WASHINGTON — The A.F.L.-C.I.O. and other groups filed a complaint with the Biden administration on Monday over claims of labor violations at a group of auto parts factories in Mexico, a move that will pose an early test of the new North American trade deal and its labor protections.
The complaint focuses on the Tridonex auto parts factories in the city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. said workers there have been harassed and fired over their efforts to organize with an independent union, SNITIS, in place of a company-controlled union. Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican labor lawyer and SNITIS leader, was arrested and jailed last year in an episode that received significant attention.
The trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and took effect last summer. While it was negotiated by a Republican administration, the deal had significant input from congressional Democrats, who controlled the House and insisted on tougher labor and environmental standards in order to vote in favor of the pact, which needed approval from Congress.
The trade pact required Mexico to make sweeping changes to its labor system, where sham collective bargaining agreements known as protection contracts, which are imposed without the involvement of employees and lock in low wages, have been prevalent.
The complaint is being brought under a novel “rapid response” mechanism in the trade deal that allows for complaints about labor violations to be brought against an individual factory and for penalties to be applied to that factory. The complaint was filed by the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Service Employees International Union, SNITIS and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“U.S.M.C.A. requires Mexico to end the reign of protection unions and their corrupt deals with employers,” Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a statement, using the abbreviation for the trade deal. “The ongoing harassment of Susana Prieto and SNITIS members is a textbook violation of the labor laws Mexico has pledged to uphold.”
The trade deal seeks to improve labor conditions and pay for workers in Mexico, which proponents say would benefit American workers by deterring factory owners from moving their operations to Mexico from the United States in search of cheaper labor. Enforcement of the pact is one of the main trade challenges facing the Biden administration.
Tridonex is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Cardone Industries, which is controlled by Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said. In 2016, Cardone announced plans to move its brakes division to Mexico and lay off more than 1,300 workers in Philadelphia, according to news reports and public records.
The complaint includes several accusations of labor violations, including that workers have not been able to elect their union leaders or ratify their collective bargaining agreement, and that more than 600 workers were fired by Tridonex in acts of retaliation. It also accuses the State of Tamaulipas of denying the right of workers to choose the union that represents them.
“There couldn’t be a clearer case,” said Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Cardone workers in Philadelphia.
In a statement, Cardone said it was “committed to leading labor practices, fostering constructive relationships with employees and respecting the universal principle of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.”
“We do not believe that the allegations in the complaint are accurate and welcome a full inquiry so that the facts can be disclosed,” the statement said. “We fully support our Tridonex workers being represented by a union and are committed to compliance with all applicable labor laws and regulations. We will be transparent in addressing requests for information and proactive in addressing any concerns identified through the process.”
A spokesman for the Tamaulipas state government declined to comment, and a spokesman for Mexico’s Labor Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
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May 19, 2021, 2:36 p.m. ET
The rapid response mechanism in the trade deal allows for the United States to take action against an individual factory in Mexico if workers there are being denied their rights to free association and collective bargaining. It was among the provisions that Democrats highlighted as improvements in the final agreement compared with the Trump administration’s original version of the trade deal.
If the United States decides there is sufficient evidence of workers’ rights being denied, it would then request that Mexico conduct a review of the allegations. After that step, a panel could be established to investigate the matter. Under the rapid response process, the factory could face penalties, and repeat offenders could even have their goods blocked from entering the United States.
Mexico approved an overhaul of its labor laws in 2019, but it is being phased in over several years, and the implementation of the changes remains a major question mark.
A report released in December by an independent board created by the United States to monitor the labor changes said that Mexico had made progress but that significant obstacles remained. The report noted that the protection contract system was still in place, and that most unionized workers still could not elect their leaders in a democratic manner.
Ben Davis, the director of international affairs for the United Steelworkers and the board’s chair, said the complaint filed on Monday “has all the elements of the structural problem that we face with worker rights in Mexico.” The rapid response mechanism, he said, is a way to hold companies accountable.
“This is the first time that we’ve had anything like this in a trade agreement,” he said, “and so we think it’s pretty important for it to be used, to be used effectively and hopefully to be something that we can apply in other places.”
Democrats in Congress welcomed the complaint. “We expect and call on the Biden administration to use all available resources to take aggressive enforcement action in this case,” Representatives Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the chairman of the panel’s trade subcommittee, said in a statement.
It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will respond to the complaint. An administration official said the administration would “carefully review” complaints filed under the rapid response mechanism.
The United States trade representative, Katherine Tai, previously served as the chief trade counsel for the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In that post, she played a key role in negotiations between House Democrats and the Trump administration over revisions to the trade agreement.
Labor unions have also gained an ally in an important position at the Labor Department. The department said on Monday that Thea Lee, a former A.F.L.-C.I.O. official, had been appointed to lead its Bureau of International Labor Affairs.
Ms. Lee said in a statement that under the Biden administration, the bureau would “have the resources and the moral authority to play an essential role in lifting up, strengthening and enforcing workers’ rights around the world.”
Ms. Tai has said that enforcing the new North American trade agreement is a priority, and the first meeting of the commission that oversees the pact — consisting of Ms. Tai and her counterparts from Canada and Mexico — is set to take place next week, according to a spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington.
At a Senate hearing last month, Ms. Tai said there were “a number of concerns that we have with Mexico’s performance of its commitments under U.S.M.C.A.,” without offering specifics.
“We did our very best to put in the most effective tools for enforcement that we know how,” she said at another point in the hearing. “And they may not be perfect, but we’re not going to know how effective they’re going to be if we don’t use them.”
Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City.