As a union lawyer, Manuel Fuentes
has spent all of his working life opposing the government. Now he is the government.
Fuentes fights an uphill battle as he tries to overcome decades of
corruption as the official in Mexico Citys new progressive government responsible
for making labor laws work. He was named director of labor by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the
first democratically -elected mayor of Mexico City in 60 years, who assumed office on Jan.
Mexico City faces serious problems, among them an epidemic of violent
crimes and unemployment and gross government incompetence and corruption, Fuentes said. As
a result, the people of Mexico City are hungry for change.
The Cardenas government expanded the power of the citys labor
department and created new offices dealing with working womens problems and
under-aged store workers. Fuentes said he is working to fundamentally alter the Office of
Legal Defense, which was previously where bosses "could achieve low wages and do away
with the rights of workers."
During the past 12 years, there have been no workplace inspections in
Mexico City; yet this is a country plagued by one of the highest rates of workplace
accidents in the world. Fuentes has hired and trained students who have been sent out to
check for health and safety violations.
The city official is also taking aim at protection contracts. "In
Mexico there are 86,000 union contracts registered, but only 20 percent are real, active
contracts," he said. These sweetheart deals allow bosses to block formation of real
unions, with the connivance of government-controlled unions. "When workers go to the
Labor Board theyre not allowed a copy of this contract."
Mexican workers have among the lowest wages in the world precisely because
they are not allowed to organize real unions, Fuentes argued. His department has embarked
on educational programs to explain to workers their rights. "If workers do not know
their rights, they cant defend them," he said to applause. Delegates also
applauded his assertion that workers should have access to their contracts and union
The Cardenas government is also working to secure the right of
secret-ballot representation elections, Fuentes said. Throughout Mexico, whenever workers
try to gain recognition of their union or change unions, they must publicly declare their
preference, in the presence of the government, the government-controlled union and the
Working people and unions must participate in the changes being created by
Mexico Citys new government if the changes are to become real, Fuentes declared.