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Is the Mexican Labor Movement About to Experience a [Second] Revolution?

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In contrast to the U.S. Constitution, the Mexican Constitution — enacted over 100 years ago after a bloody revolution — enumerates specific constitutional rights protecting the rights of Mexican workers, including the right to organize unions and the right to strike.

The reality, however, is that unions in Mexico have frequently been co-opted by either the ruling PRI political party — which ruled Mexico continuously through much of the 20th century — or Mexico’s business class. Many union leaders have been easily corrupted and have provided only superficial representation to workers while padding their own pockets. At least as far as organized labor is concerned, the rights enumerated in the 1917 Constitution have proven to be illusory.

This may be about to change. In the next couple of months, the Mexican Congress is expected to pass new laws to ensure that Mexico’s labor standards conform with those of the International Labour Organizations Convention, the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and the new North American Free Trade Agreement (“USMCA”), all of which require their signatories to ensure that workers have effective and real collective bargaining rights, including having the bargaining representative of their choice. The Congress is also expected to create new specialized labor courts to resolve conflicts relating to the labor process.

Will these changes make a difference? Last week, I participated on a panel in Mexico City on “The Modern Workplace in Mexico,” which included a Mexican labor law judge and the former president of the Mexican Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (Mexico’s version of the NLRB). The overwhelming consensus of the panel was that Mexican labor law was about to experience a transformation similar to the recent reform of Mexico’s criminal procedure, where U.S.-style adversarial proceedings were introduced for the first time.

While everyone agreed that change was long overdue, several panelists expressed concern that the initial implementation could be complex and could create scenarios where some companies have to contend with multiple contentious unions in the same workplace, some with little knowledge about the industry in which their members work.

As an American lawyer who has had experience with companies that negotiate with multiple unions, and with unions that have branched out to represent workers that they did not historically represent (e.g., Teamsters seeking to represent nurses or phlebotomists), I suspect that Mexican businesses will discover that these issues can be managed. However, the prospect of simultaneously having many unions competing with each other for the right to represent Mexico’s workers throughout the country does raise concerns relating to whether this second revolution in Mexican labor law will be a peaceful one. As we say in Mexico, “Veremos” or “We shall see.”

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This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.