Mexico

Crisis in Mexico: the union response

Crosses erected at a site where nine women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez

- By Walton Pantland

This week is solidarity week with Mexican trade unionists. Find out more.

Mexico is experiencing an unprecedented crisis as neoliberal experimentation gives over to naked criminality.

There are attacks on on workers’ rights and trade unionists, as well as a very high murder rate, and thousands of people have ‘disappeared’.

Mexico is controlled by nine drug cartels. Since 2006, there have been over 60,000 killings related to drugs. In 2012 alone, there were over 11,000 killings. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity formed as a social movement to deal with this crisis. In addition to this, there are the ‘disappeared‘: 25,000 are missing. Only 2% of murder cases are investigated.

In addition, Mexico is a test bed for global capitalism and anti-worker policies. There have been waves of neoliberal experiments since the ’80s and ’90s, culminating most recently in labour law ‘reforms’ passed in December 2012.

For more detail on those reforms, listen to our podcast interview:

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A neoliberal test bed

Speaking at a meeting in held in London in support of Mexican trade unionists, Dr Francisco Dominguez of Centre for Latin American Studies at Middlesex University explained that the crisis has its roots in the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

Mexico is a significant regional economy, heavily influenced by the US. NAFTA unleashed a flood of neo-liberal experimentation which has been an unmitigated disaster for democracy, human rights and the people of Mexico.

Everything is flexible. Mexico is flooded with cheap imports from the US, particularly subsidised US agricultural products. For instance, Mexico now imports beans and corn from the US – despite the fact that these are stable crops that originate in Mexico. This is also an environmental crisis, as the genetic diversity that ensure food security is threatened by cheap US imports of the same variety.

Mexican farmers can’t compete and go looking for work in the maquilas, the Export Processing Zones along the US border, where there are almost no labour rights. There are 2,600 maquilas on the border, with very poor conditions that make the industrial revolution look like a picnic. About half a million people work here, almost impossible to organise due to very high turnover and other factors – building the reservoir of labour is part of the agenda of those pushing for this production model.

NAFTA causes crisis

Within a year NAFTA had caused a huge crisis in Mexico: a 35% devaluation of the peso, leading to bail out by US president Clinton and a 53% increase in Mexican debt in one week. Mexico has been in crisis ever since: socially, economically and in every other sense. By 1998, the level of poverty was around 45% – almost half the population of one of the most developed countries in the region. As a result, in the year 2000, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost power for the first time in 71 years, and the neoliberal National Action Party (PAN) took power – and things got worse. The number of poor Mexicans shot up from 45 million to 60 million in four years under PAN leadership.

As a result of this disillusionment, the PRI were voted back into power in the elections in July 2012. PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto got 39% of the vote. The left wing coalition around the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador got 32%, while the right wing PAN was defeated. The results were contested amidst widespread evidence of electoral fraud. Protests against the election result lead to the formation of the Yo Soy 132 movement, which is Mexico’s answer to Occupy or the Indignados. Mexico has a long standing problem with electoral fraud: there is a famous joke that says that Mexican democracy is better then everywhere else, because even the dead can vote!

Although there is a strong left wing mood in country, with huge electoral potential. However, the left is unable to capitalise on it, due to corruption, but also due to division. The left is represented by unions and social movements, the PRD and other political parties, Yo Soy 132 and the Zapatistas. However, like left parties everywhere, the PRD is prone to factionalism, splintering further with each defeat. Yo Soy 132 and the Zapatistas tend not to vote.

The battle for Mexico’s soul

At the same London meeting, Owen Tudor of the TUC reported that Mexico is torn between opposing paradigms: there is a battle for Mexico between the Latin American model – as showcased by the development states of Venezuela and Brazil – and the neoliberal US model. The Latin Americans have attractive offers, but cannot match the US market. In addition, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, proposed the militarisation of Mexico to tackle the drug and security crisis. As a former Mexican president once commented, “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States.”

Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights pointed out that many of the attacks on unions are illegal: anti-union legislation has lead to protection contracts which are bogus collective agreements that violate even NAFTA’s weak labour side agreement, undertaking to respect freedom of association, including the right of organised workers to freely engage in collective bargaining. There are also international and regional treaties binding the Mexican government, including the American Convention on Human Rights, and ILO Convention 87. Although Mexico hasn’t ratified ILO Convention 98 on collective bargaining, it is bound by the principles. Mexico is in breach of ILO constitutional principles, but there have been no sanctions? The EU is Mexico’s second biggest export market, and third biggest import market. Those of us in Europe have political work to do, as many EU multinationals are complicit in the suppression of labour rights in Mexico.

There are many terrible attacks on workers and trade unions, with a number of campaigns running. A shocking example of the brutality of working life in Mexico is the Pasta de Conchos mine disaster: 65 mine workers were killed, and the employer didn’t even bother to recover the bodies. Families received no compensation, and there has been no investigation into the incident. This really is capitalism at its most brutal. The attacks on organised workers in Mexico are an experiment, and these attacks will come our way if we do not stop them. The question of trade union rights lies at the heart of reconstituting Mexican society. 

We need to help Mexican workers stand up for their fundamental rights:

  • The right to organise
  • The right to bargain
  • The right to strike

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