Mexican Workers at General Motors Have Organized a Union to Fight for a Living Wage
Mexican autoworkers at the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, chose an independent union by 78 percent, with 4,192 votes to 932, in elections held on February 1 and 2.
The election, with an overall turnout of 88 percent of the factory’s workers, established the Sindicato Independiente Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Industria Automotriz (SINTTIA), or the National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry, as the legally recognized collective bargaining agent with whom the company is obligated to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
General Motors Silao plant is one of the largest auto assembly plants in Mexico, assembling Chevy Silverados and G.M.C. Sierra full-size pickup trucks, and a variety of V8 engines and automatic transmissions. Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest vehicle exporter after Germany, Japan and the United States, and 80 percent of its vehicle exports are destined for the United States.
The starting wage at the plant is $9 per day, just 60 cents above the country’s legal minimum wage, and the top wage is $23 per day for a 12-hour day, with no overtime pay.
The process of electing a new union started after the discovery of fraud in the General Motors Silao union contract ratification vote on April 20 and 21, 2021.
Verifiers from the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS in Spanish) and the Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registration (CFCRL in Spanish) shut down the vote halfway through the process when they found destroyed ballots in the office of the previous union.
The Biden administration lodged a complaint against Mexico under the provision in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that allows a nation to sue another nation for not following the pact’s labor provisions, including the right to free and fair union elections.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh triggered the USMCA’s Rapid Response mechanism, which instructed U.S. customs to not let into the United States cars assembled at the plant until the sanctions were lifted in September.
This led to a remediation agreement between the Mexican and U.S. government setting strict conditions under which a follow-up vote would be held. The AFL-CIO’s former top economist, trade specialist and deputy chief of staff, Thea Lee, now the Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs for the U.S. Department of Labor, worked with Mexican Labor Secretary Luisa Maria Alcalde on the remediation plan to address the denial of workers’ rights at the Silao plant.
In a subsequent ordered re-vote on August 17 and 18, the majority of the plant’s nearly 6,500 workers scrapped the “charro” contract in a 3,214 to 2,623 vote.
A “charro,” or “protection contract,” is for the sole purpose of protecting the company, such as allowing the company to assert that workers already have a union should workers organize a union and petition the labor board for recognition.
These “charro” unions derive their power from connections to politicians and employers who they serve by keeping wages low and preventing real organizing for workers’ power from taking place inside factories.
Secretary Luisa Maria Alcalde of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare issued a ruling terminating the contract with the company union effective November 3 when a new labor law reform went into effect. The extension of the contract until November 3 allowed the CTM to continue holding captive audience meetings in company facilities during working hours in its effort to regain control of the contract.
Although Labor Secretary Alcalde is the daughter of the famous lawyer for independent labor unions, Arturo Alcalde, she is reluctant to be seen as too partisan. The autoworkers said that they sent a letter in February, 2021, to President Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador requesting his support but have not received a response.
The labor law reform requires a legitimation vote on all union contracts, estimated to be around 500,000 throughout the country, of which only an estimated 80,000 are not considered to be “protection contracts.” Mexican Labor Secretary Alcalde estimates that 80 to 85 percent of union contracts are “protection contracts.”
Israel Cervantes is an autoworker leader and organizer of Generando Movimiento, or Generating Movement, the alternate GM that organized to vote down the contract of the “Miguel Trujillo Lopez” union, named for the person who headed it.
The Trujillo union was affiliated with the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM), the Confederation of Mexican Workers, which has close ties to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the former ruling party.
In 2019, when Cervantes organized support for striking U.S. autoworkers during GM Detroit strike, the company terminated him, accusing him of smoking marijuana and taking anti-depressants, even though a drug test that he took at his own expense came out negative. GM also fired 18 other dissidents, three of whom have filed lawsuits to get back their jobs.
Israel has taken his case to a court for labor issues in Guanajuato. The GM lawyers acknowledge he has a strong case but they are pressuring him to accept a cash settlement rather than be reinstated. He continues to demand a return to work at the plant. He is on a blacklist which blocks him from being hired at other factories.
Because of the company’s disregard for safety during Covid, 18 to 19 workers died. The plant re-opened in May 2020 without certification from the health department.
The workers held protests and Zoom press conferences to let the public know that vehicles count more to GM than human lives.
When workers demanded safety protocols, they would be put in a small room with two or three human resources managers who would harass them until they signed voluntary resignation papers. One of the outspoken leaders demanding Covid tests and better sanitation was fired.
Generando Movimiento initiated the formation of SINTTIA, which legally registered as a union with the Mexican labor department. It was a new union formed by workers themselves, with no paid staff, had the credibility of being rank-and-file workers, not corrupt union officials.
