Setting the Stage? Mexican Auto Employees Elect Independent Union

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
setting the stage mexican auto employees elect independent union

When the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was being floated as a possible replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the biggest selling points was the inclusion of new labor protections for Mexican workers. The Trump administration wanted to ensure serious labor reform took place south of the border to ensure union business was conducted responsibly and wages would increase. As a byproduct, USMCA is supposed to encourage North American synergies while gradually discouraging U.S. businesses from blindly sending jobs to Mexico to capitalize on poverty tier wages.

That theory will now be tested in earnest after General Motors employees from the Silao full-size truck plant voted overwhelmingly to dump the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) for the Independent Syndicate of National Workers (SINTTIA).

CTM has long been accused of having a stranglehold on Mexican laborers and leveraging ties to the government, specifically the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI) that enjoyed dominance throughout the 20th century. Claims of union corruption have likewise swirled for decades (often with supportive evidence), though that’s not exactly something that’s exclusive to Mexican labor organizations. Unions based in the United States have enjoyed a similarly complicated history and have largely aligned themselves with left-leaning politicians. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) frequently backed CTM up until the early 1990s, despite the Mexican union having been so overtly intertwined with the catch-all (arguably center-right) PRI.

The big change came after the introduction of NAFTA and widespread talk about how Mexico’s low wages and minimal worker protections would entice U.S. companies to relocate. Though arguments have been made that the AFL-CIO only ever bothered to ally itself with CTM because it was the dominant union entity. There are even instances of the CIA getting involved to nudge the foreign government and its favored labor organizations in highly specific directions. It’s a deeply complicated issue stretching back to the early 1900s and those seeking additional background information might want to read through this comparative analysis of Mexican and U.S. labor produced by the University of Minnesota Law School way back in 1996.

The point is that CTM has been losing allies after having enjoy near total dominance in Mexico and GM employees embracing SINTTIA is signaling that major changes have begun taking place. In June, the AFL-CIO criticized the Confederation of Mexican Workers for refusing to comply with updated government rules after USCMA forced the scheduling of a legitimation vote on the collective bargaining agreement at the GM plant in Silao, Guanajuato. Workers opted to dissolve their contract with CTM roughly a month later, setting the facility up for new representation in 2022.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that workers formed a new union at the plant called SINTTIA and that the decision could set the tone for GM’s other Mexican plants and throughout Mexico’s automotive industry. But the vote was still mired in controversy after numerous reports suggested the facility’s over 6,000 employees had been subjected to bribery and threats on behalf of CTM.

While I don’t want to underestimate the pervasiveness of organized corruption, the brunt of those accusations are coming from allies of the rival SINTTIA. The union’s secretary general, Alejandra Morales, said that several people visited her home over the weekend to issue threats. She claimed she was advised by two men and a woman that refused to identify themselves not to show up to vote this week or else the safety of SINTTIA’s committee would be at risk.

Morales, who works in the factory’s paint shop, stated that she did not know who was behind the threats. But most English-speaking media outlets have already presumed CTM is behind it. Even Canada’s Unifor, which has a presence in Mexico to support SINTTIA, said it believed CTM was trying to pay workers for providing proof that they voted in their favor. The going rate for these ballots was allegedly 500 pesos, which works out to be roughly $25 USD a vote.

Though it’s difficult to get a handle on everything that’s been going on and there’s plenty of politicking taking place behind the scenes from all sides. CTM has reemerged with a friendlier face now that it’s been weakened and foreign union interests appear to be turning against it. Unifor, AFL-CIO, and Washington-based Solidarity Center are all elated to see that SINTTIA has won in Silao. But it’s unclear if that’s because they think the new organization will be easier to work with, and more politically aligned with their goals, or simply due to the alleged corruption taking place within the Confederation of Mexican Workers.

Whatever the case, General Motors has been keeping its head down by saying it’ll respect whatever decisions the workers make.

According to SINTTIA’s allies in the U.S. and Canada, the next move is to demand pay increases that now have additional legal support under USMCA.

“Workers will advocate for higher wages and improved health and safety standards … helping to set new standards in the automobile industry,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler stated. “This vote represents a rejection of the past and a new era for Mexican workers’ right to associate freely.”

Mexico’s federal labor center said SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of a total of 5,389 valid ballots (a nearly 90-percent turnout). Workers said that they were interested to see if the group could succeed where CTM failed for so many years by getting them better pay and benefits. As part of USMCA, Mexico will be spending the rest of the year setting up independent labor courts and monitors (both domestic and foreign) to recertify hundreds of thousands of collective bargaining agreements. Considering all votes need to be tallied by May of 2023, it will be quite the challenge.

[Image: Chess Ocampo/Shutterstock]

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  • MitchConner MitchConner on Feb 03, 2022

    Did a fair amount of business in Mexico. When a worker gets a good manufacturing job they work extremely hard to keep it. The line workers at a Japanese owned television plant in Tijuana were at their posts at 7AM sharp, got a 30 minute lunch, and got off at 6PM. 7AM to Noon Saturdays. No idea how much they made — but the only cars in the parking lot were management’s. Fat chance of a US plant competing with that or some Chinese outfit. When NAFTA was signed the owner of a big wood products plant in Chicago bought a couple thousand acres on the far side of the Rio Grande from Laredo, built a factory plus houses for himself and his two sons, and moved everything, except for their existing employees of course, down there. Had a couple of years of ramp up but have carved out a solid niche for themselves since. Amazing how the United States somehow managed to think exporting its manufacturing sector was a good idea. Been a race to the bottom ever since.

    • See 3 previous
    • Agent534 Agent534 on Feb 07, 2022

      @Lou_BC Automation usually brings jobs supporting the tech with it, and with increased productivity comes increased wages. Its when offshoring started happening that wages and productivity de-coupled. Add in unrestricted flows of cheap labor from open borders that erodes worker leverage.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on Feb 05, 2022

    I would never buy a vehicle made in Mexico. I take that back the Maverick is made there. Seriously, I would much rather support Mexico than China and the same with Canada both are part of North America and both are allies.

    • See 1 previous
    • Jeff S Jeff S on Feb 05, 2022

      @mcs Agree. Just having a bit of fun.

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