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US to appeal Mexico's refusal to investigate labor complaint at Mexican mine

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The U.S. government announced Tuesday it is filing its first appeal ever over Mexico’s refusal to investigate alleged labor violations involving the right to organize.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said it will request a dispute resolution panel to decide the case of the San Martín mine in the northern state of Zacatecas. It marked the first time Mexico has decloed to look into a complaint on a labor issue under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

For more than two years, Mexico had accepted more than a dozen U.S. complaints on behalf of union organizers in Mexico who claimed they were prevented from organizing freely.

But since the beginning of August, Mexico has refused to intervene in at least two cases, marking the first time it has rejected labor complaints.

In one case, Mexico's Economy Department on Aug. 1 rejected a U.S. complaint about the San Martín mine, which produces zinc, lead, copper and silver. The mine has been in a long dispute between two unions that claim to represent its workers.

Mexico said that dispute will be resolved only by Mexican courts, because it dates from 2007 and thus predates USMCA, which went into effect in 2020.

“This announcement upholds the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to creating a more level playing field for workers to feel empowered and using every enforcement tool at our disposal to safeguard workers’ rights,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.

The panel of experts would have about six months to decide who is right on the issue.

The dispute represents the first major challenge to the “rapid response mechanism,” or RRM, which was established under the USMCA and stands as one of the biggest success stories of international labor rights cooperation.

“The RRM has proved to be a critical instrument for defending the free exercise of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights," Tai said. “While we are always open to collaborating with Mexico to find a resolution, our priority is delivering meaningful outcomes for workers.”

The National Union of Mineworkers, which supported the complaint, said in a statement that “without a doubt, this RRM could be a precedent to make Mexican authorities commit themselves to solving a conflict that has left hundreds of mine workers and their families totally defenseless."

Mexico changed its labor laws between 2012 and 2017, in part to get approval for entry into the USMCA. The new laws require secret-ballot votes on union contracts. That was a recognition of the fact that Mexico's old-guard, pro-government union system had artificially held down wages for decades.

The violations — many of which Mexico agreed to act on — were almost comic. Old-guard unions, in cahoots with companies, would threaten workers with dismissal or loss of benefits if they chose an independent union. They would also hold voice votes, if they held any at all. When forced to participate in secret-ballot votes, the old-guard unions sometimes stole the ballot boxes if they felt they were losing.

In case after case, Mexican independent labor activists sent complaints to the U.S. trade representative, which forwarded them to Mexico, which in turn agreed to order elections held again under fair circumstances.

The process almost always resulted in the independent unions winning. But in March, an old-guard union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, won a rare victory at Japanese auto parts manufacturer Grupo Yazaki.

The Casa Obrera del Bajio, a labor activist group, charged the company and the old-guard union teamed up to intimidate workers into voting for it.

In Mexico's second refusal to investigate, the Economy Department said last week that “there is no substantive evidence of company interference or denial of the right to union freedom.”

Casa Obrera contends it has copies of the leaflets Grupo Yazaki handed out at the plant gates telling workers the March 31 vote would not allow them to choose a new union, when in fact it would. It says that independent union organizers were fired and that the old union, along with company representatives, harassed and pressured workers.

The U.S. government has said it hopes the labor complaints will one day allow Mexican wages to rise closer to those in the United States, stemming the outflow of manufacturing jobs.

There is a long way to go to reach that goal. For example, at one auto plant in northern Mexico, a newly elected union got the minimum wage increased to about $14 a day, still less than a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour.