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A new chapter for Mexican labor

SINTTIA and the fight for an independent union

In early February, the newly organized National Auto Workers Union (known by its Spanish acronym, SINTTIA) won the right to represent auto workers in the General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico.

This victory sent shockwaves through organized labor because, historically, unions have been represented by the state-affiliated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which was created in the 1930s to suppress labor unrest and to bring workers into the fold of state-led development.

Since the neoliberal period, nationalized companies have been privatized, and union membership has declined considerably. However, organizations like the CTM have continued to operate under a corrupt model of business unionism in manufacturing and industrial sectors. When workers have tried to organize, the CTM has punished them to maintain a tight relationship between corrupt union bureaucrats and management.

In recent years, workers and activists have organized independent unions and federations in sectors that are not controlled by the CTM or similar federations. International auto workers’ unions have also denounced the lack of democracy in Mexican labor and have pushed for recent reforms to the new United States, Mexico, Canada (USMCA) agreement that forces unions to enact democratic procedures and opens the way for independent union drives.

To learn about the union victory at General Motors Mexico, we interviewed Willebaldo Gómez Zupa, PhD in Labor Studies and professor of Economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He has been a consultant for auto union federations and most recently advised the independent union drive at GM Mexico. Héctor A. Rivera conducted this interview for Tempest Magazine.

Héctor A. Rivera: Before we talk about the recent victory at the General Motors plant in Silao, I want to ask for some background on the Mexican auto industry and the state of labor unions that brought us to this point, where it is noteworthy for an independent union to win a contract election?

Willebaldo Gómez Zupa: The auto industry arrived in Mexico as early as 1925 with Ford. Later, General Motors, and Chrysler arrived in 1940. At first, parts were sent to Mexico City, they were assembled here and sold for the national market. From 1950-1960, the Mexican government promoted an integrated auto parts value chain based in Mexico that also incorporates the newly established Nissan and Volkswagen. We saw the rapid growth of this sector in the 1970s but it was only oriented to provide parts for the national market, with less than ten percent of this going for exports.

By the 1980s, U.S. companies realized that it was considerably cheaper to produce cars in Mexico thanks to wage differences and the devaluations that hit Mexico and, thus, began to relocate plants to Mexico. At the same time, the Mexican government shifted manufacturing investments to the border regions to create employment for migrants leaving the countryside.

Afterwards, the U.S. and Mexico pursued a transnational industrialization strategy by putting factories at the border to retain migrants in Mexico, but also to take advantage of the proximity of border cities to the U.S. This cut costs for the U.S. since it’s much cheaper to ship components across the border than to ship them from Detroit. Auto manufacturers in central Mexico eventually relocated to the border and the success of this model became the framework for the maquiladora industry that emerged and developed the framework for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was implemented in 1994. This gives you an idea of the weight of the auto industry.

With the creation of NAFTA, we also saw big investments in technology. For example, the Ford plant in Hermosillo, Sonora introduced robotics earlier than some Ford plants in Detroit, thus bringing more advanced technical skills to the workforce. This runs against the traditional stereotype that imperialist countries only relocate their outdated and polluting industries to developing countries.

Through this process, the auto industry became an important pillar of the Mexican economy; not just through foreign direct investments that upgraded factory infrastructures, but also because of the employment that came from exports. According to my research, about 30 percent of Mexico’s manufacturing is directly related to the auto industry and it represents 60 percent of the value of all exports. The industry is so large that it has surpassed oil exports, remittances, and the tourism sector. Thus, towards the beginning of the twenty-first century, the auto industry became the main engine of growth for the nation’s economy.

HAR: My second question is about the Labor Reform of 2019, which forced unions to establish democratic processes for elected representation. This reform is related to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is now the US, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA). How did this reform come to pass, and is it related to the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his political-development project the “Fourth Transformation”?

WGZ: The struggle for the democratization of the labor movement has a long history. Recent reforms are also the result of a long list of complaints filed in international panels such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation. These complaints were filed by Industrial Global Union, American unions, such as the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and the Canadian Unifor. These unions had been making complaints because of the corruption inside the CTM, above all in manufacturing and the auto industry, since 85-90 percent of the cars produced in Mexico are exported to the United States and Canada. After 2012, these campaigns led to concerted international pressure against the government of Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and his administration was forced to modify the legal framework, considering the upcoming negotiations of NAFTA.

SINTTIA represents a breakthrough in the effort to democratize the Mexican labor movement by organizing unions that are independent from state-affiliated unions like CTM. Image from SINTTIA Facbook page.

After the election of Donald Trump, this renegotiation of terms was accelerated because of Trump’s “America First” policy, which aimed to bring jobs back to the United States, and part of the reason why these jobs went to Mexico is due to the deplorable labor conditions in Mexico enforced by corrupt unions. And when the USMCA was negotiated, the issue of Mexican labor reform was discussed before anything else. Thus, when that labor clause was negotiated into the USMCA, the Mexican government was forced to bring about labor reform because the legal framework had to be consistent with the international framework.

