Day of Rest] and the campaign here.)
Mexico has more than two million domestic workers who in addition to long hours (often on-call 24-hours a day), low pay, and few if any benefits, often suffer sexual harassment and sometimes physical and psychological abuse. They hope that their union will help them win both better wages and conditions and dignity on the job.
Some 1.5 million of Mexico’s 26 million homes have domestic workers, according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography.
Cananea Miners Win Long Overdue Profit-Sharing Settlement
Miners at the Cananea mine, members of Local 65 of the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) won a long overdue demand when the Mexican Labor Board (JFCA) ordered Grupo Mexico, one of the country’s largest mining companies, to pay workers 318 million pesos (or about US$18 million) owed in profit sharing. The union had sought the profit-sharing payments eight years ago.
In the midst of a strike in 2010, the company, with assistance from state and federal authorities, succeeded in breaking and eliminating the union at Cananea, though the union and the workers have continued various protests and actions.
As mentioned above, the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX)—some would argue as a result of failed government policies—has both been losing money and falling into debt, as a result of which the company plans to layoff what are expected to be large numbers of its 153,000 employees.
Last summer the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM), led by Carlos Romero Deschamps, a PRI loyalist who is not only secretary general of the union but also a Senator, began negotiations of a new contract with PEMEX. Dissident groups within the union claimed that Romero was giving away substantial elements of their contract.
The company and the union refused to file copies of the draft contract with the authorities or to make it available to the public or to the workers. The Mexican National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information, and Protection of Personal Data (INAI) has demanded that PEMEX present a copy of the draft contract to that agency.
Independent of the contract negotiations, on January 13 it was announced that PEMEX will layoff 13,000 more workers, bringing the total for 2015 and 2016 to 26,000 workers who are now unemployed. The National Technical and Professional Petroleum Workers Union (UNTPP) is bringing suit against both Romero’s STPRM and against the Mexican Labor Board (JFCA), claiming that the negotiations carried on by the STPRM and PEMEX violated their rights by increasing the retirement age from 55 to 60 and the years of service from 25 to 30. Workers also argue that the union illegally used their pension fund to pay union debts.
The Political Situation
President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rode out a series of scandals in 2015 and remained the dominant political party in the country. Despite the criticism of the government’s handling of the Iguala killings and disappearances, despite the revelations that the president and his wife had use of the “white house” from a government contractor, and despite the escape from prison for the second time of the drug dealer Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (later recaptured), the president and his party held a firm grip on power. The left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution has lost ground everywhere because of the apparent role of the PRD mayor of Iguala in the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students.
In the June 2015 national elections, the PRI and its subordinate ally the Green Ecological Party won 24 million or 67 percent of the 39.7 million votes cast. The PRI-Green coalition won exactly hall the seats in congress, meaning they needed only one vote to secure a simple majority. With the New Alliance Party, the teachers union party allied with the PRI, they have a majority. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) won 8.3 million or 20.9 percent, while the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) won only 1.9 million or 10.8 percent of the vote. The new Movement of National Regeneration Party (MORENA)—which split from the PRD—running in its first national election received 3.3 million votes. The leftist Workers Party (PT) lost its registration because its percentage of the vote had fallen to 2.99 percent; it is no longer an electoral party.
The political situation is similar in state government. The PRD has three governors and the mayor of the Federal District, PAN has six governors, and the rest of the 32 federal entities, 22 states, are controlled by the PRI. In the Federal District, the PRD continues to control six districts, but there too it was punished, with the PAN winning two and the PRI and its allies three and MORENA five.
The attempt of the National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE), the dissident group in the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), together with some left organizations to organize a boycott had a negligible impact on the election.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, twice a PRD presidential candidate and the founder and leader of the left-of-center MORENA, declared in February 2015 that he will be MORENA’s presidential candidate in 2018. He has called upon his new party to build the organizational structure that will make it capable of winning the presidential election and the majority in Congress. While it is possible that he actually won the 2006 presidential election, it seems doubtful at present that he would be able to united the three left parties, the PRD, MORENA, and the Citizens Movement Party (also known as Convergence) to defeat the PRI.
So, as 2015 ended, a government serving business and la clase política remained in power, the left electoral parties remained divided, the unions remained on the defensive, but some courageous workers continued to fight for their rights, for a better life, and for a more democratic society.
