On Tuesday, Sept. 26, protesters affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), Labor Notes, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD, the rank-and-file reform caucus within the UAW), the Democratic Socialists of America, Latino/a Workers’ Leadership Conference, and Casa Obrera del Bajío gathered outside of VU Manufacturing’s headquarters in Troy, Michigan, to deliver a list of demands in support of 400 Mexican workers in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, who were recently laid off by the company. VU Manufacturing shut down the newly unionized facility along the Mexico-US border in August, while 71 workers were still in their employ.
The protest was organized by the Mexico Solidarity Project—an independent organization focused on building connections between workers and left organizations across the US and Mexico—in partnership with Labor Notes, under their joint Mexico Solidarity Project Labor Support Committee.
VU Manufacturing, a second-tier auto parts supplier that produces interior pieces for automakers like Stellantis, GM, Toyota, and Tesla, began laying off workers in April. The layoffs were set in motion back in August 2022, when workers voted against the company-preferred corporate union, Confederacion Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM), in favor of an independent union, la Liga Sindical Obrera Mexicana (la Liga).
When it appeared that VU was deliberately stalling and attempting to run out the clock on the six-month contract negotiating period stipulated by Mexican labor law, la Liga and the Border Workers Committee, a workers’ center based in Piedras Negras, filed a complaint using the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism of the US-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA), which replaced NAFTA. The Rapid Response Labor Mechanism allows Mexican workers and their representatives to file a formal complaint against companies believed to be acting in violation of Mexican labor law with the US Department of Labor and the Office of the US Trade Representative. US authorities are expected to then press for an expedient resolution.
This complaint resulted in a six-month remediation plan between VU and la Liga. The remediation plan, agreed upon by Mexico and the US, detailed actions to address VU’s failure to bargain in good faith with la Liga, as well as other labor violations committed by the company. However, workers and activists say that little to no progress had been made when the remediation period ended on Sept. 30—more than a month after VU had already closed down the plant.
On Oct. 10, less than two weeks later, the US Department of Labor announced that their agency has closed the workers’ case against VU Manufacturing, without any sanctions or other disciplinary actions against the company as permitted under the USMCA. Deputy Undersecretary of Labor for International Affairs Thea Lee stated her “disappointment” over closing the case, adding, “we knew employers would not choose compliance in every instance.” The case is now the responsibility of the Mexican government.
The last 71 workers have not received their legally mandated severance pay and have been left without access to company-managed savings accounts. Former VU workers also report being blacklisted from work within the maquilas that employ the majority of workers in Piedras Negras due to their association with the plant.
“The people, the workers, are desperate. They want their money and they need it,” said Victor Sevilla, one of the 71 VU workers who did not receive severance pay. “And the only way that they’re really going to get it is by pressuring the owner of the company in Michigan.” Sevilla also lost access to his company-managed savings account, which he says he was using to save up money for the Christmas holiday.
Despite the recent closure of the case, activists say they are still working to fulfill the list of demands presented to VU headquarters in Troy, Michigan.
The demands cover the immediate needs of VU workers like severance and unpaid wages for the 71 laid-off workers, restitution for two union organizers who were unjustly fired, and an end to the employment blacklist in Piedras Negras, which workers and activists believe is being led by the CTM.
“They did not want to take the list of demands. They were pretty indignant that we were there,” Zach Rioux, a labor organizer based out of Detroit who coordinated the action on the ground, told TRNN. “They overreacted and started to yell, which, to me, is pretty rich—to be so indignant in a situation where VU has acted so illegally and cruelly towards their workers.”
Activists are also continuing to demand sanctions against VU Manufacturing to prevent the company from reopening under a different name and continuing to export goods to the US. Additionally, they are calling for a public forum with labor authorities from Mexico and the US to discuss the lessons of the VU campaign and how the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism of the USCMA can better respond to violations of workers’ rights going forward.
Meizhu Lui, co-coordinator of the Mexico Solidarity Project, said via email: “Neither the VU workers nor their supporters in Mexico and the US consider it ‘case closed’ until justice is done.”
On Oct. 18, former VU workers and activists protested in front of the city government offices in Piedras Negras. “The factories here refuse to give us jobs. We are, apparently, on a blacklist here, in the border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila,” said Miguel Ángel Fraga Martinez, a former VU worker. “Even those of us that did receive severance pay, the money is already gone, because we haven’t been able to get stable work.”
The coalition is continuing to organize further actions to pressure the authorities of the US and Mexico.
VU Manufacturing had not responded to activists’ demands before the case was closed.
“If the labor mechanism is allowed to fail like this—and you can only say that this is a failure—it sets a very bad precedent for the future,” said Jeff Hermanson, a longtime organizer in Mexico and the US. “This is a test of the commitment of the labor authorities in both countries to the functioning of this agreement of the labor rights chapter of the USMCA.”
“I think that means that it’s also a test case for all of us who are supporting the workers, and who are on the side of the working class in the US or Mexico, to stand up and say that we’re not going to let this happen. Companies can’t do whatever they want with workers’ lives,” said Charlie Saperstein, a labor activist and organizer with the Border Workers Committee in Piedras Negras. “I think the protest that happened [on Sept. 26] is a perfect example of that.”
Sean Crawford, a UAW auto worker and founding member of UAWD, has worked for GM since 2008 and was among the first groups of workers to be hired under the 2008 contract, which introduced the tier system.
“Back in 2019, I was a member of UAW Local 598 at Flint truck assembly. And we make heavy duty pickup trucks there. These are the same pickup trucks that they make in Silao, Mexico, where Israel Cervantes used to work,” says Crawford. “So, he led a campaign to refuse overtime in solidarity with striking GM workers in 2019 and I just thought that was fantastic.”
Israel Cervantes worked at the GM plant in Silao, Mexico, for 13 years. He was one of several workers fired for the act of solidarity described by Crawford. After being terminated, Cervantes and the other workers who had been fired formed an organization called Generating Movement (a play on “GM”) to organize workers in the plant, which led to workers not only voting out their existing, corrupt union, but subsequently voting to be represented by an independent union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajoras de la Industria Automotriz (SINTTIA).
“It’s important for UAW workers to get the sense of solidarity from other countries, such as the solidarity message that was sent from the auto workers in Brazil, as well as the rubber industry workers from Puebla, Mexico,” said Cervantes, adding that workers in other countries understand that it’s important not to give in to the demands of the company by speeding up production or working overtime, to not work against the striking UAW workers in the US.
“We work for the same companies. It’s right there, there are GM plants in Mexico and the whole supply chain criss-crosses the border. So, if capital can be on both sides of the border, we should be on both sides of the border,” echoed Rioux.
Cervantes and Crawford met for the first time at the protest at VU Headquarters. In a moment, linguistically facilitated by Luis Feliz Leon of Labor Notes and captured on video, Crawford thanks Cervantes for his “brave act of solidarity” during the 2019 UAW strike before shaking hands.
“The cool thing about meeting him is, really, he’s just a normal guy like you and me,” Crawford told TRNN after meeting Cervantes at the protest. “And, to me, that just goes to show that these big acts that can really change the world and change the narrative, they’re done by just average working class people who decide they’ve had enough. And that’s pretty cool.”