Luis Feliz Leon, Dan DiMaggio
Labor Notes | September 01, 2022
Three miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, auto parts workers in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, voted yesterday to join an independent union, defeating company attempts to usher in an employer-friendly, politically connected union.
The independent Mexican Workers’ League (la Liga Sindical Obrera Mexicana) won 186 votes, while a union with ties to the powerful Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) received 101.
The 350 workers at Michigan-based auto parts maker VU Manufacturing produce interior car parts including arm rests and door upholstery for Nissan, Tesla, and other carmakers.
In June, the League and a local organization, the Border Workers Committee (el Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, or CFO), filed a petition under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement’s rapid-response mechanism. The complaint alleged that the company was interfering with VU workers’ right to free association by pushing them to affiliate with the CTM, a union notorious for signing contracts behind workers’ backs, locking in low wages and poor working conditions, and preventing workers from forming genuine unions.
The League and the CFO said that after workers had been organizing for months to form an independent, democratic union, management forced workers to sit through a form of captive-audience meetings with CTM representatives. CTM officials allegedly were allowed to sign up members during work time, with management even calling workers in for individual meetings where they were asked to join the CTM.
During a CTM presentation, a VU worker who complained about the company-friendly union was escorted off the factory premises by guards and fired.
Since then, workers say, the CTM has resorted to intimidation tactics and bribery to gin up support.
Despite these efforts, in July the League filed to represent VU workers after signing up 30 percent of the plant, the threshold required under Mexico’s new labor law. A second union, affiliated with the CTM, filed with 30 percent support days later, setting up the election this week. Workers at the plant were without a union until yesterday’s vote.
The stakes were high, according to the League and the CFO, who said the election would decide “whether the precarity and exploitation backed by the corporatist, employer-protection unions will continue or a path to a new model of independent unionism will be opened.”
‘THE CTM IS NEVER GOING TO DO ANYTHING FOR THE WORKERS’
VU worker Verónica Aracely Rivera, 45, has worked as a seamstress in foreign-owned factories—known as maquiladoras, and predominantly located near the border—since she was 18 years old. While she had only been at the company for a year, Rivera didn’t hesitate when asked how she was voting.
“I’ve worked in various maquiladoras and all of them have had the CTM,” she said. “I’m convinced the CTM is never going to do anything for the workers. Why? Because the company pays the CTM. It doesn’t collect dues from workers.”
One grievance among workers, according to Rivera, was VU’s decision to reduce bonuses for meeting production quotas from 1,000 pesos ($50) to 700 pesos ($35) for every 1,500 pieces of sewed material.
Without the bonus, average weekly pay is about 1,300 pesos ($65), so the bonus is an important part of workers’ overall earnings. According to workers, the company claimed the bonus reduction was due to inefficiencies and slowdowns in production.
Workers put in 12-hour shifts, Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or 10.5-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.
Since the launch of the organizing campaign, workers say, supporters of the independent union have had their bonuses denied under bogus pretexts, including not being present during attendance checks because they were in the bathroom.
One of these workers was Sonia Cristina García Bernal, 50, who has been working at the factory for the past four years. Last December she began organizing in support of the independent union out of frustration that VU had taken away company-backed loans and reduced the bonus while increasing the production demands.
Recently, she said, the company withheld her bonus for three weeks in retaliation for her organizing. She said she was finally given the bonus only after threatening to slow down her output.
Workers were also frustrated at conditions in the plant, including the pungent smell of adhesive glue and rain pouring through broken roofs and forming puddles of stagnant water. Despite the area’s scorching heat, with average highs around 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August, the plant doesn’t have air conditioners, and the few fans aren’t enough to keep the factory floor cool. Workers said they were also fed up with a culture of favoritism and disrespectful supervisors.
TENSIONS RUNNING HIGH
Maria Ramírez, 51, has been working on the assembly line for five years. She threw her support behind the independent union after seeing her co-worker moved arbitrarily mid-week from one production line to another, which resulted in her losing out on her monthly production bonus, since workers have to be in the same production line for the whole week.
In the lead-up to the vote, independent union supporters like Ramírez kept busy conducting house visits to their co-workers to inoculate them against the intimidation tactics of the CTM.
During the house visits, Ramírez said, she was often asked, “What’s the League going to do for me?” She said the politically connected CTM promised to provide discounts on eyeglasses, advocate for imprisoned family members to shorten their sentences, and help workers enter into a payment plan for water bills.
“It’s all a lie,” said Ramírez, referring to instances where the CTM at other plants has taken deductions from workers’ paychecks to cover the costs of funerals and never actually covered the expenses when someone has died. “We tell workers that the Workers League is here to fight for the workers, not defend the company. We educate them on what a union is. We tell them that the League is here to defend the workers, which is what a union is supposed to do.”