David Fairris and Edward Levine, “Declining union density in Mexico, 1984–2000,” Monthly Labor Review, available at: www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2004/09/art2full.pdf
Roberto Zepeda , “Disminución de la tasa de trabajadores sindicalizados en México durante el periodo neoliberal,” Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Políticas y
Sociales, Vol. LI, núm. 207, septiembre- diciembre, 2009, pp. 57-81.
Enrique Quintana, “Sindicatos, especie en extinción,” El Financiero, April 29, 2015, available at: http://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/opinion/sindicatos-especie-en-extincion.html
Juarez Workers’ Right Crosses the Border in 2016
[January 17, 2016] Beginning in the summer and fall of 2015, a wave of worker protests over low wages, sexual harassment and other adverse working conditions broke out in four foreign-owned factories, or maquiladoras, in the northern Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. In a city where genuine union representation in the export plants is practically unknown, the workers' demands for independent unions stood out.
As the days turned into weeks and months, speculation buzzed in the Juarez press whether the companies, which labor activists accuse of firing workers involved in protests and union organizing, would simply wait out the movement until hunger and cold set in.
In early 2016 not only have the protests defied the winter weather and persisted against at least three of the companies-Lexmark, Eaton and Foxconn's Scientific Atlanta division - but actions in support of former and current workers are growing both nationally and internationally.
Last week, in solidarity with Lexmark workers, demonstrations were staged in Mexico City, El Paso and Lexington, Kentucky, according to the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, a grouping of human rights and pro-labor organizations and individuals in Juarez, El Paso and Chihuahua.
“There is a lot of sexual harassment in the industry. The most common one is that the assembly line chiefs and supervisors demand sexual favors for such basic things as overtime hours,” a Lexmark worker told a reporter in Mexico City. “The base salary never makes ends meet, and (supervisors) condition overtime to what the women workers agree to give them.”
In Juarez, meanwhile, scores of former Lexmark workers burned their old work uniforms outside the U.S.-based company's factory. “(Lexmark) has not approached us to offer a solution. We are going to continue until there is a positive solution,” Miguel Angel Sedano, Lexmark workers' spokesman was quoted in El Diario de Juarez. “We are starting a boycott, and asking the public in general to not buy (Lexmark) products since this company is violating a lot of the human and labor rights of the workers.”
Other complaints of the Lexmark workers include unauthorized deductions to their paychecks and exposures to dangerous chemicals in the workplace. Headquarted in Lexington, Lexmark manufactures computer printer cartridges and associated products.
There was no immediate response posted on Lexmark's website to January's protests in Lexington and other cities, but the company's website proclaims an adherence to “social responsibility, “with goals of sustainability and “balancing economic, environmental and social concerns” in mind.
In December, hundreds of Lexmark workers in Juarez conducted work stoppages to press forward their demands. The Lexington Herald Leader attributed a company statement made after the December protests to Leea Haarz, general manager of the Juarez plant, which pledged to listen to employees and to maintain a committment to “open and honest conversations with our employees to ensure Lexmark remains a rewarding place to work.”
According to Lexmark's website, the company brought in US$3.7 billion in revenue in 2014, with about 57 percent of that amount derived from international sales.
In an El Paso press conference transmitted on the Internet prior to Christmas, Susana Prieto, lawyer for Lexmark and other maquiladora workers, charged that the company had fired some workers after they demanded pay hikes of less than fifty cents a day to augment weekly salaries which hover around US$40.00. She accused the company of calling in the Juarez police to intimidate workers, who then became afraid that the local cops were going to detain them.
During the months of the protest movement labor costs for U.S. companies operating factories in Juarez and Mexico have become even cheaper, lowered by the tumbling value of the peso. On Saturday, January 16, some money exchange outlets in Mexico were once again posting an exchange rate of 19 pesos to the dollar.
On the eve of the New Year, when Mexico was immersed in holiday festivities, the Juarez office of the Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board, rejected petitions from Lexmark and Foxconn workers seeking official certification of independent unions. In its decision, the federal labor board cited confusion over the proposed name of a new union and an inadequate financial management plan. The workers vowed they would appeal the denials of their petitions.
On the legal front, labor lawyer Juan Pablo Delgado filed a complaint January 14 with the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission against the director of the Labor Secretariat's Chihuahua office on behalf of maquiladora workers who accused the official of promoting a black list of activist workers.
