In These Times | February 14 2011
Solidarity in action: Unionists across North America to protest for Mexican workers’ rights
From Vancouver to New York City, actions will span one week and one continent
by Kari Lydersen
This week, people across the United States and Canada will demonstrate at Mexican consulates and embassies in protest of violations of the right to organize in Mexico. Of particular concern to protesters will be the bitter strikes and repression of unions representing miners and electrical workers, and the escalating practice of government and corporate entities forcibly installing company unions known there as “protection unions.”
The government itself has been increasingly aggressive in attacking and trying to undermine independent public-sector unions, while local and federal police are also known to back private companies in their battles to oust independent unions.
So four global union federations—the IMF (metalworkers), ICEM (chemical and mine workers), ITF (transport workers) and UNI Global Union—are calling on their affiliates across North America to demand the Mexican government recognize the striking miners’ demands and otherwise guarantee the right to independent organizing and free association. (Full details are here.) As explained in a recent action alert:
The newly formed Tri-National Solidarity Alliance of unions in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada has taken up the call and together with several community organizations will be organizing actions in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Portland, Raleigh, San Francisco, Tucson and Washington DC and in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.
In Detroit on February 16, workers from Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific coast will meet with union autoworkers at the United Auto Workers hall. In Chicago on February 19, people will visit the Mexican consulate, conveniently located on the same few blocks as union halls including Teamster City and the UE, whose hall features a mural celebrating the UE’s alliance with the independent Mexican union FAT.
In the past few years, international union solidarity has been particularly focused on Mexican miners, who since 2006 have been periodically attacked by federal and local police and military while striking at mines owned by the politically connected company Grupo Mexico.
The unrest at Grupo Mexico mines across the country was unleashed by an explosion that killed 65 at the Pasta de Conchos mine. Most of the bodies remain buried and residents say the government has not adequately investigated or compensated families for the disaster they say was caused by Grupo Mexico’s cutting corners.
Two days before that disaster, Grupo Mexico had revoked the authority of controversial, democratically elected miners union general secretary, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia and his executive committee. (The move is called a “toma de nota.”) When workers went on strike at a steel plant in April 2006 protesting Urrutia’s removal, hundreds of police fired shots killing two and wounding many – the beginning of lethal and bloody violence that has characterized mining struggles for the past five years.
A strike has bitterly divided the copper mining town of Cananea just south of the Arizona border, where labor unrest played a major role in sparking the Mexican Revolution a century ago. (See In These Times’ in-depth coverage in here). Last summer, thousands of troops descended on Cananea to forcibly take back control of one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines.
Meanwhile, in 2009, the Mexican government essentially dissolved the public electrical utility and its powerful union, laying off 44,000 people. At the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), government officials are refusing to recognize a union. And the union representing workers in the state-owned oil company PemEx has also been targeted, with top leadership ousted.
Violence and repression also prevail at private workplaces. At call centers run by the company Atento and at Continental Tire factories, hired security guards and police have used violence to try to dislodge independent unions and replace them with company unions.
A fact sheet from explains:
The government supports a system of employer-dominated unions, known as “protection” unions, to prevent workers from democratically choosing their representatives. Workers who try to organize independently normally face intimidation, violence and retaliation by their employers.
Workers’ attempts to hold elections that would establish their right to administer collective bargaining agreements through their authentic organizations are permanently blocked and subjected to multiple requirements, while employers sign agreements with company controlled unions, often without any knowledge of the workers covered by the agreement.
The increasing attacks on unions come in light of general economic decline and chaos, exacerbated by the economic crisis, the reduction of jobs in and remittances from the U.S. and the increasing drug-related violence in Mexico.
The factsheet (PDF link) from the International Metal Federation says:
Over the last two decades, the income of Mexican workers has lost more than half of its purchasing power and the Mexican government estimates that 40 million people live in poverty and 25 million in extreme poverty. Well before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, the value of Mexican wages were stagnating. In the 1970s Mexican wages were a quarter of those in the U.S.
Even with the decline in U.S. wages, Mexican wages are now an eighth and in some sectors as low as one-fifteenth as compared with the U.S.
It describes a “serious escalation in the systematic and brazen violation of the trade union rights of Mexican workers over the last five years,” and says:
Instead of creating more jobs and guaranteeing workers’ rights, the Mexican government is intent on extinguishing the democratic unions that do exist, particularly the few unions that are successful in gaining better wages and a higher standard of living.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for various publications, including the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. She can be reached at email@example.com.