In the Mexican Autostadt, labor rights fluctuate despite the US trade agreement

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Mexican labor attorney Susana Prieto leads a demonstration with supporters and workers outside a Chihuahua state office in Mexico City

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By Daina Beth Solomon

MATAMOROS, Mexico (Reuters) – After many workers at the Tridonex auto parts plant in the Mexican city of Matamoros, across the Texas border, successfully carried out a wildcat strike for higher wages in 2019, they set their goals higher: to replace the union that you are say they failed to fight for them.

Six workers at the factory that converts used auto parts for sale in the US and Canada, told Reuters they felt disappointed that their SITPME union did not support their demands for better pay. About 400 Tridonex workers protested in a Matamoros labor court last year to be allowed to change unions.

When the first protests broke out in 2019, many of the roughly 4,000 workers at the plant were earning just above the then minimum wage of 176.72 pesos ($ 8.82) a day.

Tridonex workers and thousands more at other Matamoros factories quit their jobs, demanding a 20% increase and a peso 32,000 bonus, many without union support. In almost all cases, the companies conceded.

“This showed us what we are capable of,” said Edgar Salazar, then an employee of Tridonex. “We know we have rights, but the union just wants to make money. They don’t support us at all.”

Jesus Mendoza, longtime chairman of SITPME, said his union had created jobs and perks to its members while maintaining harmonious relationships with employers.

However, Salazar and many of his Tridonex colleagues wanted to throw their support behind a new organization led by activist and lawyer Susana Prieto.

But their efforts fail, labor experts admit.

Dismantling the power of entrenched Mexican unions is a difficult challenge, say some labor activists, with little evidence that the reforms promised in a new North American trade deal are moving even easier.

Amid opposition from SITPME, the Tridonex workers’ request to be represented by the Prieto union has still not been put to the vote. Lawyer Prieto’s legal challenges to replace unions in 45 other factories in the region have also stalled.

When Prieto called for strikes in January to demand higher wages again, only a few hundred people protested against a handful of companies.

“They are scared because they have no one to defend them,” said Prieto. According to Prieto, around 600 of her supporters at Tridonex – including Salazar – were fired between April and October 2020. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm this.

Cardone Industries, Tridonex’s parent company in Philadelphia, did not respond to a question about the retaliatory allegations.

Layoffs are said to have been made due to lower demand for pandemic lockdowns but did not provide any further details. Cardone is controlled by the Canadian firm Brookfield Asset Management.

SLOW PROGRESS

Left President Manuel Andres Lopez Obrador passed a law in 2019 that guarantees workers the right to independent trade unions. Though strong on paper, it won’t fully come into effect until 2023.

“The law is generally very good. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to make changes in Mexico anytime soon,” said Kimberly Nolan, an ergonomist at the Research Institute of the Latin American School of Social Sciences.

Some of the Matamoros workers are now seeking assistance in the United States.

A new Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada (USMCA) implemented last year enshrined the right of workers to choose which union manages their collective agreement.

With Democrat President Joe Biden today, Mexico could be scrutinized to uphold USMCA’s pro-worker regulations, some of which are aimed at preventing low labor costs from losing more US jobs.

Under the treaty, companies that fail to guarantee workers’ freedom of association in Mexico could face tariffs and other penalties.

The US Trade Representative’s Office did not respond when asked how the Biden administration would deal with trade pact labor violations.

But agency director Katherine Tai said last week she was “not afraid” to apply the USMCA’s enforcement rules without specifying what issues could be investigated.

The powerful US trade union federation AFL-CIO told Reuters in April that it was working on cases against companies in Mexico as part of the USMCA and that details would be released in May.

Matamoros is one of a number of Mexican border towns that cheap labor has lured American firms to over the past few decades. The factories supply parts for General Motors Co (NYSE :), Toyota Motor (NYSE 🙂 Corp, Stellantis, and other automakers.

Booming trade with the United States has brought jobs to areas in northern Mexico, but labor rights are lagging behind.

Companies in Mexico have often fired workers instead of allowing them to campaign for new unions, among other things, activists, scholars and government officials say.

“They fire them; they suppress them. They don’t give any extra hours. They don’t give bonuses. They change them to night shifts,” said Alfredo Dominguez, head of the Federal Center for Reconciliation and Labor Registration, created as part of the labor reform to ensure that collective agreements are legitimate are.

One of the Department of Labor’s priorities is the elimination of so-called “protection contracts”, which are signed between unions and employers without prior consultation or knowledge of workers and which, according to Dominguez, account for at least 80% of all collective agreements in Mexico.

Labor reform, once implemented, will also remove the local bodies that labor activists hold responsible for long delays in setting up new unions like Prieto’s. The bodies are replaced by tribunals that report to the judiciary.

NEW TACTICS

Frustrated by delays in forming a new union, hundreds of Tridonex workers decided to adopt a new tactic in early 2020: they said they no longer wanted to pay dues to the incumbent SITPME union. After several tense protests, Tridonex agreed.

Then the layoffs began, four workers told Reuters.

In March 2020, Efren Ruiz was fired for cleaning and assembling brake parts for Tridonex and loudly advocating Prieto’s union.

“This is reprisal,” Ruiz recalled when telling a supervisor before security guards took him out, he said.

Three other workers also said they believed their union activism led to their firing. Tridonex laid off 717 people from April to October last year, according to a government report by Reuters dated October 30, 2020.

Reuters has not been able to determine if anyone has been deferred since then. The Mexican Social Security Institute, which tracks employment, said it had no comment on individual companies.

Prieto said the layoffs were in retaliation by the company to protect SITPME and prevent more strikes for better pay.

SITPME chief Mendoza described complaints about retaliation as “lies”. Cardone said in a statement that the downsizing was due to a drop in demand and “managed through transparent and constructive discussions with employees and relevant unions”.

SITPME – which extols membership benefits such as medical and legal assistance – said it lured back at least 3,000 people from various companies that supported Prieto’s breakaway group. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm this.

Mendoza noted that he wanted to engage in dialogue with companies, not strikes: “What we do well is to ensure labor peace and efficiency among the workforce.”

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