On Saturday, January 16, the maquiladora workers' movement linked up with another important Mexican social struggle when three parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students forcibly disappeared in the state of Guerrero in September 2014 visited the Lexmark workers' protest camp outside the company's plant.
Together with Juarez mothers of young women disappeared in the border city, the Ayotzinapa parents held an outdoor forum on repression and disappearance at the gates of Lexmark.
In another significant development, the largest labor organization in the United States is expressing support for the Juarez workers' struggle.
Writing on an AFL-CIO blog January 11, Kathy Feingold called for the reinstatement of fired workers, union recognition, the intervention of the Mexican federal government and a supplier review by U.S. federal, state and local government agencies to determine if any of their products purchased come from maquiladoras in Juarez “that may be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to subsidize violations of labor rights.”
Feingold also singled out a contradiction between workplace conditions in Juarez and new labor reforms advocated by the Pena Nieto administration so Mexico can gain access to the proposed Trans-Pacific Parternship, including the ratification of International Labor Organization Convention 98 (an agreement upholding the right to organize and collective bargaining) changes to Mexican labor boards and new labor inspection protocols.
“If put into practice, these changes could begin to allow workers in Ciudad Juarez and other manufacturing centers to actually exercise their rights,” Feingold wrote. “Unfortunately, these announcements have had no impact on the labor authorities and the company managers in Ciudad Juarez.”
As labor activism simmered in Juarez and support for the movement grew abroad, a new case of suspected mass food poisoning, which has been a periodic problem in the border maquiladoras, was reported on Thursday, January 14, at a Lear Corporation factory. More than 160 Lear workers became ill with vomiting and other symptoms after eating at a company cafeteria. Eloy Coral Banda, head of the Chihuahua state health and sanitary risks commission, said food samples were collected at the plant to help determine the cause of the workers' illnesses.
As the workers' movement digs in and reaches out, all eyes in Juarez are on next month's visit to the city by Pope Francisco, who is widely anticipated to speak out about poverty and labor conditions. Meanwhile, residents of the Paso del Norte borderland of Juarez, El Paso and southern New Mexico will have an upcoming opportunity to hear first-hand about the maquiladora workers' movement.
On Saturday, January 23, El Paso's Social Justice Education Project will sponsor a 10 a.m. forum featuring Lexmark workers' attorney Susana Prieto and Juarez maquiladora worker activist Miriam Delgado. Dr. Kathy Staudt and Dr. Oscar Martinez, Social Justice Education Project co-founders and veteran border academics and authors are also scheduled to provide commentaries. The Saturday morning event is planned for the auditorium of the El Paso Public Library, which is located at 501 N. Oregon in the downtown of Juarez's sister city.
Additional sources: Arrobajuarez.com, January 16, 2016. El Mexicano, January 16, 2016. Article by Juan Ramon Rosas. El Diario de Juarez, January 14, 2016. Article by Francisco Chavez. Nortedigital.mx, January 14, 2016. Article by Carlos Omar Barranco. El Diario de El Paso, January 14, 2016. Article by Juliana Henao. Lapolaka.com, January 14 and 16, 2016. Elpasoheraldpost.com, January 11, 2016. Article by Chris Babcock. La Jornada, December 31, 2015; January 13, 15, 16 and 17, 2016. Articles by Ruben Villalpando, Patricia Munoz Rios, Gloria Munoz Ramirez and Elio Henriquez. Lexington Herald Leader (kentucky.com), December 16, 2015.
This article originally appeared in: Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news,Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico. For a free electronic subscription email: email@example.com
By Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, Secretary General, Miners and Metal Workers Union
The Disappearance of Conciliation and Arbitration Councils, on the Federal and the State Level, Which Should Be Replaced by Independent Labor Judges
In the context of the negotiations over the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TTP), the new free trade agreement with the European Union, the pressures from the United States and the demands on global unions and Mexican democratic unions, the government has taken a series of actions to clean up Mexico's image when it comes to labor rights and has proposed various initiatives in this area of economic and social policy.
We, the true miners of Mexico, have for some years now been declaring and insisting, along with specialists in labor law such as Néstor de Buen and Carlos de Buen, Arturo Alcalde Justiniani and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (ANAD), among other national and international organizations, such as the IndustriALL Global Union, the AFL-CIO and the Mexican UNT, that it is necessary to construct a state of inclusive, democratic law through constitutional reforms, which in labor terms means the disappearance of the Conciliation and Arbitration Councils, on the federal and the state level, which should be replaced by independent labor judges from the Executive Power.
