SILAO, Guanajuato, Mexico—Life is worth nothing in Guanajuato, according to Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s classic ballad. But an auto worker’s work in the state is likely to be worth a lot more soon.
Workers at the General Motors plant in Silao, a city of about 150,000 people about 225 miles northwest of Mexico City, voted by more than 3-1 to be represented by an independent labor union Feb. 1-2.
The SINTTIA union [National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry], won 4,192 votes, according to results announced Feb. 3 by the Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registration. The Confederation of Mexican Labor (CTM), an employer-friendly union aligned with the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party, got 247 votes. It had represented workers at the Silao plant since it opened in 1995, but was voted out last year. A third union, known as “the Coalition” and believed by SINTTIA activists to be a CTM front, got 932 votes.
“We’re fed up. Being fed up is what’s making us take this decision,” worker Jesus Barroso told Reuters. “I think we have the right to give our families, our kids, a better quality of life.” He said he takes home 480 pesos a day, about $23, after 11 years at the plant, where shifts typically run 12 hours a day.
The about 6,200 workers in Silao make the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, engines, and automatic transmissions, most of which are exported to the U.S. Mexico produced 3 million cars in 2020, and its auto industry employs about 800,000 workers.
“This vote represents a rejection of the past and a new era for Mexican workers’ right to associate freely,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “The election itself set a hard-won precedent and came only after workers voted to throw out a previous contract that had poor benefits and was negotiated without the workers’ input. Workers overcame gross intimidation and election meddling, and their triumph is an example of what happens when workers stand together.”
GM said in a statement that it would recognize SINTTIA as the plant’s union.
Building up to change
Three factors contributed to the victory: Labor-law reforms enacted by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s center-left government; labor-rights provisions in the 2018 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade pact, which went into effect in 2020; and intensified worker organizing in Mexico over the past few years.
A 2019 law requires all current collective bargaining agreements to be validated by secret-ballot votes by May 1, 2023. Mexico Labor Secretary Luisa Maria Alcalde told the El Financiero newspaper in 2020 that “80 to 85%” of union contracts in Mexico were what are known as “protection contracts,” sweetheart deals signed without any voice from workers, sometimes without the workers even knowing about their existence.
The CTM, the union in most of these deals, is affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico as a virtual one-party state for most of the 20th century. Defeated in the 2000 presidential elections, it regained power in 2012, but lost to Lopez Obrador in 2018.
So far, more than 99% of contracts voted on under that law have been validated. The Silao plant is the largest bargaining unit to void one.
The Silao plant first voted on validating its contract last April, but after inspectors found that ballots kept in the CTM local’s offices had been destroyed, the Biden administration complained that workers’ rights guaranteed by a USMCA provision had been violated. A new vote was scheduled for August, and workers voted 3,214-2,623 to oust the CTM’s “Miguel Trujillo Lopez” local.
The Feb. 1-2 election had four unions on the ballot: SINTTIA, “the Coalition,” and two CTM affiliates. “Imagine this is a lucha libre ring, and SINTTIA is going to fight against three villains,” SINTTIA advisor Héctor de la Cueva told Labor Notes. “The three other unions have entered the ring to create confusion and attempt to divide the vote of the workers, creating the illusion that one of these unions could be an alternative.”
In early 2019, a wave of wildcat strikes along the U.S. border, dubbed the “20/32 Movement” for its demand for a 20% raise and a 3,200-peso bonus, won raises in some 70 factories. But at Silao, 19 workers who’d formed an organization called Generando Movimiento (Generating Movement) were fired for refusing to work overtime.
SINTTIA secretary general Alejandra Morales Reynoso told Labor Notes that plant workers had “spent most of 2019 searching for trade unions that could defend workers and fight for better wages and benefits,” but, “unfortunately, we didn’t find one because they were all part of the CTM, and we wanted to free ourselves from the CTM.”
“Enough of them taking union dues from us to sustain those who threaten us and do nothing for us,” a SINTTIA poster said. It vowed that “together with you we will achieve” a living wage, better health and safety conditions, and protections against abuse of authority, with general assemblies at least twice a year.
“Un paso más, y falta mucho que trabajar,” the union posted on its Facebook page after the results were announced. “One more step, and much more work to do.”