Combative Mexican union leader forms new labor federation

A Mexican union leader known for his combativeness announced a new labor federation Wednesday and said 150 unions have joined, the latest sign that the country's long-dormant labor movement might be awakening.

Miners' union leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia said the umbrella organization is called the International Labor Confederation.

Despite its name, Mexican law prohibits the federation from having foreign ties. Rather, Gomez Urrutia said, "it will be a question of solidarity and strategic alliances."

He said 150 Mexican unions had already joined and others are interested in doing so, while U.S. labor groups like the AFL-CIO and steel workers have expressed their support.

Big corporations operate in multiple countries, Gomez Urrutia said, and "it is time that we unions globalize ourselves as well."

Gomez Urrutia was joined at the announcement by some of Mexico's most feisty labor leaders, including Martin Esparza, head of the electrical workers' union. At least one old-line labor group, the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers, also participated, though by law it can't formally join the new federation.

For decades, average manufacturing wages stagnated at $2 an hour or less in Mexico as pro-government labor unions allied with the once-dominant Instutitional Revolutionary Party kept workers in check. But a new fighting spirit has emerged in recent weeks.

About 25,000 workers staged a mass walkout at 48 "maquiladora" assembly plants in the border city of Matamoros beginning in January and won 20 percent wages hikes and bonuses. Their example has sparked wildcat walkouts at other businesses that aren't unionized or belong to different federations.

Gomez Urrutia said the strikes could spread, and the new federation would support them.

"As long as the conditions of exploitation continue for these workers, not just on the border but across the country, there is a risk that these conflicts will break out," he said. "We will always be ready to advise and support them."

Gomez Urrutia, who is also a senator for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's Morena party, has been accused by some of engaging in extortionate negotiating tactics and mismanaging union funds. He calls those accusations "political persecution."

The union leader praised Lopez Obrador's policies, though he insisted the federation is "not a branch office of the government or Morena." Asked why the new group's banners are maroon-colored, as are those of Lopez Obrador's party, he said, "I think that is a coincidence ... it wasn't planned that way."

Lopez Obrador has been wary of antagonizing corporate interests. But he unwittingly unleashed the Matamoros strikes by decreeing a doubling of the minimum wage in Mexico's border zones, apparently unaware that some union contracts at the maquiladora plants are indexed to minimum wage increases.