US to appeal Mexico’s refusal to investigate labor complaint at Mexican mine

Aug 22, 2023, 1:48 PM | Updated: 2:28 pm

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The U.S. government announced Tuesday it is filing its first appeal ever over Mexico’s refusal to investigate labor violations involving the right to organize.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said it will request Mexico review its decision not to investigate the case of the San Martín mine in the northern state of Zacatecas. That was the first time Mexico has rejected a complaint on a labor issue under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

For more than two years, Mexico had accepted more than a dozen U.S. complaints on behalf of union organizers in Mexico who claimed they were prevented from organizing freely.

But since the beginning of August, Mexico has started to flatly refuse to intervene in at least two cases, marking the first time it has rejected labor complaints.

On Aug. 1, Mexico’s Economy Department rejected a U.S. complaint about the San Martín mine, which produces zinc, lead, copper and silver. The mine has been locked in a longstanding dispute between two unions that claim to represent workers there.

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

“This announcement upholds the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to creating a more level playing field for workers to feel empowered and using every enforcement tool at our disposal to safeguard workers’ rights,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.

If Mexico refuses to review its decision, a panel of experts could be appointed, and would have about six months to decide who is right on the issue.

The dispute represents the first major challenge to the so-called “rapid response mechanism,” or RRM, which was established under the USMCA and stands as one of the biggest success stories of international labor rights cooperation.

“The RRM has proved to be a critical instrument for defending the free exercise of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights,” added Tai. “While we are always open to collaborating with Mexico to find a resolution, our priority is delivering meaningful outcomes for workers.”

Mexico changed its labor laws between 2012 and 2017, in part to get approval for entry into the USMCA. The new laws required secret-ballot votes on union contracts. That was a recognition of the fact that Mexico’s old-guard, pro-government union system was rotten to the core and had artificially held down wages for decades.

The violations — many of which Mexico has agreed to act on — were almost comic. Old-guard unions, in cahoots with companies, would threaten employees with dismissal or loss of benefits if they chose an independent union. They would hold voice-votes, when they held any at all.

When forced to participate in secret-ballot votes, the old-guard unions sometimes simply stole the ballot boxes if they felt they were losing.

In case after case, Mexican independent labor activists would send complaints to the USTR, which it would forward to Mexico, which would then agree to order elections held again under fair circumstances.

The process almost always resulted in the independent unions winning. But in March, an old-guard union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, or CTM, won a rare victory at Japanese auto parts manufacturer Grupo Yazaki.

The Casa Obrera del Bajio, a labor activist group, said the company and the union had teamed up to intimidate workers into voting for the CTM.

In the second case in which Mexico refused to accept a U.S. complaint, Mexico’s Economy Department said last week that “there is no substantive evidence of company interference or denial of the right to union freedom.”

Casa Obrera begs to differ. It says it has copies of the leaflets Grupo Yazaki handed out at the plant gates, telling workers the March 31 vote would not allow them to choose a new union, when in fact it would. It said independent union organizers were fired, and that the old union, along with company representatives, harassed and pressured workers.

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

But it’s clear that the USMCA complaints were never going to be a magic wand to achieve that.

For example, at one auto plant in northern Mexico, a newly-elected union got the minimum wage increased to about $14 per day, still less than a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour.


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US to appeal Mexico’s refusal to investigate labor complaint at Mexican mine