Carlos Pavón
Secretary General
National Union of Miners and Metallurgists (FRENTE)
View from the Top

FRENTE: Workers’ Freedom Does Not Mean Licentiousness

By Alejandro Ehrenberg | Tue, 08/04/2020 - 15:07

Q: What are FRENTE’s priorities during COVID-19?

A: Our main priorities are safety and health. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future. We are striving to devise ways to provide workers with certainty. We want them to go to work knowing that they will not fall victim to the virus. If they need to stay home because of contagion risks, we also want them to know that their source of employment will remain.

The world has changed as a result of the pandemic. Workers, companies and governments must come together and adapt to the new reality. Our union is in a privileged position for raising awareness among workers and cultivating a culture of prevention. The ultimate goal is that workers and their communities are protected. This leads to an overall strong industry.

Q: What protocols will guarantee that miners are safe in the COVID-19 era?

A: Protecting workers from contagion is crucial. At the beginning of the outbreak, mines were operating with very strict protocols that resulted in zero contagions. Then, the Ministry of Health decided to shut down mining activities. When we resumed activities in June, we did so according to different health protocols. The Ministry of Health imposed a one-size-fits-all protocol on all industrial sectors. But that protocol is not well-adjusted to the reality of mining. Consequently, we have started to see some cases of contagion.

Companies had been proactive and implemented measures that now need to be discarded. This has been a waste of resources and safety has been negatively affected. The health authorities should work jointly with the industry to develop germane protocols. Not everyone can be regulated with the same instruments. There is a wide variety of realities in the industry. For example, underground mines and open-pit are completely different. The health authorities should understand that. A good idea would be to incorporate industry best practices for developing protocols and create synergy. The government should realize that it cannot do everything on its own. Dialogue is a better option.

Q: How will the USMCA trade deal impact labor relations in Mexico?

A: The USMCA treaty has gone into effect. It is a shame that the negotiators did not take our opinion into account. It is another instance of the same issue we were just discussing. Governments need to hold discussions with all stakeholders before making decisions. That would ensure agreements are more beneficial when they are implemented. The pressing need to sign the trade deal meant that many decisions were taken hastily.

But it is important to remember that NAFTA never expired. It is not like we are going to start completely from scratch with new rules. USMCA is really a new chapter of NATFA. Throughout the trade deal’s history, there has been an insistence on the part of the US to change the Labor Law in Mexico. USMCA includes the freedom of workers to form independent unions, and of course we agreed with that. But one must differentiate between freedom and licentiousness. The new Labor Law allows a fragmentation of unions. In the mining industry, we now have a majority union and a minority one, and the minority one wants the same collective bargaining rights as the majority one. That is not good for the industry. A company cannot negotiate with a multitude of unions. That would discourage investment. Moreover, the proliferation of unions will weaken the power workers have. To get workers to affiliate with their union, the union will promise benefits. But unions do not give anything. Businesses do. We negotiate to obtain those benefits. When many unions compete with each other, they start making more extreme claims. However, we cannot be maximalist in our claims, as that would result in the company taking its business elsewhere. The point is to reach deals that satisfy both parties. We need the industry to be healthy. We have been criticized for not being radical enough. But we are a responsible union and are interested in maintaining the stability of the industry for the benefit of the workers. We do not want our members to boost the latest statistics in Mexico — the country has lost more than a million jobs due to the pandemic.

Q: Why should the Mining Fund be restored to its original goal?

A: There were many problems with the fund to begin with. Its design was not optimal and opened opportunities for corruption. The totality of the fund should have been directed at mining counties, but it was shared between states and the federal government. If the entirety of the fund had been directed to infrastructure for mining communities, many problems could have been avoided. Recently, the fund was redirected to education. Schools were to have been repaired. However, this has been ineffective. During the COVID-19 outbreak schools were closed, and yet the authorities did not repair them. So, it is unclear if the new destination of the fund is a good idea. In my work in Congress, I am drafting a proposal to return the fund to its original goal. It would also be a good idea to create a commission to oversee spending and to make sure there is no corruption.

The National Union of Miners and Metallurgists (FRENTE) is a free and independent labor union. It has 16 chapters that represent miners. It works with major operators to negotiate better working conditions in mines.

*Carlos Pavón also represents Zacatecas 4th District at the Congress of the Union. 

Alejandro Ehrenberg Alejandro Ehrenberg Journalist and Industry Analyst