Mexican Union Files First NAFTA Labor Complaint with Obama Administration

The Mexico Electrical Workers Union on November 14 filed the first NAFTA labor complaint submitted to the Obama Administration.  A similar complaint was submitted on October 27 to the Canadian government.  Both charge the government of Mexico with violating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The complaints focus on the firing of 44,000 electrical workers in 2009 and the subsequent harassment and intimidation of union members who are fighting for their rights.  Dozens of unions and worker rights organizations, including USLEAP, joined in the filing of both complaints.

In 2009, the government of President Felipe Calderón sent in soldiers to close the Central Light and Power Company of Mexico, liquidating the state-owned operation and effectively disbanding the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), one of the most important independent and democratic unions in Mexico. More than 44,0000 workers lost their jobs and another 20,000 retirees lost union benefits. The Calderón Administration then replaced the state-owned company with a non-union company and subsequently refused to accept legal recognition of SME’s leadership elected this summer as the union refused to die, occupying the main square in Mexico City until some of their demands were met in mid-September 2011. 

According to the complaint, closing the company, dismissing 44,000 workers, and eliminating the collective bargaining agreement by presidential decree without any negotiations violated Mexican law and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), the labor “side agreement” of NAFTA. The Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) and the United Steelworkers, among other unions in North America, are supporting the filing of the complaint to the National Administrative Office of Canada.

In a press statement accompanying the filing, Hassan Yussuff, CLC Secretary-Treasurer, says that, “this complaint is a true test of whether the NAFTA agreement on labor cooperation is effective in safeguarding the right to freedom of association. As it is, the labor agreement is flawed and must be fixed.”

Unions and worker rights advocates have experienced little satisfaction with the NAFTA labor complaint process over the past 17 years.  Since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, there have been 39 NAFTA labor complaints filed under NAALC, virtually none of which have yielded tangible results for workers.  Yet only seven of which reached the level of ministerial consultations while none have gone to the level of sanctions.  The SME complaint will be closely watched to see if a sympathetic U.S. Administration is able to wrangle some advances but the process is more likely to demonstrate once again that the NAFTA labor complaint procedure is highly ineffective in addressing worker rights violations.