In Mexico, US complaints help union organizing efforts

MEXICO CITY (AP) – It’s been nearly two years since the United States began lobbying Mexico for labor rights violations using expedited dispute resolution methods contained in the US-Mexico Canada free trade agreement.

President Joe Biden’s administration brought six complaints and boasted that, for the first time, someone is challenging Mexico’s anti-democratic, old-school unions that have kept wages painfully low for decades.

But workers and union leaders differ on the results, saying it is difficult to build a true union movement overnight, and that employers and former union bosses continue to resist change.

The first complaint was registered in May 2021 about attempts by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) union to interfere in a vote at the GM plant in Silao, in the north-central state of Guanajuato.

Under the pressure of the US complaint – which could eventually lead to trade sanctions – Mexican officials and observers oversaw a squeaky clean union vote in which the old-school union CTM was kicked out and a new independent union won the right to bargain.

The new union quickly won an 8.5% pay raise and more bonuses.

“From the economic side, the truth is that the change came very quickly, although they took a while to give us the raise,” said Manuel Carpio, a GM official. Carpio credits reformed Mexican labor laws and pressure brought to bear on the USMCA complaint.

“I think that had a lot to do with it,” Carpio said.

Previously, pro-company unions signed contracts behind workers’ backs and employed henchmen to keep workers from questioning contracts or relied on the company to fire dissenters. Carpio, one of the first unionists, said that before it was impossible to organize.

“There was a lot of retaliation, but now we were protected by the law, which protected us a little, they couldn’t do as much against us,” he said. Before, “if we had tried to do that, heads would have rolled”.

Which is not to say that the problems are all solved; Carpio said the new union, known by its initials as SINTTIA, has a learning curve and has been slow to distribute benefits derived from union dues. And auto workers in Mexico still earn just $300 a month, or $12 a day.

The new union raised the minimum to about $14 a day, but that’s still less than what an American auto worker earns in an hour. The US government hopes that one day wages will match those in the United States, halting the outflow of manufacturing jobs, although this will not happen for long.

“That’s a long way off,” said José Guadalupe Alonso, a representative of the new union, who is still trying to deal with the fact that the old CTM union knocked everything over the chairs and computers at the union headquarters and left the treasury bare.

Alonso is in no doubt that US labor grievances were instrumental in securing the new union at GM.

“What really made the difference here was that the US government forces pushed to get certain things done,” Alonso said.

But Alonso says similar organizing efforts at other factories in the area, which have not attracted as much international attention, are still more difficult than ever.

For example, a union organizing effort at a German automotive tube and pipe factory has recently encountered resistance. Alonso said that when Mexican labor authorities tried to inspect the factory, guards said the address was wrong.

“We may have to file another complaint with the US government,” Alonso said.

Mexico’s Department of Labor says it is committed to making the country’s new labor laws work. The reforms guarantee workers the right to vote by secret ballot, see their contracts and periodically approve union leaders, which did not happen before. But Mexico still hasn’t built the labor councils, inspectors and reach that would make it all work.

But US labor grievances are not a magic wand: the best example so far is VU Manufacturing’s auto parts plant in the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila,

It’s the only place where the United States has had to file not one, but two labor claims under the USMCA, asking Mexico to ensure that its laws guaranteeing freedom to organize are enforced.

The factory, located across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, illustrates some of the uphill battles organizers face in making union freedom a reality.

The VU facility is largely staffed by women who often work 12-hour shifts assembling visors, armrests and dashboard parts for cars. His base salary is around $15 a day.

Piedras Negras is a relatively small and isolated frontier town where there is so little union tradition that the old-school union CTM dominated the factory but never bothered to ask the owners for a labor contract, says Pablo Franco, a labor lawyer for Piedras Negras. .

After the US filed a first labor complaint in July, the company was forced to allow a vote, but they let the CTM union in to try to persuade workers to reject the new union, the Mexican Workers Union League.

“They spoke to the workers and they said they couldn’t allow an outside union like the league, that it would be better to go with the people they knew,” Franco said. “They (the company) spoke with the workers, and they allowed the CTM to speak with the workers, to try to convince them. That’s what the company did.”

Although the new union won a vote in late August by a margin of almost two to one, the harassment has not stopped and the company is reluctant to negotiate, said union organizer Julia Quiñonez, a labor activist in Piedras Negras.

Quiñonez has been the target of a series of videos on social media in which factory workers were allowed to leave the factory – in their company uniforms – and hold a press conference attacking the new union for asking too much in terms of pay increases: an outrageous $32 a day.

“No company can do this,” said one of the dissenters in the video. “Not even the owner has that much (money).”

Quiñonez disputes this — she says the new union is only asking $19 a day — but says the company refused to negotiate and has teamed up with the CTM union to launch a smear campaign against the union.

“They say we are inciting workers to ask for more than the companies can give, so that they close down and return to the United States,” says Quiñonez.

The company also severely limited the new union’s access to hold a factory assembly and refused to provide information as part of the negotiations.

VU Manufacturing did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

The situation sparked an unprecedented second complaint in the US on January 30.

“While this facility has taken positive action in 2022, some of the failures we identified earlier appear to be recurring.” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

Mexico’s Department of Labor said in a statement that “VU Manufacturing is obligated to negotiate in good faith” with the new union and “must allow its representatives and advisors to enter the premises, participate in negotiations and inform workers.”

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