When the government of Peña Nieto ended, AMLO’s [government] pushed through a constitutional reform to the Federal Labor Law, and this reform was passed in the first days of the new administration in 2018 and went into effect in May 2019. We could say that there were two parallel processes taking place: on the one hand, the renegotiation of the USMCA and the emphasis of the U.S. and Canada on the freedom of union representation and the respect of labor rights, and on the other hand, the need to modify the legal framework of the Federal Labor Law.

HAR: Let’s get into the details of the independent union drive at the GM plant in Silao. How did the campaign start, how did workers organize, and how did American unions contribute to this victory?

WGZ: For the most part, international unions supported the campaign through international solidarity, and this was crucial at several points of the struggle. For example, as part of the Center for Labor Research and Advocacy (CILAS), we have been studying the impacts of the reform to the Federal Labor Law since 2019, including the newly established approval process for unions.

Then, in 2021, the CTM-led union at GM Mexico announced that they were going to ratify their contract, so four of us registered with the Department of Labor to monitor the process as observers. When we tried to enter the factory, we were allowed access to the lobby and asked to wait. But, immediately, human resources called security and told them to kick us out. When we complained and demanded to meet the staff of the Department of Labor, the security guards started hitting us, and about twelve guards beat us up and shoved us out of the factory.

Immediately, we spread the word about this incident on social media and through labor networks, and local news picked up the story. Several journalists from Poplab interviewed us and began to livestream our incident while the vote was taking place. This is when unions like AFL-CIO began to spread the news and relate what had happened to us.

Later that evening, while the votes were being counted, we tried to enter the plant again, and even though we were denied access, personnel from the Department of Labor was already at the plant and they gave us a copy of their report on the voting process, which showed that we had been beaten up and denied access as observers. And this really gives you an idea of the CTM; once they saw they were losing the vote to continue negotiating the contract, they stole election ballots and burned them to alter the results. The Department of Labor became aware of this violation, and they voided the election.

Afterward, international solidarity became very important and unions like the AFL-CIO, Unifor, and IndustriALL disseminated this news abroad. And the incident escalated from a beating of labor observers—which is unfortunately common in Mexico—to an international grievance about union elections and corruption. Through the new arbitration courts that came with the 2019 labor reforms, the Department of Labor forced the union to organize a new ratification process for the contract, and even though they wanted to postpone it to 2023, the rapid response mechanism of the reform forced them to reschedule it for August 2021.

HAR: My following question brings us to the latest stage of this struggle. As you mentioned, the election was postponed until August, and this led to a new wave of clandestine organizing inside and outside the plant. Can you tell us how the independent union of SINTTIA emerged? And what obstacles does the new union face?

WGZ: Now that we have gone public, I can tell you how the new union was formed, but this is probably the first time we’ve acknowledged it publicly because we really kept the organization of the union under wraps, because we didn’t want more workers fired for organizing. From the point of view of the company, the best worker is one that gets fired because they can’t come into the plant anymore, they can’t talk to co-workers, and they get slandered by management. So, from the beginning, we agreed that the public-facing campaign would be organized by compañeros that had been fired and that we would keep those on the inside hidden.

The case of Alejandra Morales [principal officer for SINTTIA] and other compañeros is very interesting. For example, when we got beat up and kicked out by security, the only photos that we have are from Alejandra. She took the pictures while she was waiting to vote in the election. Later on, we connected as organizers, and she told us she’d taken the photographs, but at that moment we didn’t know who this compañera was. For example, during the pandemic, we organized on Zoom, but no one could turn on their video, microphone, or show their real name. We had to use tactics like these so that workers wouldn’t be fired for organizing a new union.

In the lead-up to the union ratification vote in August, the campaign was organized through the collective “Generando Movimiento,” which was launched by workers that had been fired for labor organizing. The movement raised the profile of the campaign for the independent union in national and international labor spaces. We continued with our in-person and online organizing, fighting against the scare tactics and disinformation campaign of the CTM union that wanted to remain in power. Finally, the vote came on August 18-19, and we mobilized against the CTM union to reject their control over the contract. The “no” campaign was successful, and it won with 3,214 votes out of 5,876 votes cast.

Once the CTM had lost control of the contract, we could come out publicly and announce our bid for the new contract. SINTTIA was officially registered by Patricia Juan Pineda, a well-known labor lawyer. But historically, new unions have been barred from the auto industry. Pati and Hector Cueva, the director of CILAS, really deserve all the credit for registering the new union. Once the union was registered, we could finally announce it publicly because, with an official union, we could now defend anyone fired for organizing.

