Kim Nolan is currently working as the monitoring and enforcement team leader for the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs oversight of the two-year-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the USMCA. Nolan had previously held public university academic posts in México City for more than a decade, at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics and at the Latin American Faculty for the Social Sciences program for human rights and democracy. Her research has focused on international trade, and she’s published extensively on labor protections in trade accords, the role of civil society actors in testing those provisions, and the outcomes for worker rights. She’s also done research for labor-based civil society organizations in the US, Canada, and México.
How did you get involved in Mexican labor issues?
I’m a child of the anti-NAFTA protests that began with the Zapatista uprising in 1994. I wasn’t even in college yet. What hit me the most: that US corporations could move into México and treat workers in ways that would be illegal in the US.
Then, in 1997, I participated with Liberation Theology activists on a trip across the border and stayed with a family working in a maquiladora. I witnessed the direct effects of NAFTA on Mexican families and workers.
Unfortunately, the strong international solidarity we saw back in the 1990s has been “unbuilt” since then. We’ve got work to do to build that solidarity up again.
Congress, after the USMCA’s passing, appropriated a whopping $180 million to help Mexico with labor rights reform. This went through with a Republican in the White House! How?
Back in the 2016 campaign, Trump had in common with the AFL-CIO a concern that US workers be able to compete fairly with Mexican workers. The chance to renegotiate NAFTA and address those concerns through a new agreement’s labor chapters had to come with money for implementation.
USMCA funding for technical assistance channels through the US Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, to be spent over the next five years on programs that support labor reform implementation. We expect that México will remain a key country for Department of Labor engagement. The Bureau has had its eyes on México for at least 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Our course won’t reverse.
Does the technical assistance come with strings attached?
No. We see this as a collaborative effort with our Mexican counterparts, not a matter of México “cooperating” with something the US is imposing. We’re helping to implement the changes demanded by the democratic union movement in México over many years. México’s current Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare has roots in that movement, especially through the FAT, the Frente Autentico del Trabajo. Other key Mexican labor ministry officials also have come from the FAT.
México set up a new and impartial Federal Center for Labor Conciliation and Registry, responsible for registering new unions and new contracts, in 2020. México then also established new labor courts independent of the PRI political party, employers, and the discredited CTM labor federation. Does the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs get involved in this Federal Center work?
Luisa Maria Alcalde Lujan,
Mexican Secretary of Labor.
Photo: Rodrigo Oropeza
Mexican workers have not historically received a copy of their contracts — and had no place to go to get one. The US Department of Labor provided $30 million in technical assistance to help up a central federal registry in Mexico City, as Mexico’s amended Federal Labor Law requires. All the contracts — measured literally by the ton of paper! — were transferred physically to that center, and then documents had to be scanned, tagged, and loaded into new platforms. Collective bargaining agreements and other union documents now sit in one place, available to the public and searchable by workers.
Mexico’s Federal Labor Law set a short timeline, and that meant the new platform had to go up very quickly. The platform still has problems that need to be addressed.
We see a tension between meeting the deadlines set by the law and getting institutions off the ground and ready to function. Mexico has taken on a very ambitious program.
Worker education also has funding available, right?
Domestics launch contract campaign. Photo: Solidarity Center.
Yes. Many workers in México shy away from unions, after their experiences with unions that have historically sided with employers and not their members. Workers need to learn more about their rights under the new Mexican labor reform and how workers’ organizations can make a difference. We’ve budgeted plenty of funding for worker education and have contracted with a number of different organizations to do the work.
The Solidarity Center, one of these organizations, has been in México since 1996 and become a trusted actor among independent Mexican unions. Some of our technical assistance supports community-based programming on labor rights as well, including outreach to women workers.
And not just workers need to know their rights. The general public needs to be aware of these sea changes in labor relations. And employers need information as well! They need to learn, for example, what the law now requires in terms of employer neutrality.
The USMCA has a Rapid Response provision. Why have all five US cases against specific companies brought under this provision been in the auto sector?
The US and Canada have paid a lot of attention to the auto sector because this sector has become the motor of the North American economy. And our auto unions have always had alliances with Mexican auto workers.
As time goes on, we would love to see rising levels of independent union activity across all sectors of the Mexican economy. The story is still in the making.