In a development with real implications for the upcoming Congressional debate over the corporate-friendly TransPacific Partnership (TPP), an international coalition of labor and consumer groups on Thursday filed "double-barrel," cross-border complaints to challenge workers' rights abuses by a Mexican retail giant in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Though the complaints are not directly tied to the 12-nation TPP agreement, how the Obama administration responds to them will offer labor and human rights groups a glimpse of its position on labor protections in international trade agreements.
"President Obama is pushing for TPP approval in the face of strong opposition from unions and others who see it as a giveaway to multinational companies that will only intensify inequality and downward pressure on jobs and wages," said University of Maryland international labor law professor Marley Weiss, who was formerly chair of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on the NAFTA labor agreement. "If the administration fails to take strong action in this case, critics will see it as a signal that the United States is falling short on linking trade, investment, and labor rights."
Led by the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 770 (UFCW) union in the U.S. and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT) union in Mexico, the coalition is seeking redress from Chedraui Commercial Group under both the NAFTA labor agreement and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines.
Chedraui is Mexico's third-largest retail chain with 35,000 employees in more than 200 stores throughout the country; the corporation also has a majority-stake in the California-based Bodega Latina Corporation, which does business as the El Super grocery chain with 50 supermarkets employing more than 5,000 workers in California, Arizona, and Nevada.
According to UFCW Local 770 president Ricardo Icaza, "in both Mexico and the United States, the company has silenced employees' voices and trampled their rights."
The OECD complaint calls for a halt to El Super's "aggressive, multi-year campaign of coercion against workers seeking a living wage, adequate sick days, and affordable health insurance," while the NAFTA filing alleges that Chedraui has "cultivated dozens of sham unions in Mexico through so-called 'protection contracts' that represent the interests of management, not workers, and prevent the formation of independent unions."
"We believe an international solution is necessary to this international problem," said Icaza.
The coalition says that Thursday's filing is the first time complaints about a company's international labor abuses have been simultaneously submitted under both the OECD and NAFTA complaint mechanisms—an approach organizers believe "will produce results tailored to the situation in each country."
But the impact could go far beyond these specific cases, coming just as debate over the controversial TPP—which has been called "NAFTA on steroids"—intensifies. As the Obama administration tries to push the TPP through Congress, labor groups will be watching its response to these complaints, and if it fails to act, TPP critics will likely see it as proof that the U.S. is failing to protect labor rights within trade agreements.