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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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