A Union Vote in Mexico Promises a New Direction in Trade Policy
By Nathan Newman
Workers at the General Motors plant in the Mexican city of Silao voted last week to join a new independent union of auto workers, known by its initials in Spanish as SINTTIA. The vote didn’t just promise improved workers’ rights in Mexico; it may presage a new era of labor collaboration across borders—and a new model for trade deals moving forward.
Workers at Silao knew they were setting a precedent for global labor policy. As Alejandra Morales Reynoso, leader of Sinttia, said after the vote: “I think we are going to start showing all our colleagues that a real change can be achieved, not just here in Silao, but in the state, the country and in the whole world.”
The vote happened only because of new labor provisions in the revised NAFTA agreement approved in 2019. SINTTIA activists sought in April 2021 to oust the moribund Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which has negotiated low-wage deals with employers for decades, and accused the CTM of irregularities in the voting. Invoking for the first time provisions in the new trade deal, known as the USMCA, the SINTTIA activists encouraged the US trade representative to investigate. The result was a new vote in September, overseen by Mexico’s Labor Ministry and the International Labor Organization, which did oust the CTM, leading to the vote last week in which SINTTIA was chosen as the replacement union by the 6,000 Silao GM workers. The Biden administration has followed its actions in Silao with additional interventions supporting labor rights in other plants across Mexico.
As part of gaining agreement for the USMCA deal, the Mexican government had agreed to legislation in 2019 requiring the secret ballot elections that allowed SINTTIA to have a chance to win an election. With that and other concessions that the AFL-CIO demanded, House Democratic leaders endorsed the USMCA agreement. US business lobbies opposed the provisions, and Mexico’s biggest business chamber, the CCE, said the proposals on labor matters were “extreme in nature and completely unacceptable,” but Trump accepted them as the price of passage of the trade deal.
Notably, this was a deal forged in close collaboration between labor leaders in both the United States and Mexico. In a 2019 tweet after the deal was negotiated, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the head of Mexico’s mine and steelworkers union—and a senator in the Mexican Congress elected in 2018 as an ally of the left-leaning President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—would describe the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka as a “fighting partner” in pushing through the labor provisions.
Following his election, Biden made key moves to prioritize workers’ rights in trade policy, highlighted by hiring Thea Lee to oversee the Bureau of International Labor Affairs at Department of Labor, which includes responsibilities for enforcing labor rights under trade deals. Lee had been president of the labor-allied Economic Policy Institute and chief economist on international issues for the AFL-CIO before that, so having her oversee the Labor Department’s work at Silao helped ensure a free vote for workers there.
The goal here is to raise wages for General Motors workers in Mexico, which in turn will help General Motors workers in the United States demand higher wages. Using trade deals to strengthen cross-border labor solidarity is an alternative both to failed neoliberal trade approaches of recent decades and to nationalist Trump trade war politics.
Workers affected by trade job losses in recent decades were a key constituency for Trumpian political appeals. As economist Branko Milanovic has detailed, the incomes of most American workers have stagnated in recent decades as swaths of the United States deindustrialized, discrediting the World Trade Organization (WTO) trade regime in the eyes of many Americans, even as the average wages of workers in developing nations, particularly China, have grown. Of course, the profits of the super-wealthy have spiked far more, but Trump harnessed racist nationalist appeals to focus his supporters on demanding increased US jobs and wages at the expense of developing nations’ workers, via either trade wars or anti-immigrant policies, in exchange for those workers’ allying with the US economic elite on tax and other regulatory policies.
The labor provisions in the new NAFTA/USMCA deal, as well as Biden executive actions supporting them, are a framework for a quite different political appeal to US workers, one built on raising worker incomes by extracting the profits of the super-wealthy by means of alliances across borders. A bit over two decades ago, the “Teamsters and turtles” protests in Seattle against the WTO sought to build such a global alliance around a vision of global justice, only to see 9/11 largely derail the movement in the nationalist war fervor stoked in its wake. The cross-border lobbying for the USMCA labor provisions may be a step toward reviving that alternative trade approach.
The Biden administration’s focus on strengthening worker power via the USMCA labor provisions is complemented by its global deal with 130 countries to establish a minimum corporate tax, one of the first global deals in history aimed squarely at helping countries collectively extract the profits of multinational corporations to benefit average working families around the world. Just as USMCA-style labor provisions could reduce the ability of companies to pit workers in different countries against each other to demand wage concessions, the Biden tax deal reduces the “race-to-the-bottom” tax competition that encourages job flight to lower-wage, lower-tax jurisdictions.
Implementation of the USMCA labor provisions is a step in the right direction, but enforceable labor rights need to become part of every trade deal to build a real set of global standards raising wages everywhere—and US law itself needs to restore real protections for labor rights here at home.
Still, the vote in Silao could be a turning point. If progressives can focus public debate on building the global alliances needed to redistribute global growth from the elite to working families, that is the best alternative message to counter Trumpist nationalist trade war appeals.