The Clinton administration’s position linking trade policy and labor rights has placed the NAO and Karesh under a spotlight. In Seattle, the administration argued that free-trade agreements could protect workers‘ rights while boosting profits for large corporations. In the wake of Congress’ vote to upgrade China‘s trading status, presidential candidate Al Gore went even further, claiming that he would guarantee the enforcement of labor rights in future trade negotiations.
At the seminar, Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma held out the same promise to Mexican workers, declaring in his speech Friday that “NAFTA has as a purpose increasing the respect for workers’ rights.” Mexico has developed “a new labor culture of harmony and cooperation between workers and employers” as a result of NAFTA, he added.
The actual record of the side agreement doesn‘t provide much support for that claim. In fact, only one of the many workers fired for independent union activity has been rehired, and not a single contract has been signed with an independent union. NAO Secretary Karesh said that the treaty has no mechanism to “get a particular worker’s job back, or try to resolve cases in favor of particular groups of workers.”
He insisted, however, on the importance of the Mexican government‘s pledge regarding two reforms. One would allow workers to choose a union by secret ballot in future elections, a change from the current procedure, which requires that workers announce their vote in public. And the government also agreed to publish a list of all union contracts, which would make protection contracts public knowledge for the first time, especially to those workers who labor under them.
But will these commitments be enforced? “I believe we will begin to see an impact,” Karesh said, “but will there be immediate change? I don’t think so.”
After the beatings, Mexican union leader Jose Luis Hernandez told Han Young workers that he intended to lay the problem before the AFL-CIO when he meets with U.S. labor leaders next week. “What‘s happening here affects U.S. workers too, since companies are relocating to Mexico to take advantage of our situation,” he said.
For two years, authorities in Tijuana have used nationalist sentiment to slam the Han Young workers for receiving support from U.S. labor. Hernandez, by contrast, emphasizes the groundbreaking importance of such an alliance. “In the last few years, it’s clear to us that the AFL-CIO has a different attitude now toward Mexicans both here and in the U.S. We‘re supporting each other more now, and we’d like to see the AFL-CIO take this case to the U.S. administration.”
Labor attorney Peñaflor, meanwhile, intends to file suit in U.S. courts on behalf of Han Young workers. As precedent, he cites a 1996 sexual-harassment case in which workers at a Tijuana factory claimed protection under U.S. civil rights laws because the maquiladora had U.S. owners and produced goods for a U.S. company.
Whatever the outcome, the lack of results through the NAFTA process demonstrates the fatal flaws in the treaty‘s worker protections, said Robin Alexander, the officer with the electrical workers union. “We need a separate entity, one that has teeth, that has the power to require enforcement,” she said. “We don’t want more meetings and further study. We want real changes.”
That is not the view of Labor Sub-Secretary Moctezuma. In ending the Tijuana seminar, he complimented his audience -- including the attackers -- by telling them that “in Baja California, society has a clear democratic mission, characterized by open and frank discussion.”
The workers expelled from the meeting weren‘t in much of a position to argue.