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Union Leader Contests Undemocratic Unions

Jorge Robles explains how the dysfunctions of Mexico’s organized labor are a result of structural conditions that inhibit contestations of workplace conditions and democratic elections for union leaders

Parents support CNTE teacher strikes in Chiapas, photo: Cuartoscuro/Jesús García
1 year ago

LA CHILANGA BANDA

Jorge Robles has been involved in labor organizing since he graduated from high school. He is now a union leader responsible for research and public relations at Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT Mexico), an independent coalition of unions.

Throughout high school he worked at his parents store, where they sold snacks and drinks. “My parents aspired for more for their family and wanted their son to go to school,” he said. College was thus not a question. He decided to study physics, but while in college he became involved with workers and activists who were supporting workplace struggles.

He and his friends met and became close to Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a well-known writer and activist, who led a group of students to film in workplaces. However, the students wanted to do more than just document workplace abuses and movements, they wanted to learn how to organize movements.

When Robles left college he began to work in a factory in a town north of Mexico City, and it was there where he began his work with independent unions. He and his colleagues began to question the union system as a whole. Previously, they had understood unions working on behalf of employers as a result of corrupt individuals. However, after doing research into the Labor Code with Paco Taibo II, Robles realized formal unions in Mexico all worked with the same ends and in accordance with the Labor Code which was modeled off of Mussolini’s laws. The dysfunctions of Mexico’s organized labor system were a result of structural conditions that inhibited contestations of the workplace and democratic elections for union leaders. Through FAT Mexico, he and colleagues found that because of union ties with the state and protection contracts, unions often represented employers needs and not workers.

“Workers were constantly confronting unions that only existed on paper,” he explained. These “invisible” unions were formed by protection contracts — contracts that employers make with employer-dominated unions which are usually unknown to workers. “These unions are the first line of defense for employers and the state,” he said. “Employers use unions to prevent independent and democratic unions from entering into their workplaces.”

Jorge Robles of FAT Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Jorge Robles

Jorge Robles of FAT Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Jorge Robles

Through his organizing he has made international alliances, connecting FAT Mexico to transnational struggles. FAT Mexico was a key opponent to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and although a failed struggle, these efforts have placed FAT Mexico in important discussions regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trade in Services Agreement. 

Through FAT, he has exposed many of Mexico’s labor injustices. He has written articles on “white” unions, protection contracts and undemocratic unions. He has also investigated workplaces in which workers, who are formally unionized, were required to pay workplaces to work, in order to receive tips from customers.

Robles also spoke to the National Coordinator of Education Workers’ (CNTE) actions, contextualizing their mobilizations within the landscape of Mexican unions. “The teachers have less rights than workers in the private sector because their positions are legislated differently,” he said. “The legislation doesn’t give them the right to have collective contracts, which functions as the document of direct negotiation with their employers.”

Robles said that the CNTE has worked hard to have their voice heard outside of formal channels and for doing so, has been reprimanded by the state.

“The education reform is a labor reform, not an educational one.”

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