This article originally appeared in Labor Notes on Feb 4, 2022. Republished with permission.
Auto workers at a General Motors plant in central Mexico delivered a landslide victory to an independent union in a vote held February 1 and 2. It's a major breakthrough for workers and labor activists seeking to break the vice grip of the employer-friendly unions that have long dominated Mexico’s labor movement.
Turnout among the plant’s 6,300 eligible voters was 88 percent. The independent union SINTTIA (the National Auto Workers Union) picked up 4,192 votes—78 percent of the vote. SINTTIA, which grew out of the successful campaign which ousted the previous corrupt union last year, promised to raise wages and fight for workers on the shop floor.
Workers at the Silao plant voted last August to invalidate the contract held by a well-connected national auto workers union headed by Congressman Tereso Medina of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). That union was affiliated to the Congress of Mexican Labor (CTM), the country’s largest union federation.
CTM affiliates, tied to the long-ruling PRI, have long been criticized for signing employer-friendly “protection contracts,” which lock in low wages and prevent workers from organizing genuine unions.
In this week’s vote, a paltry 247 votes went to another CTM affiliate that appeared on the ballot, with 932 (17 percent) to a third union known as “the Coalition,” widely perceived by workers to be a CTM front. A fourth competitor got just 18 votes.
“Today I believe we as workers are more united than ever,” said Alejandra Morales, SINTTIA’s principal officer, who has worked at the plant for 11 years in the paint department. “Not only in Silao, but in all of Mexico.”
The weekend before the vote, Morales reported receiving threats outside her home from three people in a pickup with the license plates removed, part of what she called a “campaign of intimidation and defamation” by “the mafia of anti-democratic and charro unions.” SINTTIA’s secretary of organization reported getting death threats on Facebook and WhatsApp.
Shot in the Arm
SINTTIA’s victory is a shot in the arm for the independent union movement in Mexico; the vote was closely followed domestically and internationally.
Under Mexico’s labor law reform, which went into effect in 2019, all existing union contracts must be voted on by May 1, 2023, a measure aimed at allowing workers to democratically choose their unions, a freedom long denied Mexican workers. Most union contracts in Mexico have been signed behind the backs of workers by employers like GM and corrupt Mexican union officials—often before any workers are even hired.
Thus far, votes to delegitimate contracts and open the door toward choosing a new union have been few and far between. As of mid-January, majorities in only 24 workplaces—less than 1 percent of those where legitimation votes have been held—have opted to throw out the existing union. The GM Silao plant is by far the biggest to do this. It’s also the first where workers have voted to join a new union.
“What we hope is that [workers at] new companies see that they can beat the CTM,” said Juan Armando Fajardo Rivera, the union’s press secretary, who has worked at the plant for 13 years. “The CTM isn’t invincible. If you want a union, you can achieve it with the new reform.”
Support for the effort to vote in a genuine union at GM Silao poured in from unions and labor activists across the globe. The UAW and AFL-CIO issued statements pushing the Mexican government to ensure the vote was fair and free from intimidation. Unionists from Brazil, Canada, and the United States joined an international delegation to the vote; among the Brazilian delegation were eight members of local unions at GM.
The second-place finisher, the CTM-linked Coalition, attacked the international solidarity shown by unions and workers around the globe as “foreign interference,” and made the fear of job loss a centerpiece of their campaign. “Both the Canadians and the Americans want to take our production to their countries,” said a leader of the Coalition in an interview with El Financiero.
SINTTIA, for its part, embraced the support. “The union struggle encompasses the whole world,” said Fajardo Rivera. “It’s not just in Mexico.”
“It’s important to recognize the commitment of workers from other countries,” said Morales, “because it’s important that the whole working class, not just from here but globally, be in constant communication for the betterment of everyone.”
Once the results are certified by Mexican labor authorities, SINTTIA will enter negotiations with GM. Earlier this week, the automaker reported it had pulled in a record $10 billion in profits last year.
Workers at the Silao plant make the lucrative Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, but earn less than $25 for a 12-hour shift. Foremost on their minds is a wage increase.
“What workers would like most is to have a decent salary that is enough for their day-to-day [needs],” said Morales.
Among the other demands that SINTTIA highlighted in its election campaign were bathroom breaks, improved benefits, food and transportation paid for by the company, and better ability to take vacation time.
The independent unions that exist at three of Mexico’s two dozen auto assembly plants—at Nissan, Audi, and Volkswagen—have won higher wages and benefits than those where contracts are controlled by protection unions linked to the CTM. Those unions, who formed the federation FESIIAAAN (the Federation of Independent Unions of the Automobile, Auto Parts, Aerospace and Tire Industries) in 2018, were vocal in their support for SINTTIA.
“We know that those unions have been working for years to obtain what they are earning today [and] their benefits,” said Morales. “We lost a lot over the years, so we are going to have to advance bit by bit.”
Under Mexico’s reformed labor law, the union has six months to negotiate a contract and get it approved by a majority of the plant’s workers.