MEXICO CITY (AP) — An independent union won the right to bargain at a U.S. auto parts manufacturer in central Mexico after U.S. authorities said Monday they employed a special weapon — tariffs — against pro-company unions in Mexico that have long kept wages low.
But abuses continued, after Mexican authorities revealed that a pro-company union actually stole a ballot box in a contract vote at another plant, a Goodyear tire facility in the northern state of San Luis Potosí.
The revelations show how hard it will be to end the dominance of old-guard unions in Mexico that sign weak "protection" contracts behind workers' backs, and then barely show up on the shop floor.
Eduardo Castillo, the leader of the independent "Transformation Union" at the Unique Fabricating de Mexico auto parts plant in the central state of Querétaro, said the company had tried to keep its old union, which workers hardly knew existed. The Michigan-based company did not immediately respond to an email requesting comments on the dispute.
Castillo said the company prevented members of the new union from entering the plant to speak with workers, and harassed or fired union supporters. At its wits end, with little response from Mexican labor tribunals, the union filed a complaint under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, which includes a clause requiring member countries to enforce their labor laws."
"The truth is that this was something new for us, something we had only seen on the news," Castillo said of the complaint process. "There is no instruction manual, no guide, not even very much information."
After the complaint, Mexico implemented special measures to ensure an equal, fair vote and on April 14, the new union was elected to represent workers by a secret-ballot vote.
"We are firm believers that this (complaint) mechanism is clearly good, it's a good resource for union organizers to go after the 'protection' unions," Castillo said.
Under the trade agreement, known as the USMCA, the U.S. government can do more than just press Mexico to enforce its laws.
The U.S. Trade Representative's Office said it temporarily suspended the company's tariff benefits under the USMCA until the issue was resolved. The office said the tariff benefits would be restored, and that the procedure had been used in other complaints.
The office said it was the eighth time a U.S. labor complaint about union practices in Mexico had brought results. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan, said in a statement "when we enforce our existing trade agreements, we can ensure that Michigan and American workers have a level playing field."
Mexico's Labor Department said in a statement that "as part of the internal investigation carried out by the Labor Department regarding possible discriminatory anti-union acts and interference by the company," votes were held and a new union was elected to represent workers at the plant.
But Mexican workers face an uphill battle to unseat old-guard unions that once enjoyed government protection. They are often protected by the companies, and when they lose a vote — even after pressuring union members — they often just steal ballot boxes to change the results.
Mexico's Labor Department said Monday that fraud occurred Sunday during voting on a contract held by an old-guard union affiliated with the Confederation of Mexican Workers, which for decades functioned as a wing of the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI.
The department said eye witnesses and video cameras saw when the old-guard union stole the ballot box used by the 1,130 workers at the Goodyear plant in San Luis Potosí to vote.
"It was evident that after voting concluded, the members of that union, possibly in collusion with the company's security guards, stole the ballot box," the department said in a statement.
The department vowed to re-do the elections with "exceptional" security measures "without any intervention by the union that holds the contract, and with the participation of domestic and international observers."