Date: Sat, 5 Sep 98 14:19:26 CDT
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: Mexican Union Leader Addresses UE Convention on Building a Labor Party
Date: Thu, 3 Sep 1998 22:21:24 -0400
PART II, MEXICAN LABOR NEWS AND ANALYSIS, SEPTEMBER 2, 1998
United Electrical Workers host Canadian and Mexican political leaders
Mexican Labor News and Analysis, Vol. 3 no. 15, 2 September 1998
The 63rd convention of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), was held in Pittsburgh from August 23 through August 27. The theme of the convention was building a labor party; the Labor Party's convention will be held in Pittsburgh this November, and the UE was one of the founding unions and continues to be a strong supporter. In order to gain from the experience of other countries the UE invited Libby Davies, a social worker from British Columbia who is a newly elected Member of Parliament with the Canadian NDP, and Manuel Fuentes, the Director of Labor for Mexico City under the new Cardenas (PRD) government. Manuel Fuentes' presentation is reproduced below.
As reported in the last issue of MLNA, the Echlin Workers' Alliance (recently converted into the Dana Workers' Alliance due to the purchase of Echlin, Inc. by the Dana Corporation) recently received an excellent decision from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Administrative Office (NAO). The UE Convention also included a tri-national panel which addressed the importance of the tri-national alliance which has grown to include the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT) from Mexico, the IBT, UE, UNITE!, UAW, Paperworkers, USWA, Machinists, IUE, and Canadian auto and steelworkers. Robert Kingsley, Organizing Director of the UE was joined by Benedicto Martinez of the FAT, Dan Kovalik, an attorney with the USWA and Gerry Barr, Director of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund in Canada. The panel also spoke of the importance of the US decision and of the up-coming hearing on September 14th in Ottawa - the first hearing to be held on a Canadian complaint.
Two organizers from the FAT's Workers' Center in Juarez (the Centro de Estudios y Taller Laboral, A.C.) also attended the convention and made brief presentations. They found themselves among old friends when they met up with some of the of the UE delegates they had worked with in Milwaukee last Spring as participants in a training program for rank and file UE workers. The Convention held a special reception honoring the rank and file organizers who were graduates of the five regional schools.
MANUEL FUENTES, DIRECTOR OF LABOR FOR CARDENAS GOVERNMENT IN MEXICO CITY ADDRESSES UE NATIONAL CONVENTION
[Manuel Fuentes, the Director of Labor for Mexico City addressed the 63rd Convention of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 26, 1998. The following is a translation of his speech.]
First of all I would like to thank you for the invitation by this important union to attend your convention. I appreciate the chance to talk to you about the new political reality which we are living in the capital of Mexico, which represents an enormous challenge and opportunity for workers to be able to achieve real change.
I would like to point out first of all what the victory of Cardenas means in Mexico City. It was the first election where the citizens of Mexico City were able to elect their own mayor, because previously the mayor was named by the President of the Republic. Cardenas won overwhelmingly, beating the party that for more than sixty years had governed the capital. The official party lost all of the electoral districts, and lost control of the legislative assembly for the city.
The PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution] is a party which we could call center-left: A party which promised the citizens a struggle for greater democracy, a fight against corruption and improved conditions for all citizens. But I want to point out that this victory in Mexico City was due probably more to the fame of the candidate Cardenas than to the party itself. This victory created great expectations and hope among the citizens of the city. When Cardenas began his term, the citizens hoped that the next day there would be change. One of the main problems in Mexico City is violence. There's an average of 700 crimes every day in Mexico City, violent crimes. There's huge unemployment, a lot of corruption in the government institutions, and also a tremendous amount of government incompetence.
Cardenas was criticized because the new team that he brought in was a team of people who were not experts. Because the left in Mexico had never been in power many of us had always been against the government. And now we are the government and this is a great challenge to overcome. One of the main problems which was discussed was that we preferred people who were inexperienced to people who were corrupt. But the problem is that people want change, and they want to see the changes not just hear about them.
