The two right-wing parties in the Mexican congress have come together to promote a labor law “reform” that unions see as an effort to crush organized labor. Protests are being planned at the national and international level.

The right-wing government of President Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party has long been attempting to pass legislation to improve Mexico’s “competitiveness” by “flexibilizing” labor laws. On March 10, the Revolutionary Institutional Party, which ruled Mexico for 70 years before being ousted by National Action’s Vicente Fox in 2000, introduced essentially the same legislation.

The plan is to present the finished bill on April 18, right at the end of the current legislative session, and ram it through using the combined force of 388 PAN and PRI members of the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, against the 87 votes of the left opposition: The Revolutionary Democratic, Labor and Convergence parties.

Institutional Revolutionary’s bill is also opposed by independent unions. Among other things, it restricts back payments to workers who have been unjustly fired to a year, though the resolution of such disputes may go on for 4 years or more.

In addition, it would make it much easier for companies to use small enterprises as fronts for massive “outsourcing” scams. It would permit management to do end runs around unions and negotiate different wages and working conditions from those in the collective bargaining contract with individual workers. It would legalize the existing practice of temporary and short-term labor contracts. It would control of hours and shifts away from the collective bargaining process and make it a prerogative of management only. It would virtually abolish minimum wage.

Another clause would severely restrict the rights of unions based in a single enterprise to affiliate with national labor organizations beyond their industry. The bill will make it harder to get legal strikes recognized as such.

A major feature of Mexican labor practices, criticized by the International Labor Organization, namely the right of the government to more or less arbitrarily deny recognition of elected union officials, will remain. This “toma de nota” prerogative has been used by the Calderon administration to attack independent miners and electricians’ unions.

Since the presidency General Lazaro Cardenas del Rio (1934-1940), Mexico has had enlightened labor laws, on paper. For example, it is supposed to be illegal in Mexico for management to bring in scabs to a struck union shop; in fact, the workers are supposed to be in charge of keeping the facilities shut. However, in practice, the close alignments of management, union leaders and the government, in a relationship reminiscent of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” has often meant that workers face united opposition from the employer, the government and the union when they try to stand up for better wages and working conditions. The new law would encourage this.

The government seems determined to crush any independent, non-“corporativist” unions. It has been waging virtual war against the independent Mine and Metal Workers’ Union, and against the Mexican Electricians Union for several years.

Methods used to crush independent unions and unionization efforts include arbitrary refusal by the government to recognize results of union elections, threats, false arrests and use of police to take over unionized facilities, as well as the employment of violent thugs, with government connivance.

So labor opposition to the proposed law comes mostly from these embattled unions and other independent unions and federations, such as the Telephone Workers Union, the Authentic Federation of Workers and the National Workers Union. They are now getting international support, especially from the International Metalworkers Federation, which is circulating a petition internationally. U.S. unions, including the United Electrical Workers and the United Steelworkers, have denounced the proposed new law.

The Revolutionary Democrats’ 2006 presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who accuses the government of wanting to “crucify” workers during Easter season, has started a national campaign to rally opposition to the labor law “reform”, via the MORENA alliance of the left wing of his party with the two other left parties in congress, the Labor and Convergence.

President Calderon is a fanatical and reactionary free trader who appears to believe that strong unions are an obstacle to foreign investment in Mexico, and intends to make a maximum effort to get the legislation passed. The legislative odds are heavily weighted in his favor, so street heat is being mobilized to stop him. U.S. workers, say the labor leaders, need to rally to the support of their Mexican brothers and sisters.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.