In early February, thousands of workers for a General Motors (GM) plant in Silao, Mexico, voted for an independent union to represent them. This is a historic labor win decades in the making.
For the past 27 years, workers at the plant have been represented by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the largest labor confederation in the country. While under contract with the CTM, workers complained of 12-hour workdays, inadequate compensation and mistreatment from managers. The pay rate started at $9 per day, only about 60 cents above Mexico’s minimum wage. Managers reportedly denied workers bathroom breaks so often that one woman developed several urinary tract infections.
In these conditions, the National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry (SINTTIA) arose as a challenger to the CTM. Despite CTM officials’ attempts to threaten and intimidate SINTTIA supporters prior to the election, SINTTIA received a staggering 78% of the votes, while the CTM only garnered 5%.
The lack of worker protections and strong opposition against independent unionizing at the Silao GM plant was no accident. Rather, it was the result of institutionalized corruption in which powerful unions like the CTM are complicit. The most influential unions in Mexico today, including CTM, owe their dominance to Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). After rising to power in 1929, the PRI sought to tighten its grip on politics by solidifying its control over labor.
To accomplish its goal, the PRI helped its supporters obtain union leadership positions. The PRI has even provided their preferred candidates with federal troops to intimidate and discourage opposition. In exchange for the PRI’s backing, union leaders were expected to ensure that members voted for the PRI in elections. Since union leaders had an essentially unchallenged grasp on power and amassed fortunes from member dues, they had no motivation to challenge the status quo.
Additionally, the PRI installed virtually insurmountable barriers to independent unionizing.
Federal boards in charge of union recognition were structured in such a way that the votes were split between the PRI, its unions, and employers – leaving no voice for laborers.
The rise of “ghost unions” also helped the PRI repress labor organizing efforts. Essentially, companies hired lawyers to write up contracts that only provided workers with the bare minimum salary and protections. By signing the contracts, the companies’ lawyers became an established union on paper. These unions were created before the hiring process even began, and since the only parties in contract negotiations are the employers and their lawyers, it was difficult for workers to push for raises, file grievances or collectively bargain.
However, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – a revision of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement – ushered in a new period of labor reform in Mexico. In accordance with USMCA provisions on worker protection, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed a bill in 2019 that made independent unionizing more attainable. Specifically, it allowed workers to vote by secret ballot when electing union representatives, stated that existing contracts must be reviewed within a four-year time frame and declared that unions without the support of at least 30% of workers would not be granted formal recognition.
Despite the changing national climate moving in favor of a more just labor system, incumbent unions continued to push back significantly against the independent unions that challenged them. At the Silao GM plant in April 2021, for instance, when the workers initially voted on whether to nullify their contract with the CTM, inspectors found destroyed ballots in the offices of CTM leaders. That election was suspended and did not take place again until August.
SINTTIA’s election in the face of such strong establishment opposition marks a major success for the Silao GM plant’s labor organizers. It is the first time since the implementation of the labor reform laws that workers have voted to both nullify their previous contract and join a new union.
Several lawmakers in the United States and Canada have touted SINTTIA’s win as a sign of the effectiveness of the USMCA. They believe that with better worker protections, the cost of labor in Mexico will rise, and companies will be more likely to employ American and Canadian workers instead of outsourcing to Mexico.
Negotiating a new contract with GM employers is the next step for SINTTIA, and although workers anticipate an increase in wages and benefits, much still remains to be seen. It is uncertain whether a full-fledged independent labor movement will catch on in other parts of Mexico, but another recent success provides reason for optimism. Four weeks after the Silao GM plant election, auto workers at a Tridonex plant in Matamoros also rejected a CTM-affiliated union in favor of an independent union.
Perhaps the labor victories in Silao and Matamoros will be the first of many.