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Group of protesters with signs: Jobs with Justice & Stop Corporate Greed

NAFTA Side Agreement
sidelined labor rights

The labor side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to offer protection to workers. Instead, it guaranteed only that labor rights would be swept to the side, if not trampled under foot.

The experience over more than a decade has confirmed that the agreement is little more than window dressing, according to Mark Rowlinson, counsel to the Canadian National Office of the United Steelworkers. "The process has led to few, if any, concrete identifiable results," he says.

Complaints filed by UE and the Teamsters in 1994 became the first cases before the National Administrative Office (NAO).(That's the section of the U.S. Department of Labor that was created to handle cases filed under the NAFTA labor side agreement; the responsibility has since been transferred to the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA).

The cases involved violations of workers' rights by General Electric and Honeywell that occurred when Mexican workers tried to organize unions at plants in Juárez and Chihuahua. Although the NAO found some merit to the complaints, it failed to take any action.

A third complaint filed that year, involving workers who challenged a government controlled union at a Sony plant in Nuevo Laredo, made a little more headway. The U.S. and Mexican secretaries of labor consulted and conducted public conferences on the legal process for registering unions in Mexico.
The results of more recent complaints filed by UE and others are also disturbing.

More Outrages

young "thug" brought in to bust the union election mugs for the camera under a headline: Workers' Rights? Not Here!.
One of the young thugs brought in to bust a union election at the Echlin plant in Mexico

Having organized a Friction brake plant in Santa Ana, Calif., UE worked with Mexico's Authentic Labor Front (FAT) to establish the Echlin Workers Alliance, a multi-union coalition, in 1997. (The Friction chain was owned by Echlin, which has since been bought by the Dana Corp.) The FAT soon began organizing the Echlin-owned ITAPSA plant in Mexico City, where workers were fed up with the failure of a corrupt, government-dominated union to address nightmarish working conditions.

The ITAPSA workers were continually frustrated in their attempts to follow legal procedures in taking their demand for a new union to an election. Finally, a date was set. On the night before the election, the company allowed two busloads of goons - armed with guns, knives, pipes and clubs - to enter the plant. The night shift was not allowed to leave. One of the FAT election observers was beaten in front of Mexican labor board officials. The election - a voice vote - was conducted in front of the thugs, management and officials of the corrupt union.

The FAT and other members of the Alliance filed complaints with the NAO. In the same period, complaints were filed when workers at the Han Young plant in Tijuana were frustrated in their attempts to freely organize a union. Like the Sony case, these cases advanced to the level of ministerial consultation where an agreement was reached. The Mexican government agreed to “promote secret ballot elections," two seminars on the right to organize were to take place, as well as a meeting on health and safety.

Disturbing, bizarre

UE members with signs: Stop Echlin's Abuse of Workers' rights
UE members took a stand for workers' rights before the NAFTA-NAO hearing on labor rights abuses in Mexico

The first seminar, on the theme of freedom of association, took place June 23, 2000 in Tijuana. No time was allotted for worker participation.

Maquiladora workers, including Han Young employees, attended anyway. They held up signs and banners denouncing violations of workers' rights at Han Young and many other Mexican workplaces.

They were viciously attacked by thugs from one of the gangster unions whose attacks were what prompted the complaint that led to the seminar in the first place. The assault continued until all of the people who had been criticizing the lack of freedom of association were kicked and beaten and forced from the seminar. All of this took place in the presence of authorities from both the U.S. and Mexican NAOs, including Acting Director Lewis Karesh.


The seminar then continued, in the forced absence of the very workers who were to benefit from it, as if nothing had occurred that might have compromised the seminar's objective.

"It is hard to adequately express the shock and anger we feel at what transpired at this seminar," said UE Genl. Pres. John Hovis in a letter to then-Labor Sec. Alexis Herman. "It is the height of irony, shame and tragedy that workers were permitted to be physically beaten at a seminar which purported to educate them about their rights as workers. The fact that nothing was done to protect these workers highlights both the inadequacy of NAFTA and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation and indicates a lack of political will to protect workers' rights."

No secret ballot

Young people with signs like: Trabajos con Justicia
UE & Jobs with Justice staff protesting trade policy at World Social Forum in Brazil

The workers of Duro de Rio Bravo, who manufacture paper gift bags for Hallmark and other U.S. companies, put their lives on the fine to organize an independent union. They didn't want to see their organizing drive end with intimidation and a farce of an election, as in the ITAPSA case.

So in filing a petition for an election, the workers' lawyers attached a copy of the ministerial agreement in the ITAPSA case in requesting a secret-ballot election, a neutral location and protection from violence. Mexican authorities refused on the grounds that they were not required to comply with the agreement - and that if the election were by secret ballot, there would be no way of knowing how the workers had voted!

And so there was no secret-ballot election, and the company and corrupt incumbent union knew exactly how workers voted. Not surprisingly, the official union won.

According to UE International Labor Affairs Dir. Robin Alexander, these and other examples are a "conclusive demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the labor side agreement of NAFTA in protecting workers' rights. One piece of the problem is that the process is far too political," she said. "Even if the NAO's come to the conclusion that workers' rights have been violated, by the time the cases reach the level of the Secretary of Labor other interests — economic and political — prevail over labor rights."

"Nevertheless," she added, "there are times when we believe that it has been useful to use this mechanism to focus public attention on egregious political problems, such as Mexico's attempt to 'reform' its labor law in ways that would undercut the right of freedom of association. The cases filed more recently in Mexico and Canada by numerous labor organizations to challenge North Carolina's prohibition on collective bargaining are further examples."

However, the agreement itself is severely flawed. Among the most serious problems, cases may only be brought against governments, not against employers; there are no penalties whatsoever where workers' freedom of association is violated and no remedies for workers who have been fired illegally; and there are serious procedural problems; cases drag on for years, petitioners have no rights to obtain documents, to question witnesses, etc.

Beware of governmental "understandings" that sideline labor rights.


Bruce Reese

"I was shocked by the way that our economy affects the Mexicans' way of life. A lot of it is because of NAFTA.

"Their FAT is very similar to the UE because of the ideals of both unions. We can learn from each other because we face some of the same issues on both sides of the border."

Bruce Reese
Business Agent of UE Local 332, & UE national Trustee

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