MEXICO CITY — A dramatic vote in the Mexican Senate has kept alive a plan to reform this country’s corrupt and politically powerful unions, despite opponents’ attempts to smother the idea in the legislature.
But the senators' move late Tuesday could also torpedo a broader labor-reform bill, of which the union reforms are only one part. That left Mexicans pondering two very different futures Wednesday: one that could see a diminished role for the country’s king-making union bosses and another in which nothing much changes.
The reforms in question would require union elections to be held with secret ballots and open the books of big labor to public scrutiny.
That, in theory, could undermine the virtual fiefdoms of labor leaders like Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico’s national teachers union, whose salary is unknown, but who is known to carry $5,000 Hermes purses and once gave out Hummers to loyal followers.
The reforms could also undermine an important source of political power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which managed to co-opt big labor for most of the 20th century, when it ran Mexican society in a top-down, semi-authoritarian manner.
The teachers union and the powerful syndicate representing workers in the state oil company, PEMEX, both remain closely linked to the PRI. Critics consider both unions to be warrens of corruption, and hindrances to the modernization of two key elements of Mexican society: the poorly managed state oil and gas monopoly and the underperforming educational system.
Both Gordillo of the teachers union and Carlos Romero Deschamps, the longtime leader of the oil company union, were reelected over the weekend, clear indications that labor’s old guard was not planning on going gently.
That only intensified the drama facing Mexico's president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto of PRI, who rode to victory in July promising sweeping government reforms, but heads a party that may not be so eager to give up its ways.
Peña Nieto, who takes office Dec. 1, has supported the idea of labor reform in general. He has declined, however, to take a strong stand on the union reform effort: In Madrid this month, he said he was in favor of greater union “transparency,” but added that the “autonomy” of the unions must also be respected.
His fellow party members are dominant in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, and last month they stripped the broader labor-reform bill of its union-reform provisions before it passed the lower chamber.
On Tuesday, however, the union reforms were reintroduced in the Senate version of the bill, thanks to an ad-hoc coalition of senators from the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and the right-wing National Action Party, or PAN. The bill passed on a 100-28 vote after 12 hours of debate.
Now, under Mexican law, the bill goes back to the lower chamber, which will consider the Senate’s alterations.
If the lower house approves the Senate’s changes, the altered bill will go to the desk of outgoing President Felipe Calderon, who introduced it.
But if disagreement remains, there is a chance the bill could languish in legislative limbo.
There is also a third possibility: The legislation could be approved by both houses, but without the union-reform provisions. Even in that scaled-back form, the bill could bring historic change to Mexico’s traditionally rigid labor market, making it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers, formalizing the outsourcing of work in some cases, and allowing for the payment of an hourly wage.
Those proposals infuriated some on the Mexican left, who worried that the bill only weakened the position of workers whose guaranteed minimum wage is about 60 cents per hour.
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PHOTO: A demonstrator shouts slogans against proposed labor reforms outside Congress in Mexico City on Sept. 27. A proposal to reform Mexico's 1970s-era labor
laws, loosen work rules and increase union democracy split Mexican
political parties, threatening to create the first big political battle
for President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. The banner reads, "No to labor reform." Credit: Alexandre Meneghini / Associated Press