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Open Union Vote Flouts Mexico's Pledge to Boost Secret Balloting

Latin America: Few workers are willing to publicly back bid to unseat incumbent labor group. Factory denies intimidation.

March 03, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — A union campaign for recognition at a factory in northern Mexico was overwhelmingly defeated Friday after the government allowed the vote to be conducted through an open shop-floor count, despite a pledge to the United States last year to promote the use of secret ballots in labor disputes.

Just four out of 501 workers voting at Duro de Rio Bravo, a subsidiary of Kentucky-based Duro Bag Manufacturing Corp., were willing to openly back the independent union that was seeking to unseat the traditional union linked to Mexico's former ruling party, according to company and labor officials.

Mexican and U.S. labor activists alike derided the handling of the election at the maquiladora plant in Rio Bravo near the Texas border, saying it flouted a commitment Mexico made last year to then-U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman.

But company officials said they followed the law strictly, and they denied that any intimidation took place. They contended that employees had seen through the hollow promises of labor radicals that an independent union would suddenly win them pay scales equal to those of U.S. workers.

The vote was an early labor-rights challenge for pro-business President Vicente Fox, whose election in July was widely touted as proof that fair electoral democracy had arrived in Mexico after 71 years of one-party rule.

Fox's victory raised hopes of democratizing other spheres as well, particularly organized labor, which had been a bulwark of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"This is a test of the new government's commitment to freedom of association, and unfortunately I must say they are failing that test," said Jeff Hermanson, a Mexican representative of the AFL-CIO.

"We had a democratic election here July 2, with secret ballots, that was well supervised by an independent federal electoral commission," he said, referring to the presidential election. "But those kinds of rights have not been extended to workers in the workplace," Hermanson said by cellular phone as he stood outside the plant.

One of the PRI's most loyal unions, the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants, or CROC, was the winner in the vote at the Duro factory. The loser was part of the 4-year-old National Workers Union, an independent federation.

Supporters of the independent union alleged widespread intimidation before and during the vote. Consuelo Moreno, who said she was among 70 or 80 people fired a year ago during a wildcat strike demanding the union recognition vote, alleged she saw pro-company union thugs bringing guns into the plant.

The company attorney, Tomas Natividad, denied that intimidation occurred or that weapons were on the premises. He said the vote was conducted "according to the law, in total peace and total order."

Mexican officials saw the issue through a different cultural prism from the activists. Labor law reform is being discussed haltingly, including a required secret ballot in recognition votes, but until and unless the law is changed the old system looks unshakable.

Alejandro Gonzalez, disputes director for the Labor Ministry's Conciliation and Arbitration Board, said the vote must be open if any party requests. The CROC and another pro-PRI union joined management in opposing a secret ballot, while only the independent union was in favor.

"It's not just the culture, it's the law," Gonzalez said. "In all the history of the [conciliation] board, it has been this way."

He said the purpose of the open vote is to ensure that those lining up to cast ballots are employees eligible to take part. He noted that a board actuary and a labor department inspector sat at each of the three tables with officials from the three unions to monitor the proceedings.

John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, wrote to Mexican conciliation board officials--with copies sent to Fox and Labor Minister Carlos Abascal--decrying the refusal of a secret ballot at Duro.

Sweeney called it "a step backward from the spirit and letter" of the agreement last year and noted: "The secret ballot is a fundamental democratic right, recognized by the vast majority of nations."

The U.S.-Mexican agreement resulted from investigations into earlier cases in which the U.S. labor arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement found that rights to free association were being violated. Those complaints involved the Han Young plant in Tijuana, which supplies Hyundai, and a plant in the state of Mexico owned by Echlin Inc. of Branford, Conn.

Ruben Gaona, foreign policy spokesman for the independent National Union of Workers, said the lack of a secret ballot at Duro was a clear attempt to scare employees into sticking with the official union. He said open ballots encourage bogus "protection contracts," or collective bargaining agreements worked out between unions and management with virtually no worker involvement.

"In this way the workers suffer extortion both by the company and the union," Gaona said.

But Natividad, a prominent Mexico City labor lawyer representing the plant management, said the 1,200 employees at the factory earn more than double the minimum wage, now about $4 a day, and get overtime, bonuses and meals.

Officials at company headquarters in Ludlow, Ky., said Duro has been in Mexico for 30 years, providing hand assembly of bags for customers including Hallmark Cards.

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