The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike in both the public and private sectors; however, conflicting law, regulations, and practice restricted these rights.
The law requires a minimum of 20 workers to form a union. To receive official recognition from the government, unions must file for registration with the appropriate conciliation and arbitration board (CAB) or the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS). For the union to be able to perform its legally determined functions, its leadership must also register with the appropriate CAB or STPS. CABs operated under a tripartite system with government, worker, and employer representatives. Outside observers raised concerns that the boards did not adequately provide for inclusive worker representation and often perpetuated a bias against independent unions, in part due to intrinsic conflicts of interest within the structure of the boards exacerbated by the prevalence of representatives from “protection” (unrepresentative, corporatist) unions.
By law a union may call for a strike or bargain collectively in accordance with its own bylaws. Before a strike may be considered legal, however, a union must file a “notice to strike” with the appropriate CAB, which may find that the strike is “nonexistent,” or in other words, cannot proceed legally. The law prohibits employers from intervening in union affairs or interfering with union activities, including through implicit or explicit reprisals against workers. The law allows for reinstatement of workers if the CAB finds the employer fired the worker unfairly and the worker requests reinstatement; however, the law also provides for broad exemptions for employers from such reinstatement, including employees of confidence or workers who have been in the job for less than a year.
Although the law authorizes the coexistence of several unions in one worksite, it limits collective bargaining to the union that has “ownership” of a collective bargaining agreement. When there is only one union present, it automatically has the exclusive right to bargain with the employer. Once a collective bargaining agreement is in place at a company, another union seeking to bargain with the employer must compete for bargaining rights through a “recuento” (bargaining-rights election) administered by the CAB. The union with the largest number of votes goes on to “win” the collective bargaining rights. It is not mandatory for a union to consult with workers or have worker support to sign a collective bargaining agreement with an employer. The law establishes that internal union leadership votes may be held via secret ballot, either directly or indirectly.
The government, including the CABs, did not consistently protect worker rights. The government’s common failure to enforce labor and other laws left workers with little recourse regarding violations of freedom of association, poor working conditions, and other labor problems. The CABs’ frequent failure to impartially and transparently administer and oversee procedures related to union activity, such as union elections and strikes, undermined worker efforts to exercise freely their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. A report released in April 2015--commissioned by the President’s Office and produced by the CIDE economic research center--found no guarantees of impartial and efficient labor justice from the boards and recommended the eventual incorporation of the CABs into the judicial branch.
In November the Congress passed constitutional reforms introduced in by President Pena Nieto that would dissolve the CABs and transfer their various functions to different entities. Judicial functions would transfer to the federal and state judiciaries, administrative functions would transfer to a new federal administrative entity, and conciliation functions would transfer to new conciliation entities. In addition to structural changes, the proposed labor reforms would require verification of worker support for a collective bargaining agreement prior to its registration, and they would establish concrete timeframes for all steps in the process for challenging a union’s exclusive bargaining rights. Thirteen state legislatures approved the legislation prior to the end of the year.
By law penalties for violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining laws range from 16,160 pesos ($960) to 161,600 pesos ($9,640). Such penalties were rarely enforced and were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and/or judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.
To reduce backlogs and average time to issue labor rulings from 200 to 150 days, some states began implementing oral trials at their local CABs. There are 19 CABs located in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, and Baja California. In the state of Mexico, from 2011 to 2015, the new process reduced the number of pending actions from 35,000 to 27,000.
Workers exercised their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining with difficulty. The process for registration of unions has been politicized, and according to union organizers, the government, including the CABs, frequently used the process to reward political allies or punish political opponents. For example, it rejects registration applications for new locals of independent unions and for new unions on technicalities.
Companies and protection unions used complex divisions and a lack of coordination between federal and state jurisdictions to manipulate the labor conciliation and arbitration processes. For example, a company might register a collective bargaining agreement at both the federal and the local level, and later alternate the jurisdictions when individuals filed and appealed complaints to gain favorable outcomes. Additionally, union organizers from several sectors raised concerns regarding the overt and usually hostile involvement of the CABs when organizers attempted to create independent unions.
Protection (unrepresentative, corporatist) unions and “protection contracts,” collective bargaining agreements signed by employers and these unions to prevent meaningful negotiations and ensure labor peace, continued to be a problem in all sectors. These contracts were facilitated by exclusivity in bargaining and lack of a requirement for workers to demonstrate support for a collective bargaining agreement or the union that negotiated it before the agreement could take effect. Protection contracts often were developed before the company hired any workers and without direct input from or knowledge of the covered workers. For example, in August 2015 a leader of the Workers Confederation of Mexico (CTM)--a known protection union--claimed that he was negotiating a collective bargaining agreement to cover workers at a tire factory in San Luis Potosi that was not set to begin production until 2017. As of July, of 31 automotive industry plants, 27 had protection contracts with the CTM.
Independent unions, a few multinational corporations, and some labor lawyers and academics called on the government to institute legal reforms that would prohibit registration of collective bargaining agreements where the union cannot demonstrate support by a majority of workers or where workers had not ratified the content of the agreements. Many observers noted working conditions of a majority of workers were under the control of these contracts and the unrepresentative unions that negotiated them, and that the protection unions and contracts often prevented workers from fully exercising their labor rights as defined by law. These same groups advocated for workers to receive hard copies of existing collective bargaining agreements when they are hired.
According to several NGOs and unions, many workers faced procedural obstacles and various forms of intimidation (including physical violence) from protection union leaders, or employers supporting a protection union, in the lead-up to, during, and after bargaining-rights elections from other workers, union leaders, violent individuals hired by a company, or employers favoring a particular union. Some employers attempted to influence bargaining-rights elections through the illegal hiring of pseudo employees immediately prior to the election to vote for the company-controlled union.
Other intimidating and manipulative practices continued to be common, including dismissal of workers for labor activism. In November 2015 hundreds of employees at a transnational factory in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, began protesting low wages, the arbitrary firings of 120 workers, and unacceptable working conditions. Civil society groups reported that management failed to provide either the promised day wage increase or the legally required Christmas bonus at the end of 2015. When workers attempted to organize to rectify these conditions, employers met them with mass firings, threats, and intimidation. Other complaints included sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions that exposed factory workers to hazardous chemicals without appropriate protective gear.
On August 22, one of the largest teacher unions (CNTE) began the school year by launching teacher strikes and setting up roadblocks to protest proposed education reforms. The government and CNTE engaged in numerous rounds of negotiations regarding the dispute following deadly clashes in June between teacher union-led protesters and federal police forces in Oaxaca that left eight civilians dead. CNTE members staged strikes in Oaxaca and Chiapas states, where 53 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of campuses did not open for the first day of school. CNTE was less successful in Guerrero and Michoacan states, where nearly all schools held classes. The CNTE blocked major roads and railways in Oaxaca and Chiapas to protest federal education reforms. On August 25, the Ministry of Education announced it would fire 1,255 teachers and school employees in Oaxaca and Guerrero who participated in the strikes and missed days of classes. As of September 6, authorities were processing 1,905 teachers for dismissal, including 1,600 from Oaxaca and the remainder from Chiapas and Michoacan.
Independent labor activists reported the requirement that the CABs approve strikes in advance gave the boards the power to show favoritism by determining which companies to protect from strikes. Few formal strikes occurred, but protests and informal work freezes were common. For instance, workers in “maquilas” (factories run by foreign-owned companies that manufacture goods for export) in Ciudad Juarez protested in January to gain support for the creation of an independent union.