This story originally appeared in Labor Notes on Jan. 28, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
Workers at a massive General Motors plant in central Mexico will vote in a landmark election next week to decide which union will represent the plant’s 6,500 workers. A victory by the independent union there would be a big step toward breaking the stranglehold of the employer-friendly unions that have long dominated Mexico’s labor scene.
Employees at the factory in Silao, Guanajuato, voted last August to invalidate the contract bargained by a corrupt local of the Confederation of Mexican Labor (CTM), ending the CTM’s right to represent the workers there.
Four unions are now competing to represent them. Two have ties to the CTM; activists suspect a third union, about which little is known, was created to sow confusion. The fourth, SINTTIA (the National Auto Workers Union), is an independent union that grew out of the campaign to remove the previous corrupt union, and the campaign to reinstate a group of workers who were fired after refusing overtime in solidarity with striking US GM workers in 2019.
Plant workers “basically spent most of 2019 searching for trade unions that could defend workers and fight for better wages and benefits,” said Alejandra Morales, secretary general of SINTTIA. “Unfortunately, we didn’t find one because they were all part of the CTM, and we wanted to free ourselves from the CTM.” (This and other quotes in this article have been translated from Spanish.)
Workers in Silao make the profitable Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks and a variety of V8 engines and automatic transmissions. The United States, which accounts for 80 percent of Mexico’s vehicle exports, is the main destination for these trucks.
Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest vehicle exporter (behind Germany, Japan, and the US); its auto industry employed 800,000 workers as of November. It produced 3 million cars in 2020, even with a dip in exports owing to pandemic-related plant closures.
Votes On All Contracts
Mexico’s labor law reform, passed in 2019, requires unions to hold secret-ballot votes to validate all existing collective bargaining agreements by May 1, 2023. The reform, along with provisions in the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, the successor to NAFTA), is intended to allow workers to democratically choose their unions, a freedom long denied to Mexican workers.
Mexico’s Labor Secretary, Luisa Maria Alcalde, estimates that 80 to 85% of union contracts in Mexico are “protection contracts,” signed behind the backs of workers by employers like GM and corrupt Mexican officials—often before any workers are even hired. Most workers don’t know that they have a contract or a union, or that dues are being taken out of their paycheck. Even when they do, most have never seen their contract, let alone voted on it.
These sweetheart deals and the scarcity of genuine unions in most sectors have held the wages of Mexican workers down, to the benefit of multinationals like GM. Mexican workers now earn just one-tenth of what their US counterparts do.
According to the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board, an advisory committee created by Congress and chaired by Steelworkers international director Ben Davis, the result of all these sham contracts is that “millions of Mexican workers have worked extremely long hours (the longest among OECD countries) for very low wages (the lowest average wages among OECD countries), often in hazardous working conditions and with no effective means to vindicate their rights at work.”
There are, however, three independent, democratic unions in Mexico’s 22 auto assembly plants, and their contracts are significantly better than those of the other auto unions, paying up to twice as much.
First Election Under New Rules
Last spring, the US filed a complaint under the USMCA after reports that the CTM had destroyed ballots when it was heading for defeat in an April contract ratification vote. The US Trade Representative reached an agreement with the Mexican government to reschedule the vote, this time with more inspectors and observers to ensure the integrity of the election.
In the rescheduled vote, held in August, workers voted 3,214 to 2,623 to remove the employer-friendly “Miguel Trujillo Lopez” local of the CTM, creating the opportunity to establish a new union at the plant. (The “Miguel Trujillo Lopez” local is a national industrial union with numerous auto industry contracts, headed by the wealthy and powerful federal congressman Tereso Medina of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.)
After workers vote to remove their union, the terms and conditions of their existing contract remain in place until they approve a new one. A new union must collect signatures from at least 30% of the workforce to get recognition. More than one union can file, so long as each union submits signatures from 30% of workers within 10 days after the first filing (a worker can sign to support more than one union), in which case an election will be held. The union that receives the most votes wins. Any contract it negotiates must then be approved by a majority of workers.
The Silao election is the first to be held under these new rules. Four unions are on the ballot, but the real contest is between SINTTIA and a CTM affiliate known as “the Coalition,” with the other two unions there to divide the vote.
Héctor de la Cueva, coordinator of the Labor and Union Advisory Research Center (CILAS), which has been advising SINTTIA, compared the election to a wrestling match. “Imagine this is a lucha libre ring, and SINTTIA is going to fight against three villains,” he said. “The three other unions have entered the ring to create confusion and attempt to divide the vote of the workers, creating the illusion that one of these unions could be an alternative.”
‘Your Complaints Are Ours’
Silao plant worker Israel Cervantes was one of the first to begin organizing against both the corrupt union and the company.
As the leader of a new organization called Generando Movimiento (Generating Movement, a wink at the name General Motors), he organized a show of solidarity with the US workers who were on strike against GM in 2019 by refusing to work overtime to offset a production slowdown.
“We are willing to reinforce your struggle by not allowing [GM] to pressure us for greater productivity,” one GM Silao worker said in a message sent to United Auto Workers members in the US and reported by Vice. “If our bosses are the same, then your complaints are ours.”
The company fired Cervantes and 18 other workers shortly afterwards, using various pretexts.
But Cervantes, who had worked at the plant for 13 years, would not be stopped. He has spent the last two and a half years fighting for reinstatement and taking part in the effort to remove the CTM. “We need a union controlled by workers to force GM to improve our jobs,” he told the Mexico Solidarity Project. “We’ve had dissatisfaction at our plant for a long time, but now we’ve turned anger into organization.”