Regarding labor issues, one of the changes that Cardenas instituted was to increase the influence and the power of the Department of Labor in Mexico City. An Undersecretary of Labor was created and the office which I represent was given greater powers. An office was created for the first time to deal with women's problems on the job; a department was also created to deal with the problem of underage workers who work in stores between he ages of 15-16. There are about 20,000 young people who work under those conditions. There was also an attempt to try and improve conditions in the office which deals with workers' problems.
I want to point out that the actions which we are carrying out have three major aspects. The first one has to do with the Office of Legal Defense. Workers have the right to have free legal assistance before the labor courts. But when we took power we found the office filled with corruption, with very low wages for the officials, and instead of being an office in favor of workers' rights it was an office which served the interests of the bosses. It was an office which permitted employers to pay low wages and do away altogether with the rights of workers. We have begun a policy of fundamental change, where we rely on young students whom we have been training as attorneys to work in favor of workers' rights.
One of the serious problems we have is that the lawyers in this department are unionized workers. They earn about $360 a month. But even so, they have big cars, big houses, they live well and when we've tried to take action against these corrupt attorneys the official government union defends them. The government union, the official union, has threatened us with engaging in work stoppages to try to block our efforts towards change.
We realize that it is important to increase our activity and to raise the confidence of the workers, so that they may defend themselves. But the actions have got to come from the workers themselves. We have begun training workers so that they learn how to defend their rights, to defend themselves from corrupt attorneys. We have conducted courses on how to form unions, to teach workers their rights in the case of discharges, and how legal cases proceed. We have opened an Office of Complaints so that when the old attorneys are committing fraud we can file charges against them, and so that if we find them engaging in acts of corruption we can fine or fire them.
We are, right now, in a war with the corrupt attorneys because they hide their acts of corruption. To give you an idea, there are 25 of these attorneys and they have about 160 cases per attorney, and it is very difficult for three or four officials to monitor all of these cases. There are students who are participating in our government who are working as volunteers while they are waiting for job openings. We believe that if we want to make change we have to sweep out all the old officials. But the problem is that we can't fire everybody we'd like to if we don't have good proof, good evidence.
We have another office which is in charge of workplace inspections, to ensure that labor law is complied with in workplaces. When we brought the government to the workplace, we found that for the last 12 years there had been no workplace inspections in Mexico City. There had been a complete surrender to the employers. They did whatever they wanted. We hired young university students, we began to train them and we sent them out to the workplaces to make sure that the laws were being respected.
The first problem that we found was that there was a lot of resistance on the part of the bosses, when for the first time the encountered young officials who wanted to speak directly to the workers in order to find out what the conditions of work were like in their workplaces. We've had cases where the inspectors have been kidnaped by employers and have had others thrown out on the street to make sure that they don't carry out their inspections of the workplace. We've had to call bosses and tell them that this is a crime, and try to persuade the employers that they have to respect the law. Pursuing a policy of persuasion has been difficult because the employers are scared that the policies of Cardenas will mean that possibly the workplaces will be shut down or employers persecuted. We have tried to reach agreements with them that if they will respect the law we will not fine them or take action against them.
In Mexico City there are about 110,000 businesses and we only have 25 inspectors. So, practically, we inherited an infrastructure which is inefficient and it won't be until the end of this year that we will be able to have a new budget and we can increase the level of activity of the government.
We also found that although there was an office which dealt with health and safety, there were empty file cabinets, no computers, no office personnel and only three people in charge of health and safety with nobody to assist them. What we will try to do is to reach agreements with the universities, and through their social service requirements be able to get personnel for these posts. The problem with these social services assignments is that students work for six months and then they are gone. We need people who are really convinced and who are willing to work as volunteers. They are trying to help us in inspections having to do with workplace safety.
I'd like to point out that in our country there are about 500,000 accidents a year. This is one of the highest rates of accidents in the world. This is due to the tremendous pressures that the bosses impose in the workplaces. They don't train workers and, therefore, people are hurt on the job. There's also a big problem regarding women workers. There are only two people in charge of the office on women's issues. They are trying to set up conferences with women and with unions, and also participate in workplace inspections to ensure that the bosses are not taking advantage of pregnant women. But this is also a legislative problem because the law does not adequately protect the women. Even when the Cardenas government would like to make improvements, the laws would have to be changed at the federal level.
