President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto promised reforms to stimulate… (Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA )
MEXICO CITY — Mexicans took to the streets Wednesday to protest a proposed law that is aimed at modernizing rules in the workplace and making Mexico's powerful, corrupt unions more accountable.
The protests represent an early salvo against the incoming government of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who promised broad reforms to stimulate the economy but who may encounter in the workers and their unions an insurmountable challenge.
Many workers say they fear that the so-called labor reform law would be abused to curtail the few protections they have. And the dinosaurian, notoriously undemocratic unions have long had a cozy, mutually beneficial relationship with Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and they will resist change that could cut into their power.
On Wednesday, several hundred people led by unions and leftist political parties marched through this capital in protest, as the labor committee in the Chamber of Deputies debated the bill, proposed by President Felipe Calderon in one of his final initiatives before stepping down Dec. 1.
The proposal could go before the full chamber as early as Thursday.
But already there were signs that the PRI wants to water down efforts to reform the unions, and leftist politicians oppose several parts of the bill that they said would weaken workers' rights.
Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who leads the PRI contingent in the chamber, said the bill's provisions calling for union transparency appeared to violate a constitutional protection of unions against outside influence.
"The only thing the PRI is doing is taking care of workers' rights … and protecting the right to work and to autonomous unions," he said.
If consensus is not reached, the bill could go down in flames, an embarrassing setback for Calderon but especially for Peña Nieto, who would already have failed in a key campaign promise before he takes office.
"If this new law modernizes the nation's labor and union life, then it shows that Peña and his group of reformers are in charge," Jose Antonio Alvarez, a veteran PRI politician who now writes newspaper columns, said in an online commentary. "But if this is a deceitful and decaffeinated legislative fiasco, it will be clear that the Congress and the PRI remain property of the old dinosaurs."
As proposed by Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, the law would do several things:
• Allow employers to hire personnel for trial or training periods and fire them easily if they don't make the cut; to outsource work under some conditions; and to pay an hourly wage. The PRI agrees with these provisions; the left does not.
Restrict the right to strike.
Require unions, some of which are enormously wealthy, to open their books to the workers and allow workers to choose their leaders with a free and secret vote. The left accepts parts of this provision, but the PRI rejects it altogether.
The bill does not provide for unemployment insurance, something that the left wants.
There is broad agreement in Mexico for the need for some kind of labor reform. Experts say unwieldy unions, like those representing workers from the state oil conglomerate, end up holding back the economy and stunting Mexico's ability to compete as many employees toil for substandard wages or are driven into a vast, informal workplace with little protection.
Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, urged during a recent meeting with Peña Nieto that the reforms be passed. He said it would create millions of jobs, make the economy grow and help "end [Mexico's] mediocrity."
Yet big businesses in Mexico tend to hold most of the cards when dealing with workers, and many say the law would erode the little job security workers can count on now.
Luis de la Calle, a prominent economist, said at a conference Wednesday that the reform would have to allow workers to advance in their jobs based on merit.
"Mexico will only be more competitive when it is more productive," he said. "The question [in the reform] is about labor mobility.... There must be a trampoline."
Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.