But tensions ran high. On August 30, the last day before the vote, League organizer Indira Solis told Labor Notes in a text message that people with the CTM were threatening workers. “We are here to distribute flyers to remind workers that the vote is free and by secret ballot,” she wrote. “People are excited but also scared.”
Rivera said the company had temporarily laid off about 100 workers, the majority of whom were sympathetic to the independent union. Many were in the sewing department, where the independent union enjoys significant support.
“We interpreted the layoffs as retaliation,” said Rivera. “The way it’s worked here in Mexico is that the company chooses the union, which is the CTM. And because various workers weren’t going along with having a union imposed on them, they laid us off.”
According to Mexican labor experts, temporary layoffs are common and often occur due to supply chain issues, such as the shortage of semiconductor chips that has roiled the auto sector. Under Mexican law, workers are permanent employees who can’t be terminated without cause, but companies can temporarily lay off employees and pay them reduced wages. In a unionized workplace, the union negotiates a reduced salary, usually between 50 and 75 percent of pay. In workplaces like VU Manufacturing, where there isn’t a union yet, the company decides what to pay; at VU, laid-off workers had their wages cut in half.
Garcia Bernal was also laid off for two months. She is a single mom to two teenage daughters, and she said the reduction in pay was meant to inflict financial pain.
More than half of the plant’s workers are women. Rivera said the company particularly targeted women who supported the independent union by changing their night shifts to morning ones from one day to the next with very little notice.
“They knew that during the day, many of us couldn’t send our children to school, so we’d opt to quit because we couldn’t find someone to provide childcare,” said Rivera.
The VU case marked the fifth time the U.S. government has resorted to the USMCA’s rapid-response labor mechanism. Under this provision, a country can request that another country review whether workers at a facility are being denied their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The other country must complete the review within 45 days and attempt to remediate any workers’ rights issues—or else tariff benefits for the company or even the ability to export goods can be suspended.
Despite the attention from U.S. and Mexican labor authorities, the League and the CFO said in an August 29 statement that threats, repression, and harassment of supporters of the independent union remained constant in the run-up to the vote. The organizations said that CTM supporters from elsewhere were allowed to campaign inside the plant, while the company has restricted the activities of League supporters.
A BOOST FOR INDEPENDENT UNIONS
The organizing campaign at VU has unfolded in the wake of a number of other important victories by independent unions in Mexico.
Mexico’s labor law reform of 2019 was meant to weaken the stranglehold of protection unions like the CTM. The reform, combined with pressure generated by the USMCA’s rapid-response mechanism and, most importantly, grassroots labor organizing, has given a boost to independent, democratic unions.
The most prominent win yet was at the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, in February, when workers voted overwhelmingly to join the independent National Auto Workers Union (SINTTIA). Workers there had voted last year to oust a CTM affiliate headed by a wealthy federal congressman, Tereso Medina.
The militant miners union, Los Mineros, recently won a big victory at the Stellantis-owned Teksid plant in Coahuila, which employs 1,500 workers making iron castings for heavy vehicles including Cummins, Volvo, and Mack trucks. Workers had been fighting since 2014 to oust the CTM-affiliated union and join Los Mineros. After a complaint filed in May by Los Mineros and the United Auto Workers under the USMCA mechanism, the company agreed to rehire, with back pay, 36 workers who had been fired in retaliation for supporting the independent union, and to finally recognize Los Mineros as the union in the plant.
In July, workers at a Panasonic plant in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, won a 9.5 percent salary hike in the first contract negotiated by a new independent union there, after the CTM-aligned protection union was removed from the plant. Additionally, Panasonic agreed to rehire 19 workers who had been fired for supporting the National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers, 20/32 Movement (SNITIS). The plant had also been the target of a complaint filed under the USMCA mechanism.
In another case, workers at the Tridonex auto parts plant in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, overwhelmingly voted to join SNITIS on February 28, routing the incumbent CTM affiliate 1,126 to 176. Workers there struck in 2019 as part of a wildcat strike wave that swept the city, demanding a 20 percent wage increase and 32,000 peso bonus (“20/32”). The company fired 600 supporters of the independent union in 2020 and the state governor had the union’s lawyer, Susana Prieto, jailed for a month and exiled. SNITIS, SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and Public Citizen brought a complaint under the USMCA in May 2021 which led to severance and back pay as well as safeguards for workers’ right to determine their union representation.
Jovanna García, 26, who started working at VU Manufacturing seven months ago, says the victories of independent unions across Mexico have demonstrated that change is possible.
“The most important thing they’ve taught us is the value and freedom a worker has to choose a union, which allows her to defend her labor rights,” she said. “It’s important to emphasize that companies don’t have the right to decide for workers their union; it’s the worker who makes that decision. Let’s go for the change!”
Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.email@example.com
Dan DiMaggio is assistant editor of Labor Notes.firstname.lastname@example.org