Another problem that we have, a difficult problem that we're trying to deal with, is a fight against so-called "protection contracts". In Mexico there are 86,000 union contracts registered, and only 20 percent of those contracts are active or real contracts. Nonetheless, if you had invited a Mexican federal official to this convention, he would say that 95 percent of the workers in Mexico have a union. But the problem is that the so called union is a paper union. In our country it is legal for a union leader, without talking to the workers, to sign a union contract which stays in the desks of the union leader and the bosses, and when the workers go to the Labor Board they're not allowed a copy of this contract. We're trying to carry out actions so that in the next few months the workers can have access to their contracts.
One of the biggest problems workers face is that of thugs or goons in workplaces, especially because union elections are not held by secret ballot vote. When workers want to obtain recognition for their union or change unions, the workers have to declare openly before the representatives of the government, the union and the boss which union they prefer. One of the actions of Cardenas' government was to try to move towards secret ballot elections. And we're trying to work on some agreements with the Labor Board so that unions that request secret ballot elections can do so in Mexico City. The problem that we encounter is that the local Labor Board, which is the office where jurisdictional questions are settled and which decides representational questions, is an autonomous office. It is controlled by the Chamber of Commerce and the representatives, so-called representatives, of the workers, which are official government organizations. So a lot of the problem of breaking with this kind of corruption is to try to open new spaces for workers.
One of the recent actions we have taken as a government is to try to let the workers know what we are up to. We've had forums with workers, and tried to let workers know that if we take action in favor of their rights, they also have to take action to support our efforts. One of the fundamental problems is the lack of secret ballot elections, which has to do with the control of the unions, and the control of the unions has meant low wages. Our country is one of the countries with the lowest wages in the world. The key to this is that workers do not have real unions. I'd like to explain that whenever some workers, for example, go on strike, in those places where people have paper unions what happens is that they cannot legally strike and they cannot achieve a union contract because there is already supposedly a union in place. In many cases changing a union takes one to two years. During this process there are always a lot of discharges of workers. We believe that it is important for workers to have access to their contracts and their union bylaws. (Applause)
Finally, I'd like to explain that right now a big problem that we have is that there is no response from the trade unions. When we conduct workplace inspections, for example, workers are scared when we show up. They are scared to demand that laws be complied with, and they think that if they do that they will be fired. The law allows us to conduct inspections without the boss accompanying us. One of the things the inspectors have done is to go into the bathrooms and try and talk to workers to be able to find out what the working conditions are really like.
Recently, at one of the inspections we found that in a Chinese food restaurant they paid less than minimum wage. The owner threatened to fire all the workers and our inspectors told him that we would put him in jail if he didn't pay the minimum wage. (Applause) He finally agreed to pay the workers the minimum wage and to pay their back pay, but he complained to us that other restaurant owners also were not paying the minimum wage and protested that we went after him. The problem is that there are maybe 800 Chinese restaurants and we have 25 inspectors and even if we give them a lot of assignments everyday they can't get to all the workplaces. We think it is important is to bring these kinds of questions before the public so that unions and workers can demand higher budgets for us to carry out these kinds of actions.
Regarding the free trade agreement, NAFTA has meant plant closings and low wages. The fundamental problem is that the transnational companies are stepping all over Mexican labor law. Obviously, one of our big problems, one of our big worries is that when inspectors go to the plant or when companies are subpoenaed, the companies prefer to go to the Labor Board which is still dominated by corrupt officials, to be able to do as they please at the expense of the workers. We think that we face a huge challenge, but that we've moved a few millimeters ahead, a few inches ahead towards the goals that we have set.
I've been a union attorney and now that I am a government official it's clear to me that if the public and the unions, if they do not participate together with the government, the actions that we take will wind up only being paper actions. That's why we need active unions where workers know their rights. In our country, out of every 800 workers only one of them knows their rights under the labor law. We believe that one of the best ways to protect workers is for workers to know their rights, because if workers do not know their rights they can't defend them. (Applause) Rights that are not defended are rights that disappear.
Thank you very much. (Applause)