Workers at a massive General Motors plant in central Mexico will vote in a landmark election this 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 competing to represent them. Two unions have ties with the CTM; activists suspect that a third union was involved. created to sow confusion. The fourth, SINTTIA(The National Auto Workers Union) is an independent union that grew from the campaign to eliminate the corrupt union and the campaign for the reinstatement of a group workers who were fired after refusing to work overtime in solidarity to striking U.S. 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.)
Silao workers produce the Chevy Silverado pickup trucks and GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks. They also make a variety V8 engines, and automatic transmissions. The United States, which accounts for 80 percent of Mexico’s vehicle exports, is the main destinationThese trucks are available for purchase.
Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest vehicle exporter (behind Germany, Japan, and the U.S.)800,000 people worked in the auto industry as of November. It produced 3 million cars in 2020 even with a dipExports due to pandemic-related plant closures.
Votes for 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. Along with provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (“USMCA), the successor of NAFTA), the reform is intended to allow workers the freedom to choose their unions democratically, a freedom that was long denied to Mexican workers.
Mexico’s Labor Secretary, Luisa Maria Alcalde, estimates that 80 to 85 percent 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. Many workers don’t even know they have a contract or a union.
These sweetheart bargains and the absence of unions in many sectors have lowered wages for Mexican workers, to the advantage multinationals like GM. Mexican workers now earn just one-tenth of what their U.S. 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 U.S. filed an application to a complaintAfter reports that CTM had destroyed ballots, the USMCA was adopted. This followed CTM’s defeat in the April contract ratification vote. The U.S. trade representative reached an agreement to reschedule, this time with more observers or inspectors to ensure the integrity and integrity of the vote.
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.)
The terms and conditions of the existing contract will continue to be in effect until workers approve a new one. A new union must get signatures from at minimum 30% of the workforce in order to be recognized. A union can file more than one, provided that each union submits signatures within 10 days of the first filing. Workers can sign to support multiple unions. The union with the most votes wins. The majority of workers must then approve any contract it negotiates.
These new rules will be used for the first time in Silao’s election. 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”
Israel Cervantes, a Silao worker, was among the first to organize against both the corrupt unions and the company.
As the leader of a brand new organization called Generando Movimiento(Generating Movement – a wink at General Motors) He organized a solidarity show with U.S. workers striking against GM in 2019. refusing to work overtimeTo offset a slowdown of production.
“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 U.S. and reported by Vice. “If our bosses are the same, then your complaints are ours.”
Cervantes and 18 others were fired by the company shortly after, using various pretexts.
Cervantes, a 13-year veteran of the plant, refused to be stopped. He has been fighting for reinstatement for the past two and a quarter years and participating in the effort to get rid of 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
SINTTIA held press conferences and talked to workers outside the plant about the possibility of an independent union in the days leading up to the election.
In the past, the union was very absent from 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 created a map of the factory complex that included the stamping, body, transmission, assembly lines and painting division. They identified the leaders in each area 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 January 14, after 20 years on the job, accusing him of stealing an oxygen sensor. Valadez refutes the allegation.
The theft was alleged to have occurred in November. “Why come out now with the accusation?” Valadez asked. He claims that his signature-gathering and flyering in support for the independent union was the real 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 claim that the company has denied SINTTIA the right to campaign, but has allowed CTM-linked unions full access to workers throughout its 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 that the CTM used was its control of loans to workers and scholarships to their children.
The average wage at the plant is $2 an hour. To earn interest, workers often save their little earnings in a yearly union savings account.
The CTM would keep these funds and use them for a demand that workers support the union. Cervantes stated that the CTM would also use these funds to make loans to workers at a 50 percent interest rate.
“If they wanted their scholarship, they had to join. They had to sign up if they wanted to borrow money. Any assistance, support, or procedure 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. De la Cueva from CILAS stated that GM did not make this clear and allowed the CTM spread misinformation.
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.”
Workers are forced to work 12-hour shifts of dangerously long hours in the factory.
“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.”
Workers were fired because they demanded safety protocols as the pandemic spread around the globe. The old union supported the company.
“During the pandemic, they never defended us,” said Morales. “In fact, there was even retaliation. Two people from my team died of Covid. When the second one passed away, we all raised our voices: ‘Do something. You’re my union.’”
Morales was fired for being one of the loud leaders who demanded Covid tests and better sanitation in the company. For Morales, the message was clear: “Stay silent, everyone, or this could happen to you.”
First of Its Kind
Votes to invalidate contracts have been rare so far. This is a sign of the difficulty independent unions in Mexico face even after the 2019 labor reform.
Workers had voted to legitimize 2,616 contracts as of January 19, according to a Mexican government database. Only 24 workplaces—less than 1 percent of those that have voted—have thrown out the existing union. The largest of these is the GM Silao plant.
Some others include several large auto parts manufacturing plants in Matamoros border, which is home to the huge “20/32” wildcat strike waveThree years ago, the government awarded a 20 percent wage increase and 32,000 peso ($1,600 in bonuses).
The no vote at GM Silao “didn’t come from out of nowhere,” said de la Cueva. He attributes the organizing done over the past three years by Generando Movimiento, and other workers at the factory. “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.”
Nevertheless, a vote in favor of SINTTIA at GM Silao could cause ripple effects across Mexico, encouraging more workers to form independent, democratic unions. (Another historic election, 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.”