Mexican union activists report progress, but highlight obstacles to independent unions
Mexican women unionists speak at the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Mujeres sindicalistas mexicanas hablan en el Centro de Solidaridad de la AFL-CIO. | Solidarity Center

GUADALAJARA, Mexico—Long-oppressed Mexican workers have new opportunities for free, fair, and pro-worker unionization and union elections south of the U.S. border, a panel of female union reform-oriented activists says.

Thanks to Mexican legal and structural reforms the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement mandates, the group reports progress in that cause, despite several big roadblocks, from male machismo to outright attacks by forces opposed to progress. That includes fierce opposition from Mexico’s longtime pro-government pro-corporate labor federation.

In words that could sound familiar to U.S. unionists’ ears, the women on the panel, convened by and at the University of Guadalajara on August 26 and with the aid of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, described the obstacles the independent unions face.

“There is a lot to be done in organizing,” said Rita Moreno of the Mexican Workers Union League, who, like the others, spoke through a translator. And many workers the women talk with “are afraid of losing their jobs, of being fired, of being punished, of being attacked.”

The independent unions also find themselves with a massive education job, teaching many workers not just about their rights and about how unions can help them but—in many cases—literacy, too.

Male workers flaunt machismo, using flimsy reasons to deny woman workers a significant role. “Even some of our colleagues say ‘Oh, you’re not prepared, you can’t do it,’” one panelist said.

Nevertheless, the panelists agreed the 86-year-old Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos) is a big obstacle to workers.

CTM worked hand-in-glove with the long-ruling—71 consecutive years—Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to oppress workers, especially by negotiating contracts in secret and with no input or votes.

“They (CTM) do not value workers,” one panelist said. “There was treason, corruption and theft” against workers by CTM grandees, another woman declared.

“CTM backs up the company. They are colluding,” a third added.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was designed to give Mexican workers a chance to break that stranglehold. The independent unions on the panel, and others, are soldiering on to give Mexican workers higher wages, greater labor protections, and a better quality of life for themselves and their families. And tackling gender inequality, too, the women told their moderator, Beatriz Garcia of the Solidarity Center.

“We are living in a historic moment not only taking place in Mexico but for independent unions around the world,” declared Allina Romana Ruiz of the Independent Agricultural Workers, who represent farmers in the state of Baja California Norte.

The development is important, and it’s also what organized labor in the U.S., led by then-AFL-CIO Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee, the Auto Workers, and the Teamsters, lobbied for and worked out. Unions and pro-worker congressional Democrats forced the former Trump government to insert strong pro-worker language into the pact. The USMCA replaced NAFTA, which had so much of a pro-corporate tilt it cost the U.S. millions of jobs.

The USMCA  mandated Mexico approve a new pro-worker labor law, complete with building an independent and strong enforcement structure, including investigators and courts, literally from scratch. The U.S. provided expertise and foreign aid to help Mexico.

What the negotiators envisioned is that raising the living standards and union rights of Mexican workers would benefit all three nations, by reducing the incentives for low-paid and highly oppressed Mexican workers to migrate to the U.S.

And higher wages and more rights in Mexico would also reduce the ability of U.S. multinationals to play off workers against each other, driving down wages and union rights for native U.S. and Canadian workers by threatening them with replacement.

The panel didn’t address the impact on the U.S. Their focus was on their own nation.

In a typical case, “The struggle for union freedom” and for gender equality “has lasted eight years,” starting long before the USMCA pact, said Imelda Jimenez of the National Union of Mineworkers. With long and strong support from the Steelworkers, the independent NUM finally won collective bargaining agreements in June, she reported. “We would never have achieved that without international support,” Jimenez added.

Besides CTM, which technically says it’s for workers, Mexico is rife with outright company unions. Said Rita Losada of the Mexican Workers Union League: “Last year we voted to remove” the company union sponsored by 3M “as our representative. We are struggling to form an independent union and CTM is trying to attack us from different fronts.”

And the independent unions must counter workers’ expectations of immediate improvements. “Unfortunately in our sector, people want short-term solutions,” Losada admitted.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.