New Agreement, Old Problem for the USMCA

Laura Peralta-Schulte
July 14, 2020

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the updated North American trade agreement, came into effect on July 1, 2020. NETWORK and progressive allies worked with Members of Congress to ensure the new agreement contained significantly improved labor standards and labor enforcement. Unfortunately, new evidence shows labor activism remains a deadly undertaking in Mexico even though the new North American trade deal ushered in the first real legal protections for workers there. It is increasing clear that only strict enforcement of the agreement will end violence against union activists and give Mexican workers true protections and freedom to organize for better working conditions.

Since the agreement was signed by President Trump in January 2020, there have been significant threats and violations. U.S. and other multinational corporations have filed over 600 lawsuits to block Mexican labor reforms. The Mexican government has also pushed back on creating a review and redo process for Mexican union contracts.

Further, labor unionists have been the targets of violence and arrest. In May, Oscar Ontiveros Martínez, a Mexican union organizer, was murdered as he was trying to organize mining workers.  The 29-year-old’s killing sent a warning to anyone still thinking about organizing the mines where Ontiveros once helped to lead a strike. Ontiveros was the fourth organizer of the Media Luna strike gunned down in three years. A fifth colleague, Oscar Hernández Romero, disappeared in October. The murders remain unsolved, and no trace of Hernández has been found.

More recently, Mexican labor activist Susana Prieto, a prominent labor lawyer representing exploited workers in Mexico-Texas border maquiladora factories, was held without bail for three weeks on trumped-up charges of “mutiny, threats and coercion” after trying to register an independent union to replace a corrupt “protection” union. Her case reflects the myriad of labor abuses throughout Mexico, where workers fighting for independent unions, better wages and COVID-19-safe workplaces face ongoing abuse and resistance. She was released on July 1. The conditions for her release, including a 30-month internal exile, are designed to end her representation of Matamoros workers seeking independent unions and intimidate workers nationwide seeking to exercise their labor rights. She must end her Matamoros labor organizing, not leave Mexico, and relocate to the state of Chihuahua, where a prosecutor issued new warrants for her arrest.

Mexico has a long history of labor abuse. The new USMCA agreement is a significant new tool to pressure the Mexican government to protect workers, but change will not be quick. Until new labor rules are fully enforced, corporations will continue to exploit workers on both sides of the border.