Growing Independent Union Movement in Mexico Challenges Old Guard
The relatively new growth of the independent union movement in Mexico emerged in response to the country’s long history of employer-dominated unions, known as “protection unions.” The independent union movement in Mexico has a rich history, marked by the struggle for workers’ rights and the desire to establish autonomous labor organizations outside the influence of the government and established labor unions. Three prominent unions to emerge from this movement are the Frente Auténtico de Trabajadores (Authentic Workers’ Front); Los Mineros (Mine Workers Union); and the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electricians’ Union).
The Frente Auténtico de Trabajadores (FAT) was founded in 1997 as a coalition of independent labor organizations seeking to challenge the dominant Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), which historically had close ties to the ruling political party in Mexico. The FAT aimed to create a democratic, autonomous labor movement that would prioritize workers’ interests and fight against corruption and authoritarianism within the labor sector. It included unions from various sectors, such as education, healthcare, transportation, and government workers. The FAT has been involved in numerous strikes and protests, advocating for workers’ rights, fair wages, and improved working conditions.
Los Mineros is one of the largest and most influential independent unions in Mexico. It was founded in 1934 and has played a crucial role in the labor movement within the mining industry. Los Mineros has been recognized for its efforts in securing better wages, job security, and safety measures for its members. It has also been active in challenging unfair labor practices, privatization of mines, and the infringement of workers’ rights. The union has faced significant challenges, including government intervention and attempts to undermine its influence, but it has persevered and continues to fight for workers’ rights.
The Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electricians’ Union, SME) was established in 1914 and has been an important organization representing workers in the electricity sector. The SME became an independent union in the 1990s, breaking away from the state-controlled labor federation. Throughout its history, the SME has advocated for workers’ rights, job security, and better working conditions. In 2009, the Mexican government, under President Felipe Calderón, controversially dissolved the state-owned electricity company Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC), leading to the mass layoff of thousands of electricians. The SME fiercely opposed this action, staging protests and occupying electric facilities. Despite facing significant challenges, the SME has continued to represent and fight for the interests of electricians in Mexico.
Overall, these independent unions have challenged the dominance of traditional labor organizations, fought for workers’ rights, and advocated for better conditions and protections for their members. Their struggles highlight the ongoing efforts to establish a more democratic and autonomous labor movement in Mexico.
There were multiple conditions leading up to the resurgence of labor unions in Mexico, including labor law reforms implemented by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and provisions within the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), such as the Rapid Response Mechanism. Under the administration of President López Obrador, labor law reforms were enacted in Mexico to strengthen workers’ rights and promote union democracy. These reforms, which came into effect in May 2019, aimed to address long-standing issues of corruption, protection contracts, and limited worker representation within traditional labor unions. The new legislation, known as the Labor Reform Law, introduced measures to ensure free and fair union elections, protect workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, and establish independent labor courts to handle labor disputes. These reforms provided a more conducive environment for the resurgence of labor unions by empowering workers and enabling them to exercise their rights more effectively. Additionally, the USMCA, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and went into effect on July 1, 2020, included provisions specifically aimed at improving labor standards in Mexico. The USMCA’s labor chapter included commitments to protect workers’ rights, including the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association. The Rapid Response Mechanism, a key provision within the USMCA, established a system to address labor violations quickly and effectively. It allows for the investigation and potential sanctions against Mexican, U.S. or Canadian companies or transnational corporations operating in those countries that violate workers’ rights or engage in anti-union practices. This mechanism serves as a powerful tool to enforce labor standards and encourages the emergence and growth of independent unions by providing a means to hold employers accountable for labor rights violations. The combination of labor law reforms in Mexico and the provisions within the USMCA, such as the Rapid Response Mechanism, have created a more favorable environment for the resurgence of labor unions. These factors have empowered workers, protected their rights, and created mechanisms for addressing labor rights violations. As a result, we have seen a renewed energy and activism within the labor movement in Mexico, with workers increasingly organizing and asserting their rights through independent unions.
However, many union workers still face multiple challenges, including repression and violence from employers and local or state government officials, lack of resources, and difficulties in building sustainable organization. These are the challenges that workers face at a manufacturing facility in the city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, called VU Manufacturing. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has repeated its request for Mexico to review labor rights violations at this auto parts plant in Piedras Negras. The company has been accused of blocking unionization efforts and firing workers who attempted to join a union. They face repression and intimidation as well as bribery. Under the framework of the USMCA, Mexico is required to enforce labor reforms and allow workers to organize and form unions without fear of retaliation. The Mexican Ministry of Labor, headed by Luisa Alcalde, plays a significant role in the implementation and enforcement of labor-related provisions within the USMCA. Alcalde and her ministry are responsible for protecting labor rights, ensuring compliance with the labor provisions of the agreement, and promoting fair labor practices in Mexico. They oversee the enforcement of workers’ rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. Additionally, they play a crucial role in the implementation of labor law reforms that aim to strengthen labor protections, enhance union democracy, and increase transparency in labor relations. The Ministry of Labor also handles the Rapid Response Mechanism. Furthermore, the ministry is responsible for monitoring compliance with labor obligations, providing regular reports on progress made in upholding labor rights, and ensuring transparency and accountability in Mexico’s commitment to labor standards under the USMCA. Through these efforts, Luisa Alcalde and the Mexican Ministry of Labor strive to foster a fair and inclusive labor environment in Mexico and uphold the labor-related commitments of the USMCA. The federal government of Mexico also plays a vital and positive role in the implementation of the USMCA. Through its active engagement in trade negotiations, the government ensures that Mexico’s interests are represented and protected. It works closely with the Mexican Congress to align domestic laws and regulations with the provisions of the agreement, demonstrating a commitment to compliance and fulfilling Mexico’s obligations. The government’s coordination with various ministries and agencies facilitates effective policy implementation, ensuring that Mexico adheres to the specific requirements of the USMCA. Additionally, the government’s participation in dispute resolution mechanisms demonstrates a commitment to resolving conflicts in a fair and transparent manner. By monitoring compliance, providing regular reports, and collaborating with state and local governments, the federal government ensures the effective implementation of the USMCA throughout the country. Overall, the positive role played by the federal government of Mexico contributes to the successful execution of the USMCA and the promotion of trade, economic growth, and cooperation among the signatory countries.
Mexico has made progress in enforcing labor rights since the USMCA was signed, but labor activists say that much work remains to be done. For instance, even though the Mexican Workers Union League, “La Liga,” won union representation at VU Manufacturing, the company still brings in the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM), rejected by workers at the plant, and treats them as worker representatives and does not negotiate in good faith with La Liga at the bargaining table. “There is a great deal of injustice at the plant. There have been major injustices like being denied the right to represent our workers… All we are doing is fighting for a fair contract,” says Yadira Sauceda, general secretary of the Mexican Workers Union League at VU Manufacturing, in a Zoom event sponsored by the Living Wage Coalition on March 21.
by Ava Marcelo and Sydney Tweedley