A Changing Labor Regime: The Rise of Independent Unions in Mexico

Published March 3, 2024

For much of its history, Mexico’s labor regime has long been dominated by state-controlled unions established by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political party that governed the nation for much of the 20th Century. 

As Jeffrey Hermanson reports in an article published online by Labor Notes on November 9, 2022, to skirt potential worker uprisings, the PRI would establish pacts, known as “protection contracts,” between the unions and major corporations to stifle disputes and depress wages. Nevertheless, these state-controlled unions, which include the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), and the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM), initially provided workers with favorable wages and working conditions.

However, benefits for workers would quickly deteriorate with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, which retooled the national economy to emphasize corporate profits and opened the door to maquiladoras, American-owned plants that produce goods primarily exported to the United States. Consequently, Mexican workers would soon find themselves facing low wages and exploitative working conditions. 

Faced with these problems, workers at a General Motors assembly plant located in Silao, Guanajuato voted to overturn their CTM-affiliated contract in August 2021. In February 2022, the plant workers would overwhelmingly vote to join the Independent Union of Industry Workers (SINTTIA). This vote, which gained international attention, not only earned workers the best wages in the plant’s history, but also marked a significant shift in Mexico’s labor movement where Mexican workers would begin the process of creating or joining independent unions.

Workers have been helped in organizing independent unions by changes to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USCMA), a trade agreement between the three biggest economies of North America. Taking effect in July 2020, the USMCA included provisions that established minimum wages for certain workers and required the enforcement of Mexican labor laws. Most importantly, the agreement’s “Labor Chapter” includes the “Rapid Response Labor Mechanism.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, this tool allows any of the three nations to petition for reviews of individual factories that they suspect of violating their worker’s right to free association and local collective bargaining laws. If a factory is found in violation, the petitioning nation has the right to bar imports of the corporation’s products, among other sanctions.

Reforms to Mexico’s national labor laws have also helped workers organize by mandating that unions may only be established or negotiate contracts if they first obtain a majority of their workers’ support. This is opposed to previous statutes that allowed corporations to establish their own unions and negotiate contracts with no worker consent. As reported by Rachel Harris in a May 20, 2022 article for the Harvard International Review, the February vote in Silao is the first union representation election, where workers vote to decide which union they’d like to join, conducted since the passage of this reform in May 2019.

As Hermanson later notes in his article, newly formed independent unions in Mexico have additionally benefited from the support of domestic, foreign, and international unions and labor organizations. The long list of supportive unions and organizations includes the Mexican Center for Labor Research and Consulting (CILAS), the Mexican-based National Union of General Tire Workers (SNTGTM), the Mexican-based Federation of Independent Unions of the Automotive, Auto Parts, Aerospace, and Tire Industries (FESIIAAAN), the United States’ AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and Canada’s UNIFOR union.

Following the example of the SINTTIA vote, workers across Mexico have begun to leave their corporate-controlled unions in favor of creating or joining independent unions. As Hermanson relates in his article, in September 2022, the Mexican Workers Union League (La Liga), a newly formed national union campaigning for the rights of workers at manufacturing plants, won an election at a VU Manufacturing auto parts plant in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Like SINTTIA, La Liga voted to null their CTM contract. However, despite the election victory for workers, VU Manufacturing, a Michigan-based company, has refused to negotiate a contract with workers in good faith, according to a September 21, 2023 Labor Notes article by Charlie Saperstein and Dan DiMaggio. Instead, the company decided to cease operations in Piedra Negras altogether, costing 400 workers their jobs. 

Regardless of this setback, the union has continued to make progress throughout the country. In San Luis Potosí, the union won the right to represent employees at a consumer goods factory operated by 3M Purification. More recently, La Liga has partnered with the Border Workers Committee (CFO) and the Workers United-SEIU union from the United States in a campaign to represent garment workers at a Levi’s, Gap, and Carhartt plant in Nazareno, Durango, which is currently under a CTM contract. Moreover, La Liga has supported unionization efforts in the states of Puebla and Querétaro. 

The National Independent Union of Industry and Services Workers (SNITIS) is another organization seeking to provide Mexican workers with better wages and working conditions. Formed after a January 2019 strike at 48 maquiladoras in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, the union assisted the 45,000 participating workers to obtain a 20 percent wage increase and a 32,000 peso bonus, equivalent to $1,820 as of 2023. Since the strike, SNITIS has won elections at two other auto parts plants in Tamaulipas: Tridonex in Matamoros and Panasonic Automotive in Reynosa.

In July 2022, the Independent Union of Free and Democratic Workers of Saint Gobain rejected a Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CTC) contract at a Saint Gobain auto glass plant in Cuautla, Morelos. The union’s efforts are particularly notable as they continued their campaign in the face of violent threats from the CTC.

In late 2022, the National Union of Mineworkers (Los Mineros) won a landslide election against CTM at an engine block foundry in Frontera, Coahuila. This was the same CTM affiliate that previously held a contract with workers at the General Motors plant in Silao. The union’s fight against the foundry management, Teksid Hierro de México, dates back to 2014. Workers even won an election for a union at the foundry in 2018; however, this result was held up in court pending a decision by the Supreme Court of Mexico. It would take until May 2022, when Los Mineros would finally obtain the right to represent workers at the foundry after filing a complaint under the USMCA’s “Rapid Response Labor Mechanism.”

The Independent Union of Workers of the Volkswagen Automotive Industry (SITIAVW) followed suit by ratifying a new contract in September 2022 at a Volkswagen plant in Puebla. Workers have since seen 9 increases in their salaries and and 2 percent increases in their benefits. Unfortunately, the union has recently faced corporate pressure given the decreasing number of unionized workers at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla and the opening of a new engine plant in Guanajuato, which has signed a contract with the CTM. 

Other unions, such as the Independent Union of Nissan Mexico Workers (SITNM), have felt similar pressures as their membership numbers have reduced over the years  while companies turn to corporate-friendly unions like the CTM to dissipate labor disputes.

To grasp on to power in Mexico’s everchanging labor regimes, corporate-friendly unions, like FROC-CROC of Puebla, have even announced the creation of new independent unions in order to appeal to workers. FROC-CROC, for example, has announced the creation of FROC-CONBLAR, a new “independent union” for Puebla automotive industry workers. While sounding promising, these “independent unions” would be controlled by corporate-friendly leadership. 

In the end, while corporate-friendly unions and the lax enforcement of labor laws have a long history of holding labor activists back, Mexican workers have shown that, even in the face of adversity and violent threats, they will not stop until they obtain the wages, benefits, and conditions that they deserve.


by Jesus Sanchez

Action Steps

  1. Sign this petition to support workers at VU Manufacturing in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.
  2. Support VU Workers in Piedras Negras

Additional Materials
  1. Read how Mexican workers at General Motors have formed a union to fight for a living wage.
  2. Read about the growing independent union movement in Mexico and how it challenges old guard