From April 29 to May 3, I served on the International Tribunal for Trade Union Freedom of Association (Tribunal Internacional de Libertad Sindical, or TILS), which successfully concluded its fourth set of public hearings and made its third annual public declaration in the Zócalo (main plaza) at the May Day mobilization of independent unions in Mexico City. The Tribunal is composed of preeminent jurists, scholars, writers and human rights activists from throughout the Americas, as well as Spain. We experienced a powerful solidarity as we once again helped give voice to the cries of workers in Mexico for justice and human rights.
Continued Violations of Workers’ Human Rights
The TILS held a public hearing on Sunday, April 29, at which 17 different independent unions presented testimony on grave abuses of the fundamental rights of human beings at work by the Mexican government, working hand-in hand with transnational corporations and “protection” and clientelist (or “charro”) unions.
These range from the continued detention of 12 members of the Mexican Electric Utility workers union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, or SME) as political prisoners, to the government’s ongoing refusal to release the bodies of 65 members of the Miners (Mineros) union killed in the Pasta de Conchos mine explosion, to its refusal to reinstate 26 trade union activists who were ousted at gunpoint by paramilitaries from their jobs at the state-owned oil company PEMEX. New violations include Honda’s hiring of armed paramilitary guards to prevent representatives of a recently recognized independent union from meeting with workers, and many other abuses of workers’ human rights.
You can watch video (in Spanish) of the testimony at the Tribunal’s public hearing here: http://www.youtube.com/user/TILSMexico
At the same time, the Tribunal recognized that advances have occurred in the past year, as a result not only of the advocacy of the Tribunal but of amicus submissions from groups like the International Commission for Labor Rights (ICLR), solidarity provided by the international labor movement (as demonstrated by the work of the Tri-national Solidarity alliance and others), and most importantly the continued courageous activism of independent unions and their members in Mexico.
The most significant advance came as the Tribunal was conducting its work in Mexico City on May 2. Shortly after the Tribunal ended a press conference, the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (Mexico’s highest court) issued a ruling that the state must recognize the election 4 years ago of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia as Secretary General of the Mineros Union, overturning the denial of “toma de nota” (administrative recognition of the union’s elected leadership without which the union has no legal existence) by the Secretary of Labor of the Administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
Urrutia has been in exile in Canada for six years because of fraudulent criminal charges against him by the Mexican government. The government initiated these charges after Urrutia referred to the 2006 deaths of the 65 miners at the Pasta de Conchas mine, owned by Grupo Mexico, Mexico’s most powerful corporation and the strongest political ally of the right wing PAN party of President Calderón, as “industrial homicide.” This was viewed as a betrayal by Grupo Mexico and the governing party, who expected Urrutia to continue in the “charro” tradition of his father, who preceded him as President of the Mineros union.
The week before the Tribunal began its work, a federal court dismissed the last of the eight arrest warrants against Urrutia, although the government may still appeal. The May 2 ruling confirmed that the Supreme Court is serious about a decision it made last summer holding that the state may not interfere with the internal affairs of a union by improperly denying “toma de nota” to its elected leadership.
Declaration to Hundreds of Thousands of Workers at May Day Rally
On May 1, the international workers’ holiday, as Occupy-inspired protesters moved through the streets of U.S. cities, the Tribunal delivered its Declaration to hundreds of thousands of workers who filled the Zócalo, Mexico City’s historic central plaza.
Among other things, the Tribunal declared to Mexican workers,
This is a special May Day. All over the world, workers are leaving their workplaces to show that better times lie ahead, and they are not willing to pay the costs of a crisis they did not cause. Even in the U.S., where until recently the origins of May 1 seemed to be forgotten, large mobilizations are taking place. Occupy, the Indignados–disgruntled workers are out in the streets everywhere. Today we hear in the major streets and plazas around the world the cry, “We are the 99%,” which resounds with the international solidarity among the peoples. . .
The criminalization of social protest, the outlawing of strikes, and especially the limits on freedom of association are an expression of [a] gradual but accelerating advance on the rights of working people.
