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Working In These Times

Friday, Jul 15, 2011, 11:45 am

First NAFTA-Wide Union Could Emerge This Year

BY Mike Elk

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United Steelworkers and Mexico's Los Mineros union could develop a unification proposal as soon as this August

In Mexico, few independent union exist that are not effectively controlled by the Mexican government. According to United Steelworkers International Affairs Director Ben Davis, fewer than 1 percent of Mexico’s unions are truly independent unions. As a result of the lack of independent unions in Mexico, Mexican workers have had a very hard time advocating for higher wages. Further, those unions that are independent in Mexico—like the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Related Workers of the Mexican Republic, aka Los Mineros—have faced severe oppression at the hands of government-affiliated unions.

In 2006, Los Mineros President Napoleon Gomez Urrutia was forced to flee to Canada after the Mexican government charged him with what union officials characterize as trumped-up charges of embezzlement. A federal Mexican court has dismissed the charges against Gomez Urrutia, but the charges against him remain pending at the state level. Supporters of the exiled labor leader says that he was only charged with crimes after he demanded an investigation of 2006 mine explosion that killed 65 workers at the Pasta de Conchos. Gomez Urrutia has been running the 180,000-member Los Mineros union out of the Steelworkers' District 3 offices in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Despite the charges against Gomez Urrutia and his forced exile, his continued relevance was demonstrated late last week when officials for the Mexican operations of steel corporation ArcelorMittal traveled to Toronto to negotiate with the exiled Mexican labor leader. The trip was made possible in part through the assistance of the United Steelworkers (USW), who may merge with Los Mineros later this year.

 Last month, In These Times Contributing Editor Kari Lydersen profiled how the unique cross-border solidarity emerged between USW and Los Mineros. In 2005, steelworkers went out on strike at an Asarco owned copper mining and smelting mill in Arizona in 2005. Many Mineros members who work at the Grupo Mexico company, which owns Asarco, went out on strike and performed other solidarity actions in support of striking miners in Arizona.

As a result of that strike, a solidarity agreement was formed between those two unions in 2005. In 2010, USW and Los Mineros formed a joint commission to look at merging their two unions. According to United Steelworkers Public Affairs Director Gary Hubbard, the joint commission is working toward a  unification proposal for discussion at the Steelworkers’ convention in August in Las Vegas.

As Kari Lydersen noted, “If the merger occurs, the new USW-Mineros union would represent more than 1 million workers—the USW has 850,000 members, while the Mineros has 180,000.”

If the USW/Los Mineros merger passes, as many expect it will, it would be the first between a Mexican-based union, an American affiliate of a union and a Canadian affiliate of a union—marking a new phase of cross-border solidarity. The merger has the potential to reshape labor markets in both countries.

“We are directly affected everyday by the low-wage competition from Mexico. The reason that competition is low-wage is because Mexican government keeps wages low by busting unions,” says USW International Affairs Director Ben Davis. “It’s a matter of survival for us to have democratic unions that support workers’ rights and raise wages. It’s really about closing the gap the right way by bringing Mexican wages up, not our wages down, through strengthening alliances between workers who quite often have the same employers."

Correction: The original version of this article stated that members of both USW and Los Mineros would vote on a unification proposal if it were part of USW's August convention. In fact, only USW members can vote on proposals presented at the convention.


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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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