THESE days, the only thing with less clout than the Mexican peso is the Mexican worker. At least, that's the opinion of American union leaders, who won a significant battle when United States Labor Secretary Robert Reich submitted a complaint to Mexico under the side agreements of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The complaint -- the first of its kind to have cabinet-level consideration under NAFTA -- alleges that the Mexican government ignored its own labor laws when workers at a Sony Corporation factory in Nuevo Laredo, along the Texas border, were prevented from forming an independent union.
The case is being closely watched by the AFL-CIO, which has long argued that Mexican labor unions are more political pawns than true unions. Union officials applauded Mr. Reich's decision to look into the allegations. ''We remain opposed to NAFTA, but this sends a signal that there is hope for the side agreements. Up till now they have just been pieces of paper,'' said Ed Sills, a spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO.
In a letter sent to Mexican Labor Secretary Santiago Onate April 11, Reich wrote that the US wants to hold consultations on ''issues involving the union registration process'' in Mexico.
Four human rights and workers'-rights groups filed the complaint about Mexican labor practices last August, alleging that Sony fired workers for trying to organize a union and interfered with union elections. The groups include: the San Antonio-based Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, a Mexican legal-rights group.
60 workers allegedly dismissed
As many as 60 workers were allegedly dismissed for union activities and labor leaders say workers were forced to accept the firing and severance pay or face blacklisting. The groups also alleged that police were overly violent in their attempt to suppress a work stoppage. But Reich agreed to pursue only the question of governmental recognition and registration of independent unions.
Sony employs about 2,000 workers in five factories in Nuevo Laredo, which produce floppy disks, video tapes, and audio tapes. Rick Clancy, a spokesman for Sony, suggested that the groups that filed the complaint have ''other agendas'' and ''are not representatives of our employees.''
''This dispute does not relate to Sony at all,'' says Mr. Clancy, who denied that any workers were fired for organizing workers. ''The question is whether or not a Mexican labor law was broken. We feel like we are caught in the middle.''
The complaint involving Sony was the third grievance filed with the National Administrative Office (NAO), the agency created by the side agreements to NAFTA, since the treaty became law 16 months ago. All of the complaints have alleged that Mexican workers were fired for trying to organize independent unions in plants along the border.
The politics of it all
The vast majority of unions in Mexico, including the one that controls the Sony plants, are affiliated with the CTM, Mexico's largest union, which is closely allied to the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party), Mexico's ruling party since 1929. Labor organizers along the border say workers are growing frustrated with the CTM, which is working with the PRI to prevent significant wage increases.
The PRI was no doubt pleased, when Fidel Velasquez, the longtime leader of the CTM, announced recently that the union would not sponsor any parades or demonstrations on May 1. For more than 100 years, labor unions have used May Day to celebrate workers' rights and the advent of the eight-hour work day. The CTM has long participated in May Day events.
''Mexican workers are seeing that Fidel Velasquez is out of touch with reality,'' says Jaime Martinez, of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Technical Salaried Machine and Furniture Workers in San Antonio.
In spite of Mr. Velasquez's edict, Mr. Martinez said union leaders from Brownsville, Texas to Tijuana, Mexico are planning May Day demonstrations and the peso devaluation will be the prominent issue.
Since December, when the Mexican government devalued the peso, workers' purchasing power along the border has fallen by nearly 50 percent. ''The salaries were deplorable before the devaluation,'' says Susan Mika, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.
Ms. Mika says the NAO decision to pursue the complaint is ''an historic step.'' But she says worker rights continue to be ignored in Mexico. Some 2,200 maquiladoras now operate along the US-Mexico border and about 70 percent of the workers in the plants are women. Between 80 and 90 percent of the workers at the Sony plants in Nuevo Laredo are women and Mika said the vast majority fired for union activities were women.
Reich and Mr. Onate will meet with Canadian officials in Ottawa April 28 to set up the framework for discussions under the NAFTA side agreements. A meeting to discuss the union issue has not been scheduled, but observers expect the consultation to occur within a month or so.