Trumka: Mexican President faces big obstacles to worker rights drive
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO, faces big obstacles as he fights for workers' rights, says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. | AP

WASHINGTON—New Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO and the first progressive president south of the border in decades, faces big obstacles in his drive for Mexican workers’ rights, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

The opposition, he explains, is already coming from big business, which exploits Mexican workers, and from Mexico’s company unions, which would be tossed out, in favor of independent unions, he explains.

Those company unions’ 700,000 “protectionist contracts,” in some cases signed even before plants opened or workers were told they were union members, would be tossed, too.

The Mexican opposition to the pro-worker moves is important to U.S. workers, adds Trumka. That’s because Mexican workers’ rights – or lack of them – will help determine whether the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), successor to NAFTA, succeeds, fails and gets U.S. union endorsement or not.

“NAFTA has been an unmitigated failure” for workers in all three countries, Trumka told a questioning reporter after speaking Oct. 24 at the University of the District of Columbia Law School. The AFL-CIO leader headed a delegation of U.S. union presidents who met for hours with AMLO several weeks ago in Mexico City to discuss the proposed new trade pact.

“He’s well-intentioned and sincere, but he underestimates the forces aligned against him,” Trumka says of AMLO. “He’s got the bosses against him and he’s got the old protectionist unions against him, too.” Their leaders, Trumka says, don’t want to yield their power or their perks. And the bosses are also trying to cut Mexico’s labor enforcement.

And while Trumka didn’t say so, corporate exploiters of low-paid ill-protected Mexican workers have already filed hundreds of lawsuits there to stop implementation of the USMCA.

A key part of the USMCA is a Mexican commitment to thorough overhaul of its labor law, its enforcement system and to worker rights. Trumka gave U.S. GOP President Donald Trump in general and Trump trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer in particular credit for it.

That means ending a system of corporate-dominated, government-sponsored unions, allowing free elections for unions that represent workers and not bosses, as well as new contracts over the next four years to replace the protectionist pacts. It also means raising Mexican wages and ensuring Mexican workers have the right to organize and negotiate free of boss’s interference – or worse.

Without such reforms, Trumka said, U.S. firms would continue to outsource and move jobs away from well-paid workers here to exploit poorly paid and oppressed Mexican workers, and the USMCA would not be an improvement over NAFTA.

Firms manufacturing everything from Oreo cookies to Chrysler cars have used NAFTA to transfer 700,000-1 million high-paying U.S. factory jobs to low-paying Mexico. Now firms are transferring non-factory jobs – such as at call centers – to Mexico, too.

“We are working to try to get an agreement worthy of the American economy and the American worker,” Trumka added. Until now, Trumka has not discussed the Mexican trip.

But in an indication of the resistance to the worker reforms of the USMCA, even the bosses at the Mexican factories of the Detroit 3 automakers – GM, Ford and FiatChrysler – resist replacing their company-dominated unions with independent ones that would actually speak for Mexican workers, Trumka said.

And while Trump trumpets another part of the USMCA, requiring North American-made cars to be built by workers in all three nations whose pay averages at least $16 an hour, Trumka throws in a big caution. He pointed out that a car would qualify under the USMCA if the U.S. auto workers crafting it earn $30 an hour and the Mexican workers earn $2.

Trumka repeated his past caution about two other big problems with the USMCA. One would let any one of the three nations block arbitration of a worker rights dispute by refusing to name an arbitrator. The other is lack of enforcement blocking products at the U.S.-Mexico border whose manufacture violates the pact. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has legislation in the hopper to impose such blocking, he said. And House Democratic negotiators are talking with Lighthizer about all the problems.

Trumka commented on the USMCA after speaking at the university in honor of Joe Rauh, the longtime liberal lion, pro-worker lawyer, adviser to FDR and both lawyer and comforter for the Miners for Democracy, the United Mine Workers reform movement which inspired Trumka’s career.

Remembering the disillusionment industrial workers, including his own coal miners, had with both federal policies and with their own unions several decades ago, Trumka commented that “in many ways, history is repeating itself” now.

“In 1969, thousands of coal miners marched on Charleston, W. Va., demanding health and safety protections, and the governor signed the first legislation recognizing black lung disease as an occupational illness,” Trumka said. It was a precursor to federal mine safety law.

Now, it’s the Auto Workers strike against GM, where vote totals were expected Oct. 25, the ongoing Chicago Teachers Union strikes, the Fight for $15 and a union by low-paid and exploited fast-food, warehouse and other workers, and the wave of forced teacher strikes from coast to coast over the last 18 months.

“We’re looking employers squarely in the eye and delivering a clear message: ‘Enough! Enough!”


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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).