Article from Mexican Labor News & Analysis
Published by UE International.

Date published: May, 2012

Web version:

International Tribunal for Trade Union Right to Freedom of Association

By Dean Hubbard

From April 29-May 3, the International Tribunal for Trade Union Freedom of Association (Tribunal Internacional de Libertad Sindical, or TILS), conducted 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.

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.

Video (in Spanish) of the testimony at the Tribunal’s public hearing is available here:


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 thousands of workers who filled the Zócalo, Mexico City’s historic central plaza. (See below).

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 by the end of the month.

International Tribunal on Trade Union Freedom of Association Declaration of May Day 2012

To the independent Mexican trade union movement/ To the workers of Mexico and the world/ To national and international public opinion:

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 members of this International Tribunal on Freedom of Association, constituted in response to the call of Mexican workers, are delighted to celebrate May Day and deliver their message in the Zócalo (central plaza) of Mexico City.

This session of our Tribunal is taking place at a time when capital’s anxiousness to further cheapen the labor force and reduce social rights has intensified. Even European workers today are subject to structural adjustment programs designed by the International Monetary Fund - the very same IMF that Mexico has given millions of dollars to, squeezed from the misery of its people. The defeat of the European social model will be a defeat for all workers in the world.

A new neoliberal avalanche is destroying jobs, human rights and hard won achievements across the world. Its main victims are the young, doomed to live with unemployment, precariousness and insecurity; migrants, whose most basic rights are taken away in both their homelands and their new destinations; and women, who suffer femicides carried out with maximum impunity. Unfortunately, Mexico has become a shocking example of all of this.

The use of violence and state-led repression is not unrelated to economic crises caused by excessive desire for profit. With a variety of excuses - drug trafficking, international terrorism and national security - authoritarian systems predicated on crushing the civil liberties of the most vulnerable people in society, are gaining new ground. Alas, Mexico is a cruel example of this as well.

The criminalization of social protest, the outlawing of strikes, and especially the limits on freedom of association are an expression of this gradual but accelerating advance on the rights of working people.

This all means that, today, freedom of association and the ability of workers to organize independently of employers and governments is more of a necessity than ever 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 who work for a living to associate freely and without coercion of any kind.

It is against this background that this year the International Tribunal on Freedom of Association was again called into session in Mexico, to judge the State that is responsible for safeguarding this fundamental right and for ensuring compliance with international conventions for the benefit of all Mexicans. We take note that in Mexico there has been progress in granting constitutional status to international standards and in recognizing labor rights as human rights, but we demand full and true implementation of these changes.

In considering the testimony and documents submitted by many Mexican workers, the 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 to have claimed 60,000 lives. Exiling the leader of the miners’ union and holding members of the Mexican electric utility workers’ union (the SME) as political prisoners are the most egregious examples of this criminalization. We demand his return and their immediate release.

We therefore conclude that, this year, at the end of six years of this government, the balance for working people is quite negative. Unfortunately, their situation included a reduction in their freedoms and rights, and in particular, a scandalous series of attacks on the free association of workers in favor of powerful economic interests in Mexico and abroad.

For example, we have found that far from being resolved, the Mexican government has, for years, maintained the state of the grave violations committed against the SME and the miners’ union. We call here for the immediate redress of these violations in accordance with the Constitution and international conventions.

Likewise, we found that workers in virtually all sectors - industry, energy, telecommunications, services, and education - are victims of all kinds of abuses, and that a long chain of obstacles still prohibits the free exercise of trade union organization.

Despite the law, mechanisms such as "toma de nota" (legal recognition of union leaders) and union registration 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, illustrated by the cases of Honda and Telefónica-Atento, as well as by 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.

On the basis of the above, therefore, we express our condemnation of the continuing practices that violate freedom of association, which are encouraged or condoned by the Mexican state; and we demand their immediate correction. And, as such, we call upon the various international human and labor rights bodies to act immediately to demand the respect of international norms in Mexico.

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 possible. It is possible. You can recover freedom of association and, with, it the possibility of improving your living conditions. Today, on May 1st, in streets across the world and here in Mexico, the workers are showing what a mobilized society can make possible. In the end, the workers will win.

Long live the activist workers of Mexico and the world!

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