We have also called for transparency in collective bargaining agreements and union registers at all levels, establishing an independent body that would oversee registration and the recognition of unions and collective bargaining agreements, forcing business owners to supply workers with a copy of their contract and demanding that the basic documents of union associations be made public, such as their statutes and membership lists.
Just as importantly, we have asked that it be made impossible for collective bargaining agreements to be settled without verifying that they have been ratified by the majority of workers. Lastly, we have demanded that the voting process be made faster when employees ask to change union, establishing deadlines for the procedural steps, stipulating that a business owner's objections should be resolved before the recount is finalized.
Some of the responses from the government have been positive, for example in the press conference on November 23, 2015 when the Minister for Labor, Alfonso Navarrete Prida, announced a new Labor Inspection Protocol “to verify that workers understand their contracts, the negotiations that have taken place and, if it should be the case, flag up any violations.” Meanwhile, on 30 November of the same year, President Enrique Peña Nieto sent the Senate of the Republic a request to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 98, which prohibits those “means that tend to promote the construction of worker organizations dominated by an employer or an organization of employers,” that is to say employer, as opposed to labor, protection contracts.
On 5 December, during the XIX Inter-American Conference of Labor Ministers which took place in Cancún, Quintana Roo, the President announced a new labor reform in the context of his initiative of “everyday justice” as a specific proposal from the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), which “will propose a revision of the system of labor justice, including the transformation and modernization of the Conciliation and Arbitration Councils on the federal and state level”, since they are currently underperforming and have serious operational problems, allow pressure and complicity with companies, as well as manipulating the voting process as they please or according to interests that are totally alien to the working class.
On this topic, the government has organized the creation of round tables to look at labor justice and listen to comments from the public, but this unfortunately does not include representatives from the working class, which means that it will be a severely limited consultation, with the ensuing labor reform project necessarily being born with this deficit.
Reality, therefore, contrasts with the incorrect application of labor justice in what seems to be a strategy of double language, double morals and putting on a show of responding to international pressures and commitments. On 15 October, the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Council (JFCA) carried out a vote at the Japanese assembly plant Honda in El Salto, Jalisco, after delaying the workers's demand for 4 years, allowing the company and the CTM to intimidate, threaten and sack those who had shown themselves to be independent. On10 December, the same JFCA postponed once more the union vote at the company Arneses y Accesorios, subsidiary of the Finnish company PKC in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, where workers have been demanding for over 3 years that they be allowed a free, secret ballot to get rid of the CTM and its leader in Coahuila, Tereso Medina.
It is worth mentioning that although since April 2015 the same council had ordered the reinstatement of four PKC union leaders who were fired unjustifiably and for political reasons since 2012, the company put pressure on the JFCA itself to stop the order being carried out.
Also this month, workers at the company Lexmark and other assembly plants in Cuidad Juárez, Chihuahua, have risen up against the brutal conditions that prevail in the plants. The response from the Municipal President has been to threaten the lawyers who accompany them with criminal lawsuits “for extortion”, in other words, for defending the constitutional rights of the working class.
There are many cases of abuses, threats and even criminal acts by some Mexican and foreign business people, but labor and political authorities turn a blind eye and pretend not to know about these serious and outrageous injustices.
They pretend that corruption, cynicism, ignorance, indifference and insensitivity toward social needs overcome a supposedly obsolete model, and all simply to put an end to democratic unions and attempts to exercise constitutional rights and move forward in the creation of healthy and independent organizations.
For a long time now, the country's labor authorities, instead of representing the rights of workers, as was the case in the best times of the Ministry of Labor, have become the protectors and staunch defenders of corporate interests. To the misfortune of Mexico and its people's future, values have been inverted.
The announced reforms are welcome, so let us hope they are not merely another simulation. But if the government really wanted to demonstrate its commitment to the democratic rights of workers, it could start by immediately resolving those conflicts and the many many more which exist in Mexico today. That would be a real step towards democracy and transparency in a true and correct application of everyday, permanent labor justice.
