How the new Mexican president is restoring workers’ rights – and taking on corrupt unions

President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is making some much-needed changes to Mexico's broken employment laws, Unite's Tony Burke reports.

While Labour set out their vision for employment rights here, the new left wing Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is moving quickly to implement one of his main election pledges on union rights and wages. 

He is preparing legislation to change the Mexican collective-bargaining system and to ban ‘protection contracts’. Protection contracts have been used by employers – including multinational companies who recognise trade unions in their home countries – to get around recognising independent unions.

Those companies include BMW, Goodyear, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, PKC and many more, often pitched against metal/mineworkers’ union Los Mineros, who fight for decent wages and working conditions.

Unions such the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and other ‘yellow unions’ sign protection contracts against the wishes of the workforce, collude with employers, deliberately keep wages low and have been known to use violence against workers wanting to be represented by independent unions.

An example is Los Mineros – now a partner union with Unite and the United Steelworkers in ‘Workers Uniting’ – whose members were on strike at a Canadian owned gold mine, Torex Gold Resources. They were protesting at the decision of the company to sign a deal with CTM. Three activists were murdered, with the Industriall union federation alleging CTM thugs are behind the killings.

Protection contracts, which have been backed by the previous right-wing governments, have lead to a collective-bargaining system which has kept wages depressed for decades. Working conditions have not improved for millions of the country’s workers.

Current labour laws do not require unions to prove they represent workers before signing a collective-bargaining contract. The signatures of the employer and a union leader are enough if an agreement is duly registered before labour authorities.

“We aim to effectively ban protection agreements, by requiring unions to show they have the backing of at least 30% of workers before signing a contract,” said Luisa María Alcalde, who is expected to become the Mexican labour minister when López Obrador takes office December 1st. “Those contracts are rotten from the outset,” she said. “It is time for Mexican workers to decide by themselves who should represent them.”

Ms Alcalde is a 31-year-old daughter of a prominent left wing labour lawyer, who has a masters of law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a Mexican law degree. She has also insisted that union leaders will also have to be elected through secret ballots, and says she will create an independent body to make sure workers are effectively represented.

Ms Alcalde has also said existing protection agreements would also have to be legitimised by way of secret ballots among workers. Nine out of ten protection contracts signed in Mexico are agreed without workers consent, and without their knowledge.

As a result Mexican manufacturing workers earn $2.30 per hour on average, while US manufacturing workers make about $21.50 an hour.

The revamped North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the USA and Mexico is said to include measures to increase Mexico’s low wages. One provision would allow the US to impose trade sanctions if Mexico fails to enact labour reforms that ensure basic worker rights such as effective access to collective bargaining.

But some companies who support protection contracts because they provide low pay, high profits – and the yellow unions stopping workers taking industrial action – are already bleating that the new laws would increase labour disputes and discourage investment.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s actions hopefully will bring to an end the shameful collusion between right wing politicians, companies and crooked unions.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary of Unite and is a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward.

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