Mexican Congress Strikes Down Effort To Make Unions More Transparent

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By Angelo Young | September 27, 2012 2:08 AM EST

Mexico is embarking on a drive to reform to its labor system, but lawmakers have backed away from tackling one of the biggest issues facing collective bargaining, the lack of transparency in union budgets and elections.

The Mexican Congress is set to approve this week a fast-tracked bill that reforms the country’s antiquated labor laws, which haven’t seen changes since the 1970s. The package was put forth by outgoing President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) and welcomed by incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

But lawmakers quickly scrapped a provision that requires external audits of union budgets and elections that aimed to help root out union corruption and union election-rigging. Leaving out any scrutiny of union budgets and elections has been criticized as collusion between Mexico’s business and union elites.

"They are leaving out the points they claimed were the most beneficial in terms of democracy and transparency, because it's clear there was an agreement between the PRI and (Calderon's) National Action (PAN) party to move forward on what they're really interested in, which is ‘flexibilized’ work rules," Manuel Oropeza, leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) in Mexico City told long-time Associated Press Mexico correspondent Mark Stevenson.

It wouldn’t be the first time unions and business interests have colluded. Mexico’s pre-eminent late union boss, Fidel Velázquez Sánchez, was closely associated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party elites for most of the 20th century. Velázquez was one of the country’s “dinosaurs,” as they were derisively called due to how long they clung to power. He opposed student activism in support of Cuba in the 60s, pushed out leaders of the powerful electrical union that called for great democracy in decision making in the 70s, was a vocal opponent of PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in the 80s, supported NAFTA in the 90s and even cancelled International Workers Day in 1996, a year before he died at the estimated age of 97.

It’s no wonder millions of Mexicans prefer instead to go at it alone in the informal economy that the World Bank has estimated represents about 30 percent of gross national product, working as street vendors or undocumented laborers in their own country; or they migrate north to do the same in more lucrative U.S. jobs offered illegally and with impunity by private American citizens or contractors seeking to save money. In many cases an undocumented worker in Mexico can earn a higher wage than what would be offered for a unionized or non-unionized position, if one is even available.

The bill that is expected to become law includes provisions allowing part-time work, hourly (rather than daily) wage rates and temporary employment agencies. If these elements of the reform package become law, it will make it easier for employers to use contracted labor and to take workers on and off the clock.

Proponents of the changes say this flexibility is vital to getting more young people on the clock and is part of a bigger picture of structural social security, energy and fiscal reforms expected over the next year in an attempt to boost the country’s gross domestic product.

"The PRI is only protecting workers' rights," Manlio Fabio Beltrones, head of the PRI bloc in the lower house, told Reuters. "I am convinced that combining respect for rights with labor flexibility and modernization is what this country needs."

Opponents of the bill's labor flexibility provisions, led by the PRD as well as unions and their loyalists, argue that more Mexicans will lose benefits and job security while doing nothing to address problems endemic to the country’s collective bargaining system, which is enshrined in the constitution.

The reforms as they are expected to stand are “intended to ‘flexibilize’ the world of work, to make the workers’ wages even more precarious, and to close the door to independent and democratic unions,” Benedicto Martínez Orozco, once of the leaders of the National Union of Workers told Mexican Labor News and Analysis.

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