By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - As the new North America trade deal takes effect on Wednesday, the jailing of Mexican labor lawyer and independent union leader Susana Prieto has reignited concern about the challenges of meeting its labor rights provisions.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was signed last December after a flurry of final negotiations over demands from U.S. Democratic lawmakers for stricter enforcement of Mexico's labor standards.
As part of the deal replacing NAFTA, as the old free trade pact was known, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to uphold worker rights.
In the country where workers have historically earned much less and have had weaker protections than their U.S. counterparts, Lopez Obrador has touted a 2019 labor reform meant to make it easier for workers to form independent unions.
But with that reform still several years from full implementation, Prieto's case has cast fresh doubt on the government's ability to make good on the promise, underscoring Mexico's long-running challenge of carrying out federal directives at the local level.
Any serious violation of labor provisions in the USMCA, including the assurance that Mexicans will enjoy real collective bargaining rights, could jeopardize the pact governing one of the world's largest trading blocs.
Prieto rose to prominence last year leading a series of raucous protests and strikes for better pay at manufacturing plants in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the border with Texas. Most recently she showed up at border factories in a white hazmat suit, urging workers to demand a shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic and full pay for everyone furloughed.
The Tamaulipas state prosecutor charged Prieto after her arrest in early June with committing crimes against public servants, including threats and inciting a riot. She has denied the charges.
In an interview, Mexico's Labor Minister Luisa Alcalde joined calls for Prieto's provisional release while the case proceeds and recognized that meeting USMCA's requirements could be tricky.
"This implies a major challenge, since there could be matters where the reform still isn't implemented, and yet, there are complaints over rights violations, above all about union freedoms and collective bargaining," she said.
Lopez Obrador has warned against fabricated charges and retaliation in Prieto's case, but said the matter was in the hands of Tamaulipas authorities.
Asked about Prieto's detention at a recent congressional hearing in Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called it "a bad indicator." He said labor attaches and panels formed under the deal would swiftly call out any labor violations.
U.S. Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell urged the Trump administration to push for Prieto's release in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday, saying her arrest "sends the wrong signal that the renegotiated NAFTA is not on track to deliver the improved Mexican labor conditions."
The Tamaulipas state attorney general has said about 400 workers organized by Prieto were violent and threatened government workers in a protest outside the Matamoros labor board last March.
The workers had gathered en masse to demand that union fees no longer be withheld from their pay at Tridonex, a unit of U.S. auto parts firm Cardone Industries, Inc, part of a bid to cut ties with their current union and seek better representation.
Cardone Industries declined to comment.
Prieto had stopped by for about 10 minutes and left without interacting with labor board officials, Prieto's spokeswoman Alyn Alvidrez said.
A statement from the Tamaulipas labor ministry at the time said it would process the Tridonex workers' request. It made no reference to any aggressive acts by the protesters and the labor board's president, Jose Manuel Gomez Porchini, declined to comment.
When she was arrested, Prieto had also been trying to win a collective bargaining agreement for a new union at Michigan-based auto parts maker Fisher Dynamics' factory in Matamoros.
Prieto told Reuters earlier this year that her National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers (SNITIS) was already representing Fisher workers. But she said state authorities had stalled in scheduling a vote in which workers could elect SNITIS to administer the contract.
Fisher did not respond to requests for comment.
Under Mexico's labor reform, which took effect in May 2019, a centralized judicial entity is due to begin taking over from state labor boards in October, partially in an effort to lessen delays.
Prieto has not accused Fisher or Tridonex of orchestrating the charges against her. The Tamaulipas labor ministry said it could not comment on a criminal case.
In addition to 1,300 SNITIS members at Fisher, a majority of workers at five other factories have shown support for joining the union since its founding last year, and Prieto represents workers in about 4,000 labor disputes, Alvidrez said.
"All of them right now are unprotected," she said at a protest last week in Mexico City, as supporters chanted, "Free Susana!"
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)