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NAFTA and after

Unions tests labor side agreement

by Peter Costantini

Seattle—January 1, 1999

The Wall Street Journal's 1997 verdict on the labor side agreement signed along with the North American Free Trade Agreement was harsh: "Both supporters and opponents of NAFTA agree that the side agreements have had little impact, mainly because the mechanisms they created have no enforcement power.Not a single worker was ever reinstated, not a single employer was ever sanctioned, no union was ever recognized."

In the ensuing year, though, trade unionists in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada have increasingly used the provisions to spotlight labor-rights abuses.

The labor side agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), has had little impact in the cases brought under it so far. Nevertheless, North American unions have tentatively begun to use its legal machinery to test the waters of cross-border union organizing. According to Lance Compa, former research director for NAFTA's Commission for Labor Cooperation, more complaints were filed under the NAALC in 1998 than in the first four years of the pact, with over a dozen cases now pending.

In Mexico, cooperation between businesses, the officially sanctioned Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the government has often thwarted workers efforts' to organize independently or to protest bad working conditions. Labor laws often go unenforced, and sometimes overt repression is used against workers. Unions not linked to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, although growing, are still weak.

"The labor side agreement and complaints in Mexico under it served an enormous purpose," says Compa. "It's really created space for independent trade unions in Mexico to make progress, develop allies and make their case before an international audience." He points to the National Union of Workers (UNT), a new alternative labor federation that emerged last year.

Under NAFTA, maquiladora manufacturing has grown rapidly and expanded from along the U.S. border into other areas within Mexico. Maquiladoras are tax-free plants that assemble foreign-made components for re-export. Under NAFTA, "employment in the maquiladora sector has grown by 300,000 jobs," said Berta Luján of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), an independent Mexican union. "But if we compare this growth with the shrinkage in small and medium industry, which account for the majority of jobs in Mexico, on the balance we find more losses than gains."

Interview with LujŠn

Efforts to organize maquiladoras have often been met by firings and intimidation. In the one case in which an independent union seemed to have gained recognition-a Tijuana truck chassis plant owned by Hyundai contractor Han Young-the firm ultimately closed the factory and reopened it with new workers represented by the government-controlled CTM, according to Luján. "They didn't rehire the people who supported the independent union," she said. "They left them out on the street."

While most of the earlier NAALC complaints were brought against Mexico for failure to enforce labor laws, a case initiated in May by Luján's FAT and the UNT seeks to defend the rights of migrant workers in the U.S. in Washington state's apple industry, the largest in the world. Mexico is its biggest single export market, and most of its 45,000 workers are Mexicans. Yet farmworkers in the U.S. are not protected by labor organizing laws. Because the case also covers health and safety issues in orchards and packing houses, a labor victory could lead to the first economic sanctions under NAALC.

In other recent complaints, restaurant workers filed the first case involving Canada in October when a Macdonald's in Montreal was closed just as its workers were on the verge of being certified as a union. Canadian unions and human rights groups accused the Mexican government of failing to protect workers against physical intimidation during a union election and asbestos exposure at a automotive brake plant near Mexico City, owned by the Dana Corporation of Ohio.

A group of students at Yale Law School, President Clinton's alma mater, initiated a complaint against the U.S. Department of Labor and Immigration (DOL) and Naturalization Service (INS). The students claimed that an agreement between the two agencies encouraged DOL inspectors who receive complaints about minimum-wage violations to inform on undocumented workers to the INS, thus undermining the minimum-wage law.

In the balance, Luján sees the NAALC as offering a limited opportunity "to denounce in an international forum the illegal actions of firms that profit from free trade but don't respect the human rights of labor or their own laws. I say limited because up until now the cases we've brought have not resolved the conflicts or brought us justice."

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Peter Costantini writes about Latin America, labor and technology issues for MSNBC News, Inter Press Service, and other news outlets. An edited version of this piece went out on the IPS newswire on December 20, 1998.