Canadian and US Unions Offer Solidarity to Threatened Mexican Workers

July 30, 2010 11:08 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Independent trade unions in Mexico are facing a crisis. Their brothers and sisters from Canada and the US came together on June 20 in Toronto to strategize about how to support them.

Leaders of Mexican electrical workers, miners and telecommunications unions gave dramatic accounts to the 200 participants at the meeting about the way the Mexican government, acting in complicity with business, block union democracy, in continuous violation of Mexican and international labour law. Physical force and bureaucratic obstacles are routinely used to intimidate workers. Worse, most Mexican workers are represented by shadowy unions that enforce employer protection contracts. Protection contracts severely limit workers’ ability to exercise their labour rights, although the workers involved rarely know who their union representatives are or get a look at the collective agreement. It is very difficult for workers to throw out a company union and organize a democratic one in its place. The independent unions say that current government proposals for labour law reform would turn a difficult challenge into a nearly impossible one.

Martín Esparza, General Secretary of the Mexican Electrical Workers’ Union (SME), described the attack on his union by the Mexican government last October, using armed forces to raid hundreds of workplaces of the publicly-owned electrical utility Central Light and Power Company (Luz y Fuerza del Centro). More than 44,000 workers were instantly fired, and the union dissolved by presidential decree, on the pretext that the workers had too many privileges and were not productive. The union believes that the government’s real objective was to sell off the public asset and let foreign providers use the electrical and fibre-optic infrastructure for TV and Internet services. Eight months into the conflict, tens of union leaders are on a hunger strike, desperate to get the government to change its position.

Napoleón Gómez, the elected head of the Miners’ Union (SNTMMSSRM) has been living in Canada in exile for the past four years, since being thrown out of office by the Mexican government. He explained the need for international support for his union in the long strike at the Cananea mine, which the government has made repeated violent efforts to break. Cananea is owned by the powerful consortium Grupo Mexico, a company with close links to the ruling PAN political party.

The obstacles facing groups of workers wishing to form a democratic, independent union were described by representatives of the Telephone Workers’ Union (STRM). The union is supporting young call centre employees at the Atento company. Workers allege that the company has used intimidation, sexual harassment, firings and transfers to break up their organizing efforts. Shortly before the local labour board announced a representation vote for July 2, five other unions have suddenly appeared on the ballot, disputing the right to represent the workers. Most of these unions have never been heard of before. The Authentic Labour Front (FAT), a democratic union that has struggled for 50 years to break down the barriers to free association, agrees with the STRM that labour authorities typically conspire with employers to thwart a victory for independent unions by confusing, intimidating and even physically attacking workers.

Top leaders of Canadian and US unions present at the Toronto strategy session, along with their Global Union Federation counterparts and social movement organizations, were united in their commitment to their Mexican sisters and brothers under attack. In a joint statement, they called for non-intervention of the government in the internal affairs of unions, and the unconditional recognition of their democratically elected leadership. The Canadian unions have already moved forward to establish a mechanism to coordinate a program of action among the three countries of North America. Recognizing that workers in all three countries have many issues in common, the coordinating body will not only work to restore labour rights in Mexico, but also to mobilize support for the union issues in the US and Canada.

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This post was written by Daina Z. Green

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