The Most Important Recent Labor Victory You Never Read About
— At this GM plant in Mexico, workers on both sides of the border came together across national boundaries to challenge corporate power.
By Bruce Hobson
SILAO, GUANAJUATO, MEXICO—Since the massive General Motors plant opened here in 1996, the workers have been represented by the 86-year-old Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). On February 1 and 2 of this year, all that changed when a majority of GM’s 6400 workers voted to be represented by the Independent Union of Auto Industry Workers (SINTTIA). Before then, union elections at the plant were essentially a farce.
Some labor writers have said that the ground was laid for the SINTTIA victory by provisions of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement that grant protections to Mexican workers and give the US Trade Representative the right to intervene directly with individual corporations that violate worker rights. When the CTM committed ballot fraud in the GM contract ratification vote on August 20, 2021, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and the Mexican Labor Department cried foul, and the contract was rejected. This triggered the subsequent election in February, which was closely monitored.
CONDITIONS AT GM SILAO
GM Silao runs two 12-hour shifts. Except for occasional periods when parts aren’t available (as happened last year during a shortage of computer chips), the work never stops. Paid overtime doesn’t exist, and bathrooms are a long walk from some sections of the production line. Workers have just a half-hour lunch break, and the single cafeteria inside the huge plant can be a 10-minute walk from the line. Eating on the line is prohibited, so some workers will simply skip lunch during their shift.
Workers at GM Silao are paid the equivalent of two US dollars an hour to produce the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups—100 percent of which are for export, with the lion’s share going to the United States. On these poverty wages, GM Silao workers can’t afford to buy cars of their own. Instead, they rely on public transportation or GM company buses to get to work.
INTERNAL ORGANIZING: FROM GENERANDO MOVIMIENTO TO SINTTIA
In 2018, a small group of fed-up GM workers came together to form Generando Movimiento (Generating Movement). GM and the CTM immediately joined forces to go after them. As example of GM’s tactics, in 2019 after 13 years on the job, Israel Cervantes, a night-shift worker and main organizer of Generando Movimiento, was called to management’s office at 10:30 PM, accused of doping, and tested on the spot. The test’s results were falsified as positive.
Moments later Israel was summarily fired, and at midnight he was walked to GM’s front gate, which opens directly onto a freeway. At that hour he was lucky to get a taxi, and on the ride home he began to formulate a plan of action. He would first contact his comrades in Generando Movimiento, and in the morning go to an independent laboratory and pay for a drug test. Barely 12 hours after being fired, he received the result from the second test. Clean. He knew that this would not get him his job back, but Israel figured it was a useful piece of evidence for his ongoing battle with GM management.
At least 17 other Generando Movimiento organizers were also terminated under various pretexts—including for having Covid! GM didn’t actually “fire” them; the workers were asked to accept voluntary terminations with no benefits. Most felt they had no choice. With families to support, they needed to find other work quickly; only three are contesting their firings.
After GM management and the CTM learned that Israel had filed a lawsuit demanding his reinstatement and challenging the bogus drug test, they offered him restitution of his lost wages, but would not rehire him. Israel refused their offer, and is now fighting to get his job back through the new labor courts set up by the Morena party’s 2019 labor reforms.
Generando Movimiento had been organizing for several years before ousting the CTM and had already produced trusted leaders. When SINTTIA was formed, GM worker Alejandra Morales Reynoso was elected general secretary. More than a few workers raised their eyebrows at having a woman at the helm, but that changed fast. A painter for most of her 12 years at GM, Alejandra was often outspoken against the myriad injustices in the plant. And her fellow workers saw her, a single mother who grew up poor, as one of their own, who shared their hardships and refused to be intimidated by threats from SINTTIA’s opponents.
LABOR REFORMS UNDER MORENA
Sam Pizzigati, veteran labor journalist and coeditor of the Mexico Solidarity Project Bulletin, has noted another important factor that contributed to SINTTIA’s victory. The CTM’s iron grip on labor relations in Mexico began to weaken when the progressive Morena party came to power in 2018 and the CTM’s political patron, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was defeated.
New labor laws were established, and enforcement of existing statutes began in earnest. On paper, the 1917 Mexican Constitution enshrines the protection of workers, their right to organize, and the right to strike. But for 70 years, the PRI and the CTM have played workers like a violin: gently picking up the instrument intimately with the “left” hand, then playing it furiously with the “right.” Under Morena, labor relations have been federalized, eliminating the previous structure that put state politicians, the CTM, and corporations in the driver’s seat.
The impoverishment of Mexican workers is not simply due to of Mexico’s corrupt unions. The United States has played a part in the underdevelopment of Mexico for more than a century. Even before the 1917 Mexican Revolution, US companies were given lucrative contracts to build Mexico’s railroads, and in 1994 the NAFTA agreement turned small Mexican business owners and farmers into low-wage workers or migrants.
BARGAINING FOR A NEW CONTRACT
Given the history of US manipulation, Generando Movement leaders know the importance of class solidarity. They expressed their support for striking UAW workers in 2019 with a work stoppage. Their solidarity was repaid when international attention played an important role in the Silao GM union election and bolstered their spirits to pressure GM and the CTM to conduct an honest election. Statements of support and financial assistance arrived from the Mexico Solidarity Project, Labor Notes, the AFL-CIO and UAW, the Solidarity Center, an international delegation of trade unionists from Brazil, Canada’s Unifor, as well as members of the Latin American GM union network.
On the days of the election, a solidarity camp was set up outside the plant, and international observers ensured that the election would not be stolen.
De-ratifying the CTM contract and electing a new independent union were essential steps toward obtaining a decent contract—for the first time since the GM Silao plant opened. International support has clearly been important during this phase of the contract struggle, with international observers monitoring the union election. While worker activists at GM Silao have energy and the moral high ground, they have little experience or practical knowledge about contract negotiations, while GM hired an infamous union-busting firm as its strategist.
Fortunately, SINTTIA got help from Hector de la Cueva of the Mexico City–based labor support organization CILAS, the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO, the Brazilian auto workers union, the Mexico Solidarity Project, and others.
Then, on May 10, after this long and arduous process, SINTTIA and GM reached a tentative agreement that is a solid win. It includes an 8.5 percent raise above inflation, seniority bonuses, 75 percent pay during temporary work stoppages instead of the 50 percent under the CTM agreement—and the right to use the bathroom!
MEXICO’S WAGNER ACT MOMENT
In describing the vote as an historic moment for labor in Mexico, Jeff Hermanson, the Solidarity Center’s main Mexico staffer, considers Mexico’s labor reform law and the SINTTIA victory as Mexico’s Wagner Act, and GM Silao as significant as the 1936–37 Flint Sit Down Strike. Given hope by SINTTIA’s victory, there has been a spate of new rebellions in the auto industry alone: a contract voted down at Mazda, a wildcat strike at GM San Luis Potosí, unrest at GM Ramos Arizpe in Coahuila, and the victory of the independent union SNITIS at Tridonex in Matamoros.
Mark Masaoka, who worked at the GM plant in Van Nuys, Calif., until it closed in 1992 (and very likely reopened as the Silao plant four years later), summed up the potential: “Ousting sham unions in Mexico will change the relationships of solidarity between US and Mexican workers. With these corrupt unions out of the way, organized workers will have the possibility of coming together across national boundaries to coordinate strategies that challenge corporate power. We can end the race to the bottom—and rise together!”
History has undeniably been made by this small union of auto workers on the high plateau of central Mexico.
(Bruce HobsonBruce Hobson is a coeditor and translator of the Mexico Solidarity Project weekly bulletin. He lives in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, just 20 minutes from the GM Silao plant.)