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Mexico’s Workers Can Finally Choose Unions. Old Unions Are Pushing Back.

GUADALUPE, Mexico — As an election to choose a union at a Mexican tire plant began one recent drizzly morning, a labor leader urged supporters to come out and vote: “You can relax,” he said over social media. “Your vote is free and secret.”

If he had emphasized the secrecy of the vote it was because, for decades, Mexican workers had little say in choosing the unions that signed contracts with employers in their name. Instead, governments granted their allies in the union movement control over labor.

Now the government of the left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to upend this system.

A new law that guarantees workers the right to decide who will represent them took effect last month. But independent labor leaders say that transforming a decades-old system — overcoming opposition from employers and powerful, politically favored unions, along with deep suspicion by workers — is slow and arduous work.

“We can have a very nice law,” said Benedicto Martínez, the leader of a small, independent labor federation, the Authentic Labor Front. “But it won’t be easy. There have been many years of control and manipulation.”

Employers forced to reverse old practices are beginning to push back, said Kimberly Nolan, a labor expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City.

“The way you do business in Mexico is that contracts are bought and sold,” Dr. Nolan said. “The business sector has no sense of how that contradicts freedom of association.”

Under Mexico’s new law, unions will have to earn the support of at least 30 percent of the workers in a workplace before they are formally recognized. The local labor boards will be replaced by a national registry and specialized courts — changes that are designed to remove political influence.

The law also lays out a four-year timeline for the labor ministry to review at least half a million existing contracts. Many of those are probably invalid because they were never approved by workers, said the labor minister, Luisa María Alcalde.

One of the consequences of the old system was that it depressed wages, said Ms. Alcalde.

“The government itself has kept salaries very low, I would argue, because there have been no counterweights in negotiations,” she said.

The new law came out of a consensus, she added, that the “Mexican labor model was obsolete and that it had to be renewed.”

Mexican workers’ wages are low compared to many other Latin American countries, according to a ranking by the Inter-American Development Bank. And they earn less now, in real terms, than they did in 2005, according to the Mexican government’s National Social Development Policy Evaluation Council.

“The Mexican labor market is an outlier — and not in a good way,” said David Kaplan, a labor economist with the bank.

American unions have long argued that the old model encouraged companies to move to Mexico to take advantage of pliant unions and low wages. In response, Democrats have used trade negotiations to demand that Mexico rewrite its labor laws and made that a condition of their approval in Congress for a revised North American trade agreement.

“The question is, can they overcome the very real obstacles that have been built up over 80 years?” asked Ben Davis, the director of international affairs for the United Steelworkers.

Mexico’s historic unions, which prospered for decades in their alliance with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, warn that the new law could weaken unions as they vie for worker support.

The instability could upset the smooth labor relations the traditional unions can promise employers, said Carlos Aceves del Olmo a former senator and congressman for the PRI, and the secretary general of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, which claims five million affiliated workers.

“International companies know the organization and continue signing contracts with us,” said Mr. Aceves.

The new law is already being tested in Mexico.

Two unions are fighting to win the backing of the work force at the Bridgestone tire factory outside Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial capital: the rubber union, which is independent, and an autoworkers’ union, which is part of a traditional federation and has represented the workers at the plant over the past couple of years

Wages are high at the Bridgestone plant, ranging from $ 22 to $ 26 a day, a good salary even for Monterrey, where a thriving manufacturing export industry drives a strong demand for labor. Benefits are generous.

But current and former workers at the plant said that the company had begun to cut those perks.

The labor board had set a date in mid-April for workers at the Bridgestone factory to choose their representatives.

Before the election, workers were harassed and members of the rubber union, along with their lawyers, were threatened, according to a complaint the union filed with the labor board.

On the day scheduled for the election, no one from the board showed up to administer the vote.

That election was canceled, and a new vote was set several weeks later, outside factory property, in the underground parking lot of a government office building in a suburb of Monterrey.

This time, the vote went by the book: The ballot was secret, and all sides were present.

The independent rubber workers union lost, by a wide margin.

In a statement, Bridgestone Americas said that its Monterrey plant “under no circumstances intervenes or has ever intervened in free and fair union election matters as these are managed directly by the corresponding employee associations.”

But Patricia Juan Pineda, the rubber worker union’s lawyer, said a bonus of about $ 1,500 paid to factory workers the week before may have helped convince them to reject the independent union. And organizing from outside the plant is difficult.

“Fear is hard to beat,” she said.

Source: NYT > World

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