A Democratic Union
In the run-up to the election, SINTTIA has been holding press conferences and talking to workers outside the plant about what an independent union could mean for them.
In the past, the union had very little presence on the shop floor. In SINTTIA, “workers themselves will elect their delegates and leadership,” Cervantes said. “That’s the argument we are making to people.”
Besides sharing information via WhatsApp and Facebook, they’ve held meetings at their union hall and in the neighboring cities of Silao, Irapuato, Salamanca, and Valles to inoculate auto workers against CTM’s fear-mongering.
The old union argues that it has the company’s backing. Since April of last year, “they would tell people that if they didn’t vote or didn’t join again, the company would leave,” said SINTTIA leader Morales. “The workers were told that if they didn’t legitimize their collective bargaining agreement, we were going to lose our benefits. We were going to be at the mercy of the company, which could then lower our wages.” None of this is true.
SINTTIA organizers mapped out the factory complex: the stamping plant, body shop, transmission plants, assembly lines, and painting division. They identified leaders in each of these areas and brought them together for meetings.
After extolling the merits of the independent union, they would tell fellow workers, “If you’re convinced of what we have just told you, of the purpose and objectives, now you must communicate it,” Morales said. “You’re an ambassador for SINTTIA. Pass it on to your fellow line workers.”’
But in next week’s vote, will enough workers hold strong against the CTM and the company’s attacks?
SINTTIA alleges that GM fired one union supporter Néstor Antonio Valadez on Jan. 14, after 20 years on the job, accusing him of stealing an oxygen sensor. Valadez denies the allegation.
The purported theft occurred last November. “Why come out now with the accusation?” Valadez asked. He says his flyering and signature-gathering in support of the independent union were the true motivation for his termination.
“The CTM has been at GM for a long time and has kept wages low,” he said. “We need a change.” Among the demands that workers are pressing for, he said, is the basic right to bathroom access.
SINTTIA activists also allege that, while the company has barred SINTTIA from campaigning, it has allowed the CTM-linked unions free access to workers throughout the plant.
“The company prefers any of these three unions to win and not SINTTIA,” said de la Cueva. “These companies like General Motors continue to think that it’s better to negotiate with these mafias than with the authentic representatives of the workers.”
Union Acts as a Bank
Another tool the CTM used was its control over loans to workers and scholarships for their children.
Wages at the plant are about $2 hourly. Workers often put their meager earnings into a yearly union savings plan to earn interest.
The CTM would hold these funds and use them to demand workers sign in support of the union. But it would also use the funds to make loans to workers at a rate of 50%, Cervantes said.
“If they wanted their scholarship, they had to join. If they wanted a loan, they had to join. Any procedure, help, or support that the [CTM] provided required them to join,” said Morales.
These loans were managed jointly by the union and GM—and should not have been impacted by the vote to remove the CTM. Instead of making that clear, GM allowed the CTM to spread misinformation, said de la Cueva of CILAS.
One of the independent union’s goals is to improve wages enough “so that a worker doesn’t have the need to take out loans,” Cervantes said, “because they’ll have a higher salary to cover basic living expenses.”
Inside the factory, workers are subjected to grueling and dangerous 12-hour shifts.
“There have been accidents, and the worker is always the one who is [held] at fault for not having done their work correctly,” said Morales, “or for doing work that they weren’t allowed to do—but were ordered to do.”
If workers question the poor treatment, she said, “they would put them in a small room with only two or three human resources people and harass them until they signed their voluntary resignation.”
As the pandemic raged across the world, workers were fired for demanding safety protocols. The old union sided with the company.
“During the pandemic, they never defended us,” said Morales. “In fact, there was even retaliation. In my team, two people died of Covid. When the second one passed away, we all raised our voices: ‘Do something. You’re my union.’”
One of the outspoken leaders demanding Covid tests and better sanitation within the company was fired. For Morales, the message was clear: “Stay silent, everyone, or this could happen to you.”
First of its Kind
Thus far, votes to delegitimate contracts have been few and far between, a measure of the uphill battle that independent unions face in Mexico even after the 2019 labor law reform.
As of Jan. 19, workers had voted to legitimate 2,616 contracts, according to a Mexican government database. Only 24 workplaces—less than 1% of those that have voted—have thrown out the existing union. The GM Silao plant is by far the biggest of these.
Others include several big auto parts factories in the border city of Matamoros, home to the big “20/32” wildcat strike wave three years ago that won 20% wage increases and 32,000 peso ($1,600) bonuses.
The no vote at GM Silao “didn’t come from out of nowhere,” said de la Cueva. He credits the organizing done by Generando Movimiento and other workers at the plant over the last three years. “This happened because there are organized workers. In many other companies the same thing isn’t happening, because the workers aren’t informed or organized.”
Nonetheless, a vote for SINTTIA at GM Silao could have ripple effects throughout Mexico, inspiring more workers to organize independent, democratic unions. (Another historic vote, the first-ever direct election for union leadership by the 90,000 workers at Mexico’s national oil company, Pemex, will take place on Monday; a victory by a challenger there could have similar ramifications.)
“We can have better salary conditions, and more importantly, labor conditions, and good union representation,” said Morales. “That’s the starting point for other workers to be encouraged to raise their voices and not be subjected to the company.”