Thus, today freedom of association and the ability of workers to organize independently of employers and governments is more than ever a necessity for survival of the working class and even of humanity. The exercise of human and social rights, and true democracy, cannot be complete without the freedom of those work for a living to associate without coercion of any kind.
. . . [T]he International Tribunal has confirmed a sharp increase of the violation of the rights of all the workers of Mexico, as well as the criminalization of social protest, in the midst of an alarming militarization of the country and violence that we know has claimed 60,000 lives. The exile of the leader of the miners’ union and the political prisoners of SME (the Mexican electric utility workers union) are the best examples of this criminalization. We demand his return and their immediate release. . .
But we also found that workers in virtually all sectors – industry, energy and telecommunications, services, and education-are victims of all kinds of abuses. A long chain of obstacles is interposed to the free exercise of trade union organization. Despite the law, [bureaucratic] mechanisms . . . are still being misused and applied arbitrarily by the authorities. Incredibly, we found that in the supposedly democratic Federal District (Mexico City), the Local Labor Board has issued a decree that illegally adds more than 300 “criteria” as prerequisites to granting recognition.
We also condemn the growing abuses by transnational corporations in the country, as in the cases of Honda and Atento-Spanish Telephone, as well as Wal-Mart which, in addition to newly evidenced corrupt practices, benefits from a whole system of labor abuse in complicity with the authorities, including obstruction of real unionization. . .
Sister and brothers, Mexican workers,
Nothing is inevitable. South America and other regions of the world are already showing that with organization and the determined struggle of the peoples, paths other than neoliberalism can be found, with more democracy and freedoms. It is possible. You can recover the freedom of association and with it the possibility of improving your living conditions. Today, May 1st, in all the streets of the world and here in Mexico, the workers are showing what a mobilized society can make possible. In the end, the workers will win.
You can watch the video of the live Declaration in Spanish here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EtuCNLJmM8
The Tribunal’s Resolution
The Tribunal has completed a draft of a detailed Resolution, which examines the facts of each of the 19 cases presented to it, analyzes the cases under relevant national and international labor rights norms, and makes detailed conclusions and recommendations regarding each, as well as the general situation facing independent unions and workers in Mexico. The members of the Tribunal expect to finalize and release the Resolution before the end of May. A Permanent Tribunal
The members of the Tribunal continued the discussions that they began last May regarding the establishment of a Permanent Tribunal for the Americas. The members of the Tribunal agreed that workers and unions throughout the continent, in Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, the United States and elsewhere, are facing a human rights emergency. In their discussions, TILS members agreed to begin by preparing a founding document which they will circulate– as a draft – to Global Union Federations, progressive international lawyers’ organizations, national union affiliates, and other worker advocacy and human rights organizations seeking their participation and support.
TILS members agree unanimously on a number of principles: The Permanent Tribunal will be autonomous—it will not be controlled or subsumed by any existing institution or organization. It will be pluralistic and inclusive—it will invite the participation of all independent unions and workers’ organizations, regardless of affiliation or politics. It will be open—it will hold public sessions and circulate its findings publicly. It will be independent—Tribunal members and the Tribunal’s Organizing Committee, not funders or outside supporters, will make decisions.
Members of the Permanent Tribunal may include not only labor lawyers and academics but also people from broader society and culture who are of importance to the movement for workers’ collective and individual human rights. The Permanent Tribunal will seek not to compete with existing institutions or organizations that deal with similar issues but to complement their work.
Finally, the TILS members discussed convening a founding meeting of the Permanent Tribunal’s potential participants and supporters in Brasilia this August, where the Hemisphere’s Ministers of Labor will be holding their own meetings at the same time. TILS members anticipate that, at that meeting, the Permanent Tribunal will approve guidelines that reflect the foregoing principles and criteria, and make a decision regarding the country to host and be the subject of the Permanent Tribunal’s first cases.
In short, the sustained work of TILS in Mexico has produced concrete, positive results for workers and independent unions there, and the prospects for an autonomous, pluralistic, open Permanent Tribunal for the Americas are exciting and real.