This article was originally published in La Jornada on Thursday, January 14, 2016
The Difficult Path to Winning and Surviving as an Independent and Democratic Union in Mexico
By Benedicto Martínez, Authentic Labor Front (FAT)
A little more than seven years ago, a group of workers, tired of the abuses of a corrupt union decided to organize themselves and put up their own slate for leadership of the union. They were tired of union leaders who didn’t represent the workers as a whole, but only took care of a little group of their loyalists who received benefits for acting as his spies. The Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which had always controlled the union, paid little attention to the slate; there had always been other slates created by the leaders to make the elections appear to be democratic.
The slate opposed to the CTM, headed by Alfredo Rodríguez as general secretary, surprisingly won the elections. The CTM tried to maintain control of the union executive committee, but the opposition succeeded in obtaining recognition from the Secretary of Labor in the process known as “toma de nota,” a document that bestows legal personality on the committee as the legal representatives of the union.
The Union of Workers of the Tornel Rubber Company is a national union representing all plants employing 1,400 workers who make tires for cars and vans. After obtaining the toma de nota, one of the first actions of the new committee was to declare its independence from the CTM. They hired Arturo Alcalde Justiniani [an attorney well known for representing independent unions], who assigned the matter to Oscar Rubio and sought the organizational support of the Authentic Labor Front [Frente Auténtico del Trabajo]. With this declaration of independence, the union began a struggle that still actively continues.
After the declaration of independence, the CTM loyalists who had for years served as informers for this corrupt organization showed their disagreement with the new executive committee and openly asserted their opposition to the decision which had been reached by the majority of the workers. Faced with this situation, a very intense debate developed between those who wanted to get rid of all of the CTM sympathizers and those of us [from the FAT] who proposed that the challenge was to respect and to convince the opposition of the proposal to have a union controlled by the members, respecting those who thought differently whether out of sincere belief, for convenience, or out of ignorance. The latter proposal ultimately won the day.
The CTM, immediately after learning that theunion had declared its independence, demanded the right to negotiate the contract (titularidad) and the administration of the Law Contract (Contrato Ley), a type of industry-wide contract that exists in Mexico and which is negotiated by a coalition of unions and by a coalition of companies in this case in the rubber industry. Within in a few months the federal authorities fixed the date for a union representation election (recuento) and arranged for an election to beheld in the Federal Labor Board (JFCA). The result was 580 votes against and 787 votes in favor of the democratic union at Tornel.
A year later a second representation election was held with an even stronger outcome: some 320 against the new union and 890 in favor, with the rest of the workers declining to vote out of fear of having to commit themselves to one or another of the two unions.
Throughout the following years there hasn’t been one in which the CTM hasn’t attempted to take the contract away from the democratic union.
There have been three representation elections and five other petitions were dismissed because the labor authorities said they hadn’t fulfilled the necessary terms. At the end of 2014, the Secretary of Labor granted a certification (a prerequisite for legal representation, necessary to petition for an election) (registro) to a CTM organization of just 40 workers. It is clear that they did this to fulfill the legal requirement of registration in order to challenge the existing union.
A few days later, two election petitions were filed with the labor authorities, one by the new union and one by a union of the chemical industry. For several months their petitions were held up, with two dates announced by the authorities. Nevertheless the representation election (recuento) was suspended, though the arguments made—“that there were no police in the city to guarantee the security of the representation election”—were not credible. The democratic union sought an injunction (amparo) asking for a solution to the conflict and the court ordered the Labor Board to hold the representation election, which was held on September 12, with the landslide vote of 1,011 for the democratic union and 3 for the CTM.
A week after the representation election, people appeared at the gates of the factories handing out leaflets with written threats against the leaders of the democratic union and in particular against Alfredo Rodríguez, who served as general secretary, as well as some of the rank-and-file workers most active in this struggle.
We can conclude that throughout more than seven years a democratic union has resisted the permanent harassment of the CTM, leading to advances in consolidating the union. The CTM continues its harassment in the hopes that at some moment it will win through some error in management or by convincing the company to take actions to attack the union. We believe that the last petitions were made with precisely this goal, and the authorities aided the CTM. We cannot say for certain that the company has as well, but to continue a permanent conflict such as this requires someone to put up the money.
Since November 1, 2015, a new leadership has assumed responsibility with a new general secretary, as Alfredo Rodríguez chose not to continue in that post. Another compañero, Gabriel Castañeda has been elected, together with an executive board half of whose members are new. They were elected by a secret ballot and will be responsible for continuing to write the history of this struggle and its success.