They elected a woman, Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso, as general secretary, as 35 percent of the workers in the plant are women. She is a single mother with four kids in a house with no sewer hook-up.
Cervantes and autoworkers started Casa Obrero, a workers’ center that plans to get legal non-profit status. The SINTTIA activists did not have a computer printer buts used social media – WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram – effectively.
After the first vote on the contract in April, ballot boxes in the custody of the CTM union were broken into and ballots destroyed.
The CTM ignored an order from Mexican Labor Secretary Alcalde to hold another vote within 30 days, forcing the Secretary to issue a resolution setting the August date.
Between April and August, General Motors allowed the CTM union to use company meeting facilities to browbeat and intimidate workers, threatening them with the loss of benefits if they did not approve the contract. The CTM also promised to announce the results of a raffle of 15 new cars if it won the vote.
After the Silao autoworkers voted out their protection contract, workers in five other major plants rejected their CTM contracts. There are independent unions at Volkswagon, Audi and Nissan plants in Mexico. Of the three independent, democratic unions in Mexico’s 22 auto assembly plants, their contracts pay up to twice as much as the contracts with the protection unions. Six independent unions in auto assembly, auto parts, aerospace and tires formed a federation, FESIIAAAN.
SINTTIA garnered international support including from the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and the International Autoworkers Coordination, a 10-year-old organization of autoworkers from 34 countries. The nascent union also received a statement of support from the International Automotive Workers Council.
The United Auto Workers President Ray Curry and Vice President Terry Dittes issued a statement of solidarity in August 2021, saying “by building an independent union movement in Mexico, workers on both sides of our border win by leveling the economic tensions created through low wage pro-employer contracts.”
General Motors decommissioned its Van Nuys, California, plant in 1992, laying-off Black and Brown autoworkers in the South Central Los Angeles area. GM then opened the plant in Silao on 600 acres given to it by the government. Although Mexico is one of the richest countries in Latin America, its wages are comparable to those in El Salvador, one of the poorest.
The AFL-CIO is planning to host SINTTIA at its annual dinner and present them an award. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center also is providing legal assistance to the fired workers to get back their jobs.
Brazilian autoworker unions are organizing meetings in their union halls on the situation at the Silao plant. Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, has been vocal in supporting SINTTIA.
The Mexican federation of independent auto unions (FESIIAAAN in Spanish) has been providing ongoing support. The Mexican labor rights group the Labor and Union Advisory Research Center (CILAS in Spanish) has been a help to the burgeoning union.
When a union applies to the Federal Center for a Certificate of Representivity in order to gain the right to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, it needs to provide evidence that it has the support of at least 30 percent of the workforce. If two or more unions apply, a union representation election, a recuento, is necessary to determine which union has the support of the largest number of workers.
General Motors managers posted signs prohibiting “proselytizing” for a union.
On September 29, SINTTIA released a public declaration accusing the CTM union and GM management of harassing leaders and supporters of the independent union and allowing the CTM union free reign inside the factory to pressure workers to sign up for that union. SINTTIA had to sign up members secretly.
On December 10, STPS and Federal Center announced that three different unions had applied for a Certificate of Representivity for the right to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement at the GM Silao facility. These included SINTTIA, a second union affiliated with the CTM and a third that had disaffiliated from the CTM the previous May. Another union later applied but the Miguel Trujillo Lopez union did not apply.
While General Motors management banned SINTTIA from campaigning inside the plant, even in non-work areas during breaks, it allowed the CTM-linked unions free access to workers throughout the plant.
General Motors forced several members of the SINTTIA union executive committee to submit to drug and toxicology tests, hanging over their heads the threat to fire them like it had fired Cervantes in 2019.
SINTTIA said that GM fired one union supporter Néstor Antonio Valadez on January 14, after 20 years on the job, accusing him of stealing an oxygen sensor the previous November.
A few days before the union election, three strangers showed up at the home of SINTTIA General Secretary Alejandra Morales and told her not to show up at the plant or else. Their attempt to intimidate her only strengthened her resolve to fight.
Other workers kept watch over her family and her home.
When the elections were held in the beginning of February, international union representatives from Brazil, Canada, the United States and other countries traveled to Silao to be election observers.
After the election, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said, “the brave workers voted resoundingly for real change at work.”
While the 2019 labor law reform in Mexico was intended to weed out protection contracts, as of January 19, only 24 workplaces had thrown out their existing union. The Silao plant is the largest. Others include several big auto parts factories in the border city of Matamorros, where there was a big “20/32” wildcat strike wave three years ago that won 20 percent wage increases and 32,000 peso ($1,600 U.S.) bonuses.