The union continued organizing through the end of the year and, finally, the new voting date was announced for February 1-2. Because of the history of the CTM and its stranglehold on labor, we all knew the meaning of an independent union victory and we mobilized all our networks in the labor movement and other organizations in solidarity with workers. There was a lot of intimidation inside the factory and Alejandra Morales received threats from unidentified individuals that showed up at her house, demanding that they not show up for the vote. These attacks brought the campaign closer together and gave all of us renewed determination to get out the votes.

Members of the newly formed SINTTIA union raise fists outside the General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico. Photo by  Willebaldo Gómez Zupa.

In the days leading up to the vote, we could see widespread support from workers wearing SINTTIA stickers or facemasks, and we sensed that we had a good chance of winning the vote, but we never expected a landslide victory. Once the votes were counted, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes—78 percent—out of 5,390 votes cast. Meanwhile, the CTM union only received 247 votes. With this resounding victory, SINTTIA won the right to represent 6,300 workers of the General Motors plant in Silao.

HAR: From what you mention, this victory was the result of a collective effort between the labor movement and its supporters. Can you tell us about the different organizations involved now that the union has won, and what’s next for SINTTIA and the auto workers?

WGZ: One of the most important organizations in this process was the Casa Obrera del Bajio, which was started in October by workers that had been fired from the GM plant and other factories for their union activity. They’ve rented out a space close to the factories and it has become a hub of activity. The campaign for SINTTIA is really a microcosm of the class struggle because it took all of us coming together to attain this victory.

We received solidarity from so many people and organizations, including from the graphic artists of the Espacio Mario Rangel Faz (Espacio MRF) art studio. These compañeros pulled off 12-14 hour shifts to make the union t-shirts, face masks, hats, stickers, flyers, and posters. The staff at CILAS also donated their labor for designs and other things we needed. Some professors donated computers, monitors, and printers for the campaign. We only had two weeks between the date the vote was announced and the day of the vote, and they really came through with the materials. The graphic artists barely slept to get the materials to the workers.

But the work was worth it because we had promotional materials other unions didn’t. At first, there was some fear and we only delivered flyers in the bathrooms or dropped them off in the lockers, but as workers lost their fear, they put the union stickers on their helmets and used our union face masks. In the last week leading up to the vote, they told us it was a fiesta of resistance on the inside, with everyone wearing union swag on their GM uniforms, helmets, or SINTTIA t-shirts under their uniforms. Once we saw this and that workers were asking us for more propaganda, we knew that the workers were ready to vote for our union the first week of February.

Now that SINTTIA has won the right to represent workers in contract negotiations, we must wait for a few legal procedures, where the union is recognized as the official representative of the workers by the company and the Department of Labor. Afterward, the struggle will continue for a new contract. So, the union will move to collective bargaining with GM Mexico. We know that this is going to be a difficult process because the company has never made concessions. On the contrary, with the CTM union, they got used to watering down the contracts and taking away benefits like sports facilities and medical coverage.

There is a lot we need to gain back, and the union has come out with a list of demands we want to negotiate back into our contracts. For example, pay raises, end-of-year bonuses, professional training, bathroom breaks when we need them, vacation days when they are requested, better schedules for lunch and break times, transportation to the factory, better dining halls, and improved benefits. We’re also trying to negotiate 75 percent pay for technical work stoppages because, with the pandemic, the factory had to close several times for lack of computer chips and other supply chain problems. Management forced workers to take their vacation days during this time even though workers wanted to take vacations with their families. So now we’re negotiating 75 percent pay rates for these work stoppages instead of the 40-50 percent pay rates they’re giving us right now.

It’s going to be tough because the Mexican auto industry is not used to negotiating. GM’s managers are Mexican, but they have a quasi-feudal view of things: We are the owners, and you do what we say. So, it’s an uphill battle, but we’re confident, first, because of the wide margin of victory for the union (76 percent), second, because we have the technical know-how to enter negotiations, and third, because there is a lot of support in public opinion for independent unions. When news broke, even right-wing outlets celebrated the defeat of the CTM! And lastly, international solidarity, because everyone is paying attention to see what happens next.

So, in the short and medium-term, we’ll have to negotiate a new contract that will improve benefits and defend the rights of workers. In the medium to long-term, we want to help organize workers from the auto parts suppliers in the Silao area. They have already gotten in contact with us, and they want to kick out the CTM and build an independent union, so the Casa Obrera will be an important base for future campaigns in the Silao area. We’ll have to bring about organic connections between the Casa and other struggles to support this project because similar campaigns look promising, but we’ll have to work hard and follow through to keep these projects alive.

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Héctor Rivera View All

Héctor A. Rivera is a queer, Mexican-American, socialist educator. He lives in Los Ángeles, Califaztlán. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.