IN MEXICO, A NEW DAWN FOR INDEPENDENT UNIONS?
By David Bacon • NACLA Report on the Americas
In his speech to Mexican Congress during his December 1, 2018 inauguration, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador charged that 36 years of neoliberal economic reforms had lowered the purchasing power of Mexico’s minimum wage (now worth about $4 U.S. per day) by 60 percent. “Neoliberal economic policy has been a disaster, a calamity for the public life of the country,” he charged. “During the neoliberal period we became the country with the second highest rate of migration in the world-24 million Mexicans, living and working in the United States… We will put aside the neoliberal hypocrisy. Those born poor will not be condemned to die poor.”
At the end of April of this year the new government took one step toward undoing this neoliberal inheritance, when the Chamber of Deputies and then the Senate passed a labor law reform bill proposed by López Obrador’s party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA).
Workers and independent and progressive unions in Mexico have high hopes that the new government will undo many of the policies that have tilted the economic and political playing field sharply toward corporations. Labor law reform is just one component of such a process, but the debate around it highlights the extent to which conditions for workers and unions have deteriorated in three decades, and their impatience to reverse course.
The new labor reform deals primarily with the rights of unions and the workers that comprise them. For more than half a century, a set of established, conservative (“charro”) unions have been tied to the government and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled for most of that time. In return for political support, “charro” leaders held office sometimes for life, with no accountability to their members. Labor boards made up of representatives of conservative unions, employers, and a pro-employer government made it extremely difficult for workers to form independent organizations.
In the quarter century since the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), however, independent and progressive unions have grown despite the obstacles. The strength of the old unions, meanwhile, appears increasingly hollow as their membership declines.
Achievements and Limits of the New Labor Reform
The MORENA labor law reform drastically changes practices of collective bargaining and internal union life. Leaders must now be elected by direct, secret ballot, making them more accountable to members. Contracts must be public, and members must have the right to vote on them. Unions that don’t comply will lose their legal status. And labor tribunals-as part of the judicial system-will replace the old pro-company labor boards. The law explicitly covers domestic workers, but not agricultural workers.
The near-unanimous votes in both chambers in favor of the reform demonstrated just how badly the old unions had lost power in last July’s presidential election. Carlos Aceves del Olmo, the head of the largest “charro” union, the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (Confederation of Mexican Workers, CTM) called the law “impossible to implement.” He fumed that the new Secretary of Labor Luisa Maria Alcalde ,was just a puppet of her father Arturo Alcalde, one of Mexico’s most respected labor lawyers. She was “hiding reality” from President López Obrador, Aceves charged.
Some progressive unions, however, felt the reform didn’t go far enough- in part because it did not reverse a fundamental change in Mexican labor law made in 2012 under then-President Felipe Calderón. The 2012 reform allows companies to outsource, or subcontract, jobs, which was previously banned. It allows no-cause termination during workers’ first six months on a job, and allows for part-time and temporary work and hourly pay rather than day-long rates. Workers can be terminated without cause during their first six months on the job.
“All of the independent unions support the changes in the new MORENA law, but many say they’re not enough,” according to Hector de la Cueva, director of the Independent Center for Labor Investigation and Union Research (CILAS). The law’s critics include unions for telephone workers, electrical workers, and employees at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The changes deal with the collective rights of workers,” de la Cueva explains., “But in terms of their individual rights, workers are still vulnerable. Unions argue that if there are no changes in the labor law of 2012, union rights will be affected as well.”