Posted 04/30/2012 06:10 PM ET
The Service Employees International Union and a group of Mexican lawyers filed an official complaint Monday with Mexico's Labor Department, alleging that Alabama law HB 56 violates labor protections — under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The complaint is highly unusual. The international trade pact has never been thought to govern immigration policy inside states. Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of SEIU, admitted to IBD that this was a completely unprecedented claim.
There is also the irony of a major union turning to NAFTA, which Big Labor bitterly fought against when it passed in 1992 and has criticized ever since, as a legal remedy in a political fight.
"What it gets to, I don't know," Medina told IBD regarding their novel trade complaint. "But I do think it needs to be looked at seriously ... We want this (Alabama) law thrown out."
Bryan Riley, a senior policy analyst specializing in trade at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called it a legal "Hail Mary."
"It is very far-fetched to me to use the NAFTA language to raise a question about the Alabama law, which doesn't seem to say anything about (immigrant) working conditions," Riley said.
The Alabama Attorney General's office did not respond to a request for comment at press time.
The SEIU's complaint argues that the Alabama law violates provisions under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, a supplemental agreement to NAFTA. It obligates the countries to ensure certain basic labor rights and says those rights must extend to migrant workers.
Alabama's law, one of the nation's toughest, makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to seek work, makes it illegal for employers to hire them and requires police to check the status of suspected illegals. Legal challenges are pending and some provisions have been blocked pending outcomes of the lawsuits.
"Alabama's anti-immigration law creates a climate of fear and intimidation in the workplace. It has a coercive impact on migrant workers and co-workers who may seek to form trade unions and bargain collectively," states the SEIU complaint.
"It deprives the immigrants of the right to freely associate with other workers for their own protection," Medina said. The union's ultimate goal is to have the law thrown out, but Medina indicated they'd consider it a success if they just brought the issues to wider attention.
The effort would require Mexico to seek redress under NAFTA. It is highly unlikely to force Alabama to repeal the law but, theoretically, the third party evaluating the complaint could rule in Mexico's favor, Heritage's Riley said.
Kitchen Sink Strategy
SEIU members include large sections of immigrant communities. The union has long pushed for more pro-immigrant policies in the U.S. Earlier this month it spearheaded an effort to pressure foreign carmakers with plants in Alabama to use their clout to pressure state lawmakers into dropping the law. Otherwise Big Labor said it would try to tar them as human-rights abusers.
Medina conceded the irony of a union seeking a NAFTA remedy, but said they needed to use any avenue they could find.
"We were not fans of NAFTA as you can imagine because we didn't believe it really provided protection for workers. This case will prove ... whether our fears were well-founded," he said.
Shikha Dalmia, a senior policy analyst with the pro-immigration, pro-free market Reason Foundation, said it was good to see SEIU standing up for immigrant rights but said the solution appeared to be wrong-headed.
"Insisting on minimum wages, etc., eviscerates the main competitive advantage that foreign workers have against native workers," she said. "SEIU should be sensitive to the fact that foreign workers don't have the same issues and needs as native-borns." Source