(Bloomberg) — It was a historic moment for Mexico: the first time workers were given the right to vote on a labor contract negotiated by their union under a new law.
The vote, held one early September afternoon at a factory owned by cement giant Cemex, was also meant to signal to Democratic Party officials in the U.S. — and to the labor leaders who support them — that Mexico was making good on promises to strengthen union representation rules under the proposed new North American free trade agreement. Without tougher labor standards, House Democrats have threatened to reject the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as USMCA, jeopardizing efforts to modernize the 25-year-old pact.
The final vote that day was overwhelmingly in favor — 165 to 2 — but there was a catch: Some Cemex workers didn’t fully understand what they were voting on. And some said their union made false claims that they could lose their benefits if they rejected the contract. The union denies it ever made such claims.
To some American unions, the vote was further evidence that the trade deal doesn’t contain enough enforcement measures to win their support — which is pivotal to passage. They say, ironically enough, that Mexico’s unions represent the biggest stumbling block. Long criticized for not representing worker needs, the local unions are pushing through votes on labor contracts quickly before stronger competitors emerge.
“I certainly don’t think it’s going to satisfy the unions in the U.S.,” said Ben Davis, director of international affairs at the United Steelworkers, an AFL-CIO affiliate. “There’s a real risk that effectively it’ll be the workers called together, handed a contract, and told to vote in favor of this or you’ll lose your benefits.”
The trade deal remains in limbo in Washington. Democrats have been meeting Trump administration officials to try to reach a deal to ratify it, which Mexico’s congress has already done.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has praised Mexico’s recent labor reforms while raising concern about their implementation. If AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka approves, the USMCA vote could be done by Christmas, Democrats said Tuesday, a sign of how important U.S. labor forces are in the appraisal of the accord. But Trumka said earlier in the day that more work needs to be done.
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The U.S. wants the new agreement to eventually boost Mexican wages — they are on average one-fifth of those in the U.S. — so fewer American companies move across the border for cost savings. To accomplish that, USMCA proposes to beef up worker rights by stamping out what’s known in Mexico as “protection contracts.”
That’s a practice in which Mexican union leaders close to management negotiate contracts with no requirement that they gain approval from workers. In many cases, in fact, workers don’t even know they are unionized. The system was written into law after Mexico’s 1910 revolution in order to give unions more power and ostensibly to help workers. Companies have supported it as a way to prevent work stoppages that can be ordered up by any union.
In May, Mexico enacted a labor-reform measure requiring that workers “validate” in secret votes each contract that was put in place under the old regime – as many as 550,000. It also requires a secret vote for workers to choose their unions and for future contracts. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged $900 million to enforce the reforms.
But local unions are vigorously fighting the changes on several fronts. The CTM, Mexico’s largest union confederation, along with other unions that have benefited from the old system, have filed more than 400 requests for court injunctions to block the law, most claiming it infringes on their right to self-govern. Few have succeeded.
And, citing the Cemex vote as an example, international unions say the locals aren’t adhering to the spirit of the law that requires the validation votes. They are, instead, forcing through a vote before truly independent labor groups can provide competition, critics contend.
“They gave us almost no warning the vote was coming,” said Alejandro Badillo, who works at the quarry of the Cemex plant in the central state of Hidalgo.
He said he was told by his labor representatives that another union more aligned with the company’s interests was trying to make inroads to organize, which scared him into voting in favor of his contract. “The union told us if we voted for another union, we’d lose everything we’d earned.” Cemex declined to comment on this story.
In fact, a no vote against the contract would not eliminate any benefits, said Mexico’s Labor Ministry, which sent a copy of the ballot to Bloomberg that states that for all workers to see. The ministry is designing information and training campaigns to prepare workers for the votes, and says for now it’s been sending inspectors to oversee them.
Juan Carlos Reyes said he was given ample time to review the contract. But he, too, was warned by the Cement Industry Workers’ Union that voting no would be “throwing 25 years of union fighting out the window.”
Workers need to be informed that voting against their contracts is a one-time chance to renegotiate them, and to easily switch unions if they so choose, said Gladys Cisneros, director of the Solidarity Center, the AFL-CIO’s labor advocacy group in Mexico.
The overriding problem, she added, is that the same unions that have kept workers out of the organizing process for decades shouldn’t be the only ones deciding how and when to hold the vote. That risks turning the process into another form of rubber-stamping.
Alfonso Cruz, representative of the Cement Industry Workers’ Union, said the union chose to hold the vote so quickly at the Cemex plant because it had been properly representing workers all along. While rival syndicates have been vying to organize at other Cemex plants, he said none has approached the factory in central Mexico where Badillo works.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said, pointing to the overwhelming yes vote. “Labor contracts are always posted in places where everyone can see them.”