18 September 2005
Mexico's union blues frustrate expat entrepreneur in Chapala
'The thing that bothered me most ... for a whole hour, they were talking about money.' Rony Clygnet, proprietor La Petite Belgique
Story by : David Agren
Rony Clygnet fulfilled a dream in March, opening La Petite Belgique, a small restaurant in the Chapala centro adorned with photos of the king and queen of his native Belgium and red, yellow and black flags. His restaurant served Belgian waffles topped with bananas and chocolate sauce, baked apples or strawberries and whipped cream, providing Lakeside residents an authentic taste of Antwerp, his hometown. Within a few months, his business had grown as customers came from all over Lakeside for the waffles, cheerful service and reasonable prices. He averaged 40 customers per day by early September and employed one person.
But a sindicato (union) official from an outfit affiliated with the Jalisco Federation of Workers also paid a visit, demanding Clygnet sign up with the organization and pay a 4,000-peso fee. He also threatened to close La Petite Belgique unless Clygnet cooperated.
Clygnet initially refused. Two months later, the sindicato obtained a demanda (subpoena) against his restaurant, telling him to appear at its Guadalajara office. He balked at the demanda – which listed someone else as the owner – saying, "I've got a business to run." The Belgian entrepreneur pleaded his case to public security officials and the police, but they initially showed little interest in confronting the sindicato.
After failing to appear in Guadalajara, the union shuttered his restaurant on September 9, padlocking the front screen and spray painting it with the letters, "H/A," for huelga (strike in Spanish – an action taken without consulting La Petite Belgique's lone employee.)
Sindicatos wield immense power in Mexico. By law virtually every business must affiliate itself with a sindicato. While in most countries the workers make the decision to join a union, in Mexico, the business owner chooses the sindicato. In the absence of a choice, the sindicato can dragoon a business and its employees into its organization.
Clygnet knew little about Mexico's labor laws when he opened his shop in March. The experience though prompted second thoughts about whether it was the right decision.
"If I had known this beforehand, I might not have started the business," he said.
Generally speaking, Clygnet has no problems with unions. He was a card-carrying member of Sabena's (Belgium's defunct national airline) union for 14 years. To Clygnet's surprise, in conversations with various sindicato officials, the subject of his employee's welfare never surfaced.
"The thing that bothered me most ... for a whole hour, they were talking about money," he explained. "I said, 'You've been here an hour and you've said nothing about working conditions or my employee.' "
Martha Diaz Lopez, Clygnet's employee, wants nothing to do with the sindicato.
"I'm not lacking anything," the mother of six daughters said, acknowledging some fear that a strike could throw her out of a job, causing financial hardship.
"The sindicato doesn't do any thing for workers," said Eugenia Larrinaga Canberra, manager of the Chapala delegation of the Chamber of Commerce. "It's all money, money, money."
Mexican unions gained much of their power by supporting the long- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Union organizers have long marshaled large numbers of voters for the party. Former Mexican Workers' Confederation (CTM) president Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine endorsed PRI presidential aspirant Robert Madrazo earlier this summer on the eve of the sindicato leader's passing. Editorial cartoonists mocked his gesture as a deathbed endorsement, fulfilling his organization's role as a PRI booster.
President Vicente Fox has proposed reforming Mexico's labor laws during his five years in office, but opposition politicians have refused to cooperate.
Legal murkiness governing sindicato activities also complicates matters for many small business owners.
According to Larrinaga, sindicatos may not sign up family businesses or companies with fewer than three employees. La Petite Belgique employs only one person, but Clygnet said a sindicato official told him that once a demanda was issued, it couldn't be reversed.
Hector Vega, a Guadalajara-based accountant, recommends business owners sign up with a "sindicato blanco" (white union), an organization registered with the federal Labor Secretariat that allows entrepreneurs to comply with the law for a nominal fee.
"(A sindicato blanco) won't bother you (later) for money," he explained.
He compared signing up with a sindicato blanco to getting a vaccination.
"Vaccinate yourself ... do it before another union gets their foot in the door.
"The vaccination is a poison against a (more lethal) poison. It's the lesser of two evils."
Some business owners have staved off signing with a sindicato, including Paul Leming, co-owner of Agua Katya, a self-serve water store in Chapala, who has also skirmished with organizers over the past three years. During past visits to his store, organizers dropped off blank contracts, demanding he enroll and pay 500 pesos.
"It's a scam," he said succinctly, while taking a break from his water business.
"It's a three-ring circus and in every ring, you're paying."
Although not affiliated with any sindicato, Leming has paid a sindicato on several occasions, when dealing with disgruntled employees demanding severance pay. In one instance, an employee stole his delivery truck, crashing it in Ajijic last April. Leming paid a sindicato official 500 pesos for advising him on how to fire the employee, who under Mexican law could have demanded a severance package.
Later on the same day the sindicato locked up Clygnet's restaurant Ñ after a loud confrontation in front of many witnesses – a senior CTM official in Guadalajara allowed the business to reopen, although the strike continued. The official also ordered Clygnet to appear in Guadalajara on September 22 to sign up. Clygnet, however, discovered the order to appear was a diversionary tactic so the sindicato could again shut down his business.
Clygnet fought back after he "saw papers [that said] they were going to shut me down."
He wrote to Jalisco Governor Francisco Ramirez Acu–a, who dispatched an inspector from the state's social benefits agency last week to assess the situation. Clygnet and several other business owners also plan Ñ in conjunction with Chapala's municipal government Ñ to establish a hotline for people wishing to register a complaint against the sindicato.
In large part, besides pride and a love of Mexico, Clygnet persists because of Diaz, who he said, "Might be out of a job," due to the actions of a union.
From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.