Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has called for free and fair elections to elect a new head at the 100,000-member Mexican oil union as part of Mexico’s commitment to the democratic principles of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s (USMCA) chapter on labor.

The union, known as the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana (STPRM), has been stubborn to change its ways.

The STPRM is a company union, albeit that of the biggest company in Mexico, state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). To get a sense of how powerful the union is, workers cannot simply apply for a job at Pemex, David Shields, editor and publisher of Energía a Debate, told NGI's Mexico GPI. "The only way to get a job is by recommendation from within the union, or from its political backers," he said. "Ability and appropriate skills for the job are not the criteria."

Unsurprisingly, labor productivity is lower at Pemex than most of its global competitors. López Obrador is well aware of that, especially as he struggles to boost the state company's efforts to rebound from the production slide that began in 2004.

As part of these efforts, López Obrador promoted last year's labor reform that for the first time gives Mexican workers the legal right to bargain collectively with employers through independent labor unions, without fear of retaliation or harassment.

The labor reform applies to all Mexican companies, not only Pemex. However, Pemex remains the outstanding example of the way in which the state-controlled labor unions emerged from the one-party system that governed Mexico for much of the last century. Extremely low wages were, and still are, the norm. Meanwhile, labor leaders lived and still live lavish lifestyles.

 

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The unusual consequence of all of this was the formation of an alliance within the negotiations of the USMCA between the leftist López Obrador and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Both men appear to be motivated by what they see as injustice, although from very different perspectives. López Obrador emerged in the 1980s as a national figure when he led blockades of oil-industry installations by farmers and fishermen who claimed that Pemex was destroying their livelihood.

Efforts to raise low wages are the basis of López Obrador's sense of injustice. Trump sees it from a very different angle; in his view, low wages provide trading partners with a completely unfair advantage.

Mexican legislators have approved the USMCA, and all that remains for it to go through is a vote in the U.S. Senate.

This leaves López Obrador with a severe headache over the STPRM, the most prominent of the old-guard unions and with the fate of the nation's oil industry in its hands.

Carlos Romero Deschamps, the long-standing head of the union, was forced out recently amid allegations of money laundering, but he has been replaced by one of his close associates, Manuel Limón.

A permanent replacement is to be elected shortly, the STPRM said last week, "in accordance with the regulations of the labor reform" that include a secret ballot rather than a show of hands and candidates of all persuasions.

Those who will be voting in the secret ballot are themselves products of the old system.

One possible solution that has been mooted is that Limón could continue as a substitute for Romero Deschamps, whose mandate was to have lasted through 2024, but this would simply mean more of the same.

The feisty leader of the small Petromex union, Yolanda Morales, had no qualms about criticizing the union leaders, saying recently: "When they first emerged, they were dressed in a handful of rags; now they're multi-millionaires."