(en) court failure of union's NAFTA challenge

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Tue, 2 Dec 1997 12:09:07 +0000

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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Tue, 2 Dec 1997 09:42:38 -0800 (PST) From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org> Subject: court failure of union's NAFTA challenge

1997 San Francisco Chronicle -- Friday, November 28, 1997


Case tested unions' ability to adapt to NAFTA policies

Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer

Dealing a setback to an unusual alliance of U.S. and Mexican labor unions, a federal court has ruled in favor of telephone giant Sprint Corp. in a case that had become a high-profile challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The case of 177 Latino workers in San Francisco, whom Sprint laid off eight days before a scheduled union election, was viewed in both countries as a test of unions' ability to adapt to NAFTA's new era of cross-border trade and investment.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., unanimously ruled that Sprint did not violate the law when it laid off the workers in 1994.

The judges said Sprint closed La Conexion Familiar, a San Francisco subsidiary that sold long- distance telephone service to Latinos, because it was losing money, not because the company feared the workers would vote to join the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.

U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Wald, in a written opinion, pointed to ``overwhelming record evidence that La Conexion Familiar was in serious and sustained financial decline throughout the months before its closure.''

Tuesday's ruling reversed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board. Last December, the board ordered Sprint to provide jobs and $12 million in back wages to the La Conexion Familiar workers.

The December ruling said that Sprint had violated the employees' rights, such as repeatedly threatening them that the firm would be closed if they voted to unionize.

CWA President Morton Bahr said the union might appeal Tuesday's ruling, which he said ``diminishes the faith of working people in the ability to protect their rights and win justice in today's corporate world.''

CWA represents most telephone workers nationwide -- but not at Sprint, which has energetically fought organizing campaigns by CWA and other unions.

The court's ruling appears to bring a final end to a separate but related case involving NAFTA. In 1995, CWA and the Mexican telephone workers union filed a joint complaint under the NAFTA labor side agreement, accusing the U.S. government of allowing Sprint to violate labor laws by blocking the La Conexion Familiar organizing campaign.

Under NAFTA, complaints involving violations of organizing rights in the United States, Mexico or Canada may be brought before a special panel -- which nevertheless has no enforcement power.

The NAFTA panel responded to the unions' allegations by holding a public hearing in San Francisco in February 1996. But no further action was taken, and U.S. officials said the issue would be resolved in the National Labor Relations Board legal process.

Now, the issue appears closed, and the unions clearly have suffered yet another NAFTA defeat. In the past two years, unions have filed a half-dozen cases involving alleged labor abuses in Mexico under the NAFTA complaint process. The only result to date has been publicity for the unions' cause -- but no enforcement.

``The La Conexion Familiar case shows the weakness of both the (NAFTA labor side agreement) and U.S. federal labor law,'' said Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which has participated in several complaints to the NAFTA panel.

``NAFTA gives workers no enforceable rights, while U.S. labor law has one of the highest thresholds of proof (to demonstrate violations by companies) of labor laws anywhere in the developed world.''

c The Chronicle Publishing Company

David Richardson <oakport@igc.org>