This story originally appeared in the Mexico Solidarity Bulletin, the weekly newsletter of the Mexico Solidarity Project, on Feb. 9, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
In 1930, early in US Great Depression, a newly published children’s book—The Little Engine that Could—began charming families the nation over with its tale of a train trying to carry Christmas toys to kids over on the other side of a mountain. The train had lost its engine, and other big arrogant engines refused to help. Finally, a little engine with a woman’s self-deprecating humility agrees to pull that heavy load. She pulls well beyond her small capacity, bringing joy to the awaiting children. Her mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” would go on to become an American childhood catchphrase for generations.
I thought of that plucky blue engine as a newly formed independent auto workers union in central México—led by an activist rank-and-filer woman, Alejandra Morales Reynoso—last week chugged up the steep mountain to official bargaining recognition at GM’s huge Silao plant. That union, SINTTIA, had last summer led a campaign that voted out a contract that legitimized the oppression of the plant’s workers. In voting last week, those workers overwhelmingly chose SINTTIA to replace the corrupt union that had put that contract into effect. The SINTTIA activists thought they could, they thought they could—and they did!
SINTTIA, as union organizer Israel Cervantes notes, is hoping its stunning achievement will have a domino effect on workers all across México as word spreads about it. And the Silao workers’ battle to raise their current pay—just a tenth of what US auto workers make—will also help US workers. As Jeff Hermanson, the Mexican rep of the AFL-CIO-backed Solidarity Center puts it: “If you’ve got a race to the bottom, you’ve got to raise the bottom, and then maybe the race will slow down a little bit.”
In our interview this week, the Morena activist Javier Bravo reflects upon the joy that’s coming to the Silao plant GM workers and their families as SINTTIA moves closer to arriving at its ultimate destination: a contract that finally allows workers to live with dignity. And maybe buy a few toys too!
Si, se puede! A Stunning Victory at GM Silao
Javier Bravo, a founder of the México Solidarity Project who teaches history at the University of Guanajuato, lives just 20 minutes from the mammoth GM plant in Silao. A friend and admirer of the SINTTIA union stalwarts Israel Cervantes and Alejandra Morales Reynoso, Bravo stood by their side right before last week’s landmark vote that replaced the dictatorial rule of the plant’s former bargaining agent, an affiliate of México’s corrupt CTM union confederation.
How did SINTTIA pull off this huge victory — with almost no resources?
It is a huge victory! In this conservative state of Guanajuato, still governed by the conservative PRI and PAN, a tiny group of workers took on the enormous, well-oiled machinery of these two political parties, local government, the corrupt CTM union—and the mega corporate empire of General Motors. They defeated a many-headed monster!
How did they do it? As GM workers themselves, they won the respect of other workers on the job, and they organized an in-plant organization that was named—with irony—“GM,” for Generando Movimiento, Generating Movement.
Almost three years ago, General Motors fired one of the leaders of that movement, Israel Cervantes, on fake grounds. The timing could hardly have been more suspicious: right after Israel led an action in solidarity with striking UAW GM workers in the US. Last week, international union representatives from Brazil, Canada, and the US, among other countries, repaid that kind of international solidarity. They traveled to México to ensure, as observers, a fair election during the February 1 and 2 balloting.
Before the balloting, during most of the campaign, SINTTIA didn’t even have a printer. Just recently a friend of mine, a local Morena representative, bought one for them. But the SINTTIA activists used social media—WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram—very effectively.
Their movement organized first against the old CTM contract. Last August, after the uncovering of fraud by the CTM in a contract ratification vote and the ordering of a revote, SINTTIA succeeded in getting a majority to reject that phony charro contract.
This first win gave the workers hope—and both support for SINTTIA and worker participation increased. In last week’s voting, 78% of the Silao plant’s workers choose SINTTIA, and 88% of the Silao workers overall cast votes. What a mandate! The SINTTIA worker struggle for labor justice is radiating a powerful symbolism, the start of our own “Working Class Spring” here in México.
Just a few days before this election, three strangers showed up at the home of SINTTIA general secretary Alejandra Morales and told her not to show up at the plant “or else.” Did General Motors or the local government take any action to protect her?
No. But other workers are keeping watch over her, her child, and her home. Alejandra refused to be intimidated and instead spoke out. The threat backfired. Anger at her intimidation built support for SINTTIA. And now that SINTTIA has won, I believe she’s safer. The federal and local governments and GM management have all validated the vote. The margin of victory was far too big to be challenged, and now many eyes are watching her.
How has the general public in the communities around Silao responded to this victory?
Unfortunately, I see little visible public enthusiasm for this victory. In the large nearby city of Léon, a proletarian city with Coca-Cola, shoe manufacturers, and other factories, one third of local workers go without any contracts at all. Millions of Mexicans would be happy about the Silao vote, but simply don’t know anything about this decisive moment for independent unionism.
In my city of Guanajuato close to Silao, the media carried no news about the Silao voting, no mention of SINTTIA, even a few days before the election. Workers here only see papers like the AM Express that feature blurred fotos of headless torsos, crime, and, of course, daily centerfolds of barely clothed women. It’s shameful. But even the AM Express finally had to cover the SINTTIA victory!
So we have much that needs to be done. The SINTTIA victory can be a lighthouse for us, and all of us must make sure that light shines throughout the country.
What strikes you the most about this victory?
I was crying with happiness after I heard the news! I’m happy mostly for the auto worker families. I visited their homes. They live in insulting conditions. Poor lighting and ventilation, lack of sanitation, deteriorated furniture, nothing of beauty. They can’t afford cars. It’s like working in a diamond mine: You know the immense value of what you produce, but you cannot dream of actually owning something that you make.
But this election marks the beginning of a new day, and now onto the contract talks. I expect that SINTTIA will be fighting to win more time for workers to spend with their families. Right now, they work 12-hour shifts that benefit only GM’s production schedule. Being poor is like being half-dead. I hope the GM workers will finally be able to live with dignity. With SINTTIA, these workers have the flag of history in their hands.