By RICARDO CASTILLO
U.S. union leaders were doubtful about backing the signing of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and rightly so.
The fear the AFL-CIO had was that Mexican industrialists would continue milking workers with miserable wages as a fact of life, and its members demanded the right to witness negotiations between unions and companies to protect workers’ rights.
This privilege was denied by the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), mostly for reasons of political protection and to prevent foreign interference in insider dealings. But AMLO has openly admitted that the one course for Mexico to be at least close to on par with Canada and the United States lies in obtaining higher wages for Mexican workers, “so that they can stay home and not go abroad to look for a better way of making a living.”
There are two major problems the government faces in its efforts to enhance workers’ current meager wages: the employers, who are well accustomed to profiting from cheap labor, and the network of unions built over nearly 100 years of government controlled “white” union (known in Mexican Spanish as “sindicatos blancos”) centrals, which used to vote “corporately” for the now-nearly defunct Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Finally, AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka caved in because – contrary to what Donald Trump claimed during his first electoral campaign – the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was never “a disaster” and allowed not only for the expansion of the North American market, but for the exponential improvement of the Mexican economy.
And for sure in its new USMCA version, the three trading partners will only benefit.
But still, that does not bring a solution to the dismal differential between U.S. and Mexican wages. But on this issue, the USMCA negotiators cast the first stone, telling Mexican employers and union labor contract negotiators to do better for the workers, because with higher wages, consumer markets blossom.
Still, none of this changes the fact that for the past 36 years, the PRI and National Action Party (PAN) administrations established a so-called “neoliberal” economy, which AMLO blames for the imbalance between wealthy businesses and poor laborers. The hard core reality today about Mexico’s economy is that out of approximately 125 million Mexicans, at least half live in abject poverty. And that half includes unionized workers.
In the 20th century, Presidents Felipe Calderón (PAN) and Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) even amended the Constitution to benefit employers and the workers did not have any instance to defend themselves, including getting fired without indemnity. And let’s not talk about the pauperization of wages and benefits.
It within this scenario that, during the month of February, the nation’s two labor confederations took steps to come closer to a distant president who is now playing not the hard-core idealist but the pragmatic role – which ill suits him – to mediate between employers and unions to improve the standard of living of Mexicans, the banner AMLO’s been waving since his electoral campaign.
On Sunday, Feb. 17, AMLO attended the 10th National Congress of the Autonomous Confederation of Workers and Employees of Mexico (CATEM),
Then, on the following Sunday, Feb. 23, he attended the 84th anniversary ceremony of the foundation of the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM).
AMLO’s attendance to both meetings was meaningful, given the fact that in his administration, the president does not participate in union proselytizing and allegedly favors no one, only the workers.
Let’s take the two meetings separately, as these two labor centrals are currently at each other’s throats, fighting for control of the 40 million employee-strong Mexican labor force. And let there be no doubt about it, AMLO is walking on quicksand for trying to be pragmatic about these two organizations.
At the CATEM gathering, AMLO was pampered by leader Senator Pedro Haces, who touted that CATEM “has 1,176 national unions, 32 state federations, making it the largest labor confederation of Mexico in terms of the number of workers,” which he claimed is over 2 million.
Haces is the Veracruz Senator for the president’s National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party, but claims that “CATEM does not belong to Morena and workers have the freedom to vote for the political party of their choice.”
At the CATEM gathering, AMLO focused on talking about his relationship with employers and his feat of increasing twice the minimum wage in what he touted was “an initiative of the employers.”
Reaction from CTM leader Carlos Aceves del Olmo regarding AMLO’s visit to CATEM came swiftly.
“Why did AMLO go if Haces is a gangster,” Aceves del Olmo commented on Monday, Feb. 18, during a breakfast to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the umbrella organization Labor of Congress (CT). “We don’t understand why CATEM is celebrating its 10th anniversary if it was founded just four years ago.” Aceves del Olmo said.
At that meeting, Aceves del Olmo called upon all CT union leaders to put pressure on Congress for a reform to the foundering workers’ pension system to guarantee a decent retirement fund, both for the worker and his family.
AMLO, however, had programmed for months to attend both CATEM and CTM and he did not let down the aging CTM leader, and there was no longer mention of the competition.
At the long and festive CTM anniversary – held outdoors at La Fragua Avenue, using the Monument of the Mexican Revolution as a backdrop, there were a lot of speakers reminiscing about “the good old days” when the CTM was the king of labor centrals and “corporate unionism,” which backed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) single-party system.
AMLO stayed clear of the labor confederations fray and stuck to the carrying out by his government of the revamping of the National Housing Funding Institute (Infonavit), which became a real estate agency during the Enrique Peña Nieto administration, as well as touting wage increases.
AMLO also promised to keep demands to improve the overcrowded Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), which provides health care and pensions to really, far more people than it is equiped to handle.
At Infonavit and the IMSS, the workers’ gains in labor contracting are separate themes, but are at the crux of government services to the working class.
What grabs the most attention is that AMLO was pragmatic with both labor centrals, but made it clear that the government will not meddle in contract negotiations as it is not its job to do so.
But most importantly, AMLO did not make any noteworthy move to attempt to control any of the labor centrals politically, which is indeed a change in attitude from presidents over the past 100 years, because controlling union centrals translated into votes.
And that’s not the tone of politics the USMCA – when Canada signs in – will have in the future of labor contract negotiations.
To close this article, there is a new labor central being put together by mining and foundry workers leader Senator Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, but it does not yet have the clout that the CATEM and the CTM have, both orphaned by the democratic political system now under way.
Unlike other leaders, Gómez Urrutia has a very close relationship with AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, who has even called Gomez Urrutia his “brother” at union meetings in the United States.
Under the USMCA, however, U.S. unions will be closely supervising contract negotiations and would just love to see wage hikes in Mexico. Don’t forget, for instance, that the AFL-CIO demanded that vehicle manufacturers in Mexico pay the minimum U.S. wage of $16 an hour. Carmakers in Mexico screamed in horror.
The point being that Mexico’s traditional labor confederations are about to get jolted the moment Canada signs the USMCA and it goes into effect. The strangling of Mexican workers’ wages will be over at last, particularly if union corruption comes to an end, as promised and hoped for by AMLO.
There is no question about it, the labor revolution is in the making, hopefully, for the betterment of the USMCA economies.