US files 2nd labor complaint after Mexico refuses to act on union-busting by a Mexican company

MEXICO CITY — The United States said Tuesday it has filed a labor complaint after Mexico refused to act on alleged union-busting by a Mexican company.

The U.S. Trade Representatives Office said it has filed a request for a dispute settlement panel under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, known as the USMCA.

The trade pact established rapid-resolution mechanisms to guarantee unions the right to organize in Mexico. For decades, wages in Mexico have been held very low because unions were not allowed to organize freely.

Over the last two years, in the face of about 22 requests by the United States, Mexico has usually agreed to press companies to comply. But in January, Mexico refused to act in the case of a call center that allegedly threatened or fired union organizers.

It is only the second time the United States has filed such a complaint. The first complaint was filed in August. Interestingly, it is only in the last six months that Mexico has started refusing the requests.

In the case of the call center, the Mexican Telephone Workers Union claimed the company, Atento Servicios, had threatened and fired employees who were trying to organize a new union.

Mexican authorities acknowledged that abuses had taken place at the call center in the central state of Hidalgo, but they claimed the company had taken sufficient corrective measures. The USTR said it did not agree with that assessment.

The panel of experts would have about six months to decide who is right on the issue.

In many cases in Mexico, old-guard, pro-company unions negotiated “paper” contracts behind the backs of workers. So the fight is to get a new, more democratic union into workplaces.

In August, the USTR requested a dispute resolution panel to decide the case of the San Martín mine in the northern state of Zacatecas. The mine, which produces zinc, lead, copper and silver, has been in a long dispute between two unions that claim to represent its workers.

Mexico said that the dispute should be resolved only by Mexican courts, because it dates from 2007 and thus predates USMCA, which went into effect in 2020.

Mexico changed its labor laws between 2012 and 2017, in part to get approval for entry into the USMCA. The new laws require secret-ballot votes on union contracts.

Old-guard unions, in cahoots with companies, would often threaten workers with dismissal or loss of benefits if they chose an independent union. They would also hold voice votes, if they held any at all. When forced to participate in secret-ballot votes, the old-guard unions sometimes stole the ballot boxes if they felt they were losing.

The U.S. government has said it hopes the labor complaints will one day allow Mexican wages to rise closer to those in the United States, stemming the outflow of manufacturing jobs.

There is a long way to go to reach that goal. For example, at one auto plant in northern Mexico, a newly elected union got the minimum wage increased to about $14 a day, but that is still less than what a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour.


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