Now, Mexico's Unions Have A Chance At Real Freedom

After decades of repression, Mexican workers are fighting back. Long held in thrall by corrupt government-linked unions in cahoots with their employers, they are now rushing to exploit the crumbling power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). A breakaway labor federation, the National Workers' Union (UNT), is challenging the 63-year dominance of the PRI-linked Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

The push has a good chance of success, provided Mexico continues on the road to full democracy. But a political battle is certain. The beneficiaries of the old system will fight fiercely to maintain the status quo. Leading the charge will be companies that have handed out below-inflation raises for a decade, labor leaders clinging to a gravy train of payoffs and perks, and state and federal governments leery of losing control over economic policy and scaring off foreign investors.

Reformers, however, want to change Mexico's labor law radically. The federal government has long been the final arbiter of which union represents which workers. That power has kept independent unions out in the cold and the CTM in business. "We want to limit the government's enormous control over unions," says Francisco Hernandez Juarez, head of the Telefonos de Mexico union and the most powerful of the UNT's three top leaders.

PRI ROADBLOCK. Such ambitions were pie-in-the-sky until the PRI lost control of the lower house of Congress in July. Now, the two main opposition parties are preparing laws that would free union registration and contracts from government control. Of course, the PRI can stymie the bills in the Senate, where it still has a majority. But the legislative roadblock isn't demoralizing opponents. The new government of Mexico City, led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has another tactic. Cardenas, who has presidential ambitions, plans to challenge the CTM's power merely by enforcing the existing law. Of around 70,000 contracts registered with the city's labor board, about 50,000 are illegal, says Enrique de la Garza, a labor expert at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University. That's because they were signed without workers' knowledge by leaders of unions never voted into office by the rank and file.

Mexico's breakaway unions are benefiting from NAFTA. U.S. and Canadian unions, fearful of low-wage competition from south of the border, are helping independent Mexican unions to organize and are lobbying for them. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney will give public support to UNT leaders by meeting with them during his Jan. 21-23 Mexico trip. The move is significant because traditionally the AFL-CIO backed the CTM. With the Democratic Party needing labor's support and cash in midterm elections this year, President Clinton is also showing interest. "What goes on in the Mexican labor scene is important to us and is being watched," says an Administration official.

Scrutiny can shame Mexico into action. During President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's visit to Washington in November, for example, Clinton raised the case of Han Young, a contractor to the U.S.-based Hyundai Precision America. Han Young had crushed an independent union at its Tijuana maquiladora. Under pressure from Zedillo, Han Young and the state government recognized the union in mid-December.

The concessions proved short-lived. Han Young later backtracked and now refuses to negotiate with the new union. Other companies may try to play the same games when challenged. But now that Mexico's corrupt labor practices are being exposed to daylight, returning to business as usual will be impossible.

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