Missing Union Activist in Mexico Threatens NAFTA Sign-Off

Democrats want stronger enforcement of labor standards in Mexico. The feared death of a union supporter in Guerrero state does not inspire confidence.


Eduardo Verdugo/ AP Photo

Republicans have desperately attempted to drum into the public consciousness that an impeachment inquiry would poison the well for any legislation advancing through Congress. You’d be correct at this point to ask, “What legislation?”

But in at least one key area, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been bitten by the “yes, we can [legislate]!” bug, attempting to preempt criticism that her party has short-circuited government. Last week, Pelosi described talks with the Trump administration on the renegotiated NAFTA agreement (known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA) as forging “a path to yes.” A New York Times article on Tuesday followed this up by announcing progress between the two sides.

Most of the caucus remains opposed to the NAFTA update. Pelosi had held firm with these members and union leaders for a year, seeking better labor and environmental protections, and a meaningful belief that those reforms would be enforced in Mexico, as well as the removal of an intellectual-property chapter that would lock in extended patents on the most expensive prescription drugs,

It’s true that, after a year of stalling, Trump administration officials have finally begun to respond to Democratic concerns by proposing actual changes to the USMCA text. Offers are being exchanged between a Democratic working group and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

But Pelosi has seemingly been listening to a handful of frontline members in vulnerable swing seats, who have been pummeled by a pharmaceutical industry–funded ad campaign. Their unease has Pelosi wavering, something progressives view with concern. “The caucus is saying to Speaker Pelosi and the nervous Nellie freshmen, ‘We don’t want to vote unless it’s good,’” says Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Trump won’t be around, and you’re going to wear this like an albatross for the rest of your political life.”

But there’s another factor that could make the entire effort of improving the deal seem futile. It involves the disappearance of a trade union activist in Guerrero state.

Oscar Hernández Romero, a community leader, has been missing since September 23 and is feared dead. The local government in Guerrero, one of the poorest and most dangerous states in Mexico, has made no attempt to investigate the disappearance, and neither has the federal government. The case has gotten almost no coverage in the United States, although the Mexican press has discussed it.

Hernández, from Cócula, Guerrero, was a leader in the campaign to unionize the Canadian mining company Torex Gold Resources, which set up shop in 2017. He was active in calling attention to environmental and labor violations by the company, recently traveling to Mexico City to discuss it with government officials.

Like many businesses in Mexico, Torex Gold initially signed up with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a company union that was in place before the mine was built or any workers were hired. Los Mineros, an independent union that represents mine workers in Mexico, attempted to take over bargaining rights at the mine last year, but they suspended their campaign at the request of workers, after three leaders in the movement were murdered, and others were beaten or had their homes burnt down.

One of the few democratic unions in Mexico, Los Mineros has been able to enforce federal profit-sharing laws, which entitle workers to 10 percent of earnings from Mexican companies. In a mine operation like this, that bonus could equal more than a worker’s entire annual salary. But mining companies work hard to obscure that number—and to keep out unions like Los Mineros, which are insistent on profit-sharing.

[More from David Dayen]

The Hernández disappearance shows the real challenges to improving the experience for Mexican workers on the ground. Trump, no friend to workers in the United States, professes that he wants to improve workers’ fortunes in Mexico as a way of diminishing  U.S. corporate flight there—particularly in manufacturing. But it’s an open question whether Mexico can deliver on its promises, which has House Democrats wary of any deal without teeth.

Mine workers are paid decently by Mexican standards. But “the rest of the community tends to suffer,” says Ben Davis of the United Steelworkers, which has called for investigations into Hernández’s disappearance. “Land is taken from people, they’re resettled in villages. And then the narcos come in wherever there’s money.” That’s on top of the environmental degradation from gold-mining operations, which mining communities must live with.

Because they’re relatively well paid, mine workers typically get shaken down by both competing cartels and the local police; their take-home pay falls well below their actual salaries. Asking local government to investigate violence against workers can be futile, given the level of corruption. The multinational companies in Mexico blame others for the violence, probably with good reason, but they benefit from the effect of keeping workers suppressed. “The mining companies don’t act as forces of equalization, they act as negative forces,” Davis says.

The disappearance of Hernández comes on top of other troubling signs that the Mexican government simply isn’t willing or able to stand up to the forces blocking progress for workers. In addition to the lack of investigations or arrests in the Hernández case, Mexico recently proposed cutting the 2020 budget for the Labor Ministry, despite having to assume more responsibilities as a result of USMCA-mandated reforms. Those reforms, which the Mexican parliament passed in May, are currently being held up in court, something a U.S. congressional delegation in Mexico this week raised concerns about.

Moreover, the Mexican Labor Ministry has yet to reinstate workers at a Goodyear Tire plant who were fired last year for labor organizing. “That’s an easy one, you just have to follow current Mexican labor law,” says Wallach.

Some members of Congress on the delegation came back more pessimistic about the labor situation in Mexico, according to sources in contact with the Prospect. That’s especially true given the Hernández disappearance, which makes it hard for independent unions to persuade workers to risk their lives to organize. “The continued lack of protections for unionists in Mexico highlights the need for enforceable labor standards in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and additional resources in Mexico’s labor budget,” said Tom Conway, president of the United Steelworkers International, in a statement.

On paper, the reforms in the USMCA might seem decent. In practice, as with the Hernández case, they mean nothing without actual enforcement. Even if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-leaning president of Mexico, wants to break the old system and bring some measure of control back to workers, it’s not clear he has the capacity, to say nothing of the will.

Davis, from the Steelworkers union, was heartened by the López Obrador government’s response to a wildcat strike involving 30,000 factory workers in Matamoros. In a break from past practice, the Mexican government did not send in the army to force people back to work. “The employers were screaming their heads off, ‘We want the army,’” Davis says. But when the army didn’t come, the business owners cut a deal that increased take-home pay by 50 percent. “It showed that there’s so much forced inequality,” Davis says, “you could afford to increase pay by 50 percent and still make money.”

That kind of message, that the Mexican government will put worker concerns at the forefront, is what House Democrats want to see. Otherwise there’s little need to ratify a Trump-negotiated agreement that will not meaningfully improve the situation—particularly when a future Democratic president could strike a deal worth passing.

Unfortunately, Oscar Hernández Romero’s disappearance and likely death makes the Mexican government’s commitment to workers seem fleeting.

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