Friday, March 1

The independent union that was born in a garage and triumphed at General Motors

The General Motors complex in Silao, Guanajuato.
The General Motors complex in Silao, Guanajuato.Mauricio Palos (Bloomberg)

Workers at the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, have opened a new chapter in the Mexican labor movement. A small independent union, registered just five months ago, has won union representation against the vast Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). It has done so by promising better wages and greater transparency. “The worker was never defended, but the company,” says the group’s general secretary, Alejandra Morales. “Many didn’t even know which union they were affiliated with.”

The beating has been overwhelming. The brand new National Independent Union of Workers of the Automotive Industry (SINTTIA) has obtained 76% of the 5,478 votes cast in the election held this Tuesday and Wednesday. The CTM has been in third place with 4.5%, 247 votes. It is an abyss for a historic organization, founded in 1936 with 4.5 million members and that claims achievements such as the right to strike or the eight-hour day. She was the union representative for the General Motors plant since it opened 25 years ago.

A few months and a handful of determined and angry people have been enough for SINTTIA to erase its presence in Silao with a stroke of the pen. Academic Arnulfo Arteaga García, from the Autonomous University of Mexico, considers it to be an emblematic case. “This is the first time in just under 50 years that an independent union has been built in the auto industry,” he says. “And, as a percentage of the register, participation is a historical record. There is no presidential election coming up.” 88% of registered workers cast a vote.

A SINTTIA member during a press conference in Silao, Guanajuato.
A SINTTIA member during a press conference in Silao, Guanajuato. Mauricio Palos (Bloomberg)

It all started secretly and in a garage. In early 2019, a General Motors paint worker was fired. Israel Cervantes had been denouncing low wages and what he considered to be abuses by the union. He called a meeting to protest his dismissal and invited his partner Morales, a dark-haired young woman in charge of checking that the base paint applied by the robot to the vehicles had no flaws. Those attending the meeting were fed up with the working conditions. The salary was about 8,800 net pesos a month, about 420 dollars, and each year it increased by about 3.5%. Most had to work on their days off to pay for expenses.

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Faced with this situation, the CTM was seen as dead weight. The local leader, Tereso Medina, is a PRI senator, a group with which the large Mexican unions have always maintained close relations. “Just a year ago we found out who he was, they showed us a photo,” says Morales, 32. Medina did not appear at the factory and it was not clear what he did with the union dues paid by the workers. It was 320 pesos per month -with insurance included- which, multiplied by the 6,232 workforce, was close to two million pesos. In the 11 years that Morales has been at General Motors, he has never heard of any meeting to account for expenses. Nor was she called to participate in elections to elect the leaders who were theoretically representing her.

From the meeting called by Cervantes, the workers left determined to do something. However, four days later, six of the assistants were fired. “It was scary to lose the source of employment, but sometimes the desire to want a change is more than the fear they want to instill,” explains Morales. She and a fortnight of companions continued to secretly meet once or twice a month in the garage of the mother of one of them. There they received training from the Labor Research and Trade Union Advisory Center, a civil association, and began planning the creation of SINTTIA. “We didn’t talk about it with the rest of the workers. We had to protect ourselves because if General Motors ran the process for us, it would fall.”

As the registration procedure progressed, the CTM’s control over Silao began to shake. The labor reform promoted in Mexico since 2017, after the signing of the TMEC with the US and Canada, sought to democratize union life. The trade union organizations would have to submit the collective contract to consultation of their members every two years and the vote would be “personal, free, direct and secret.” Furthermore, if the proposal was rejected, an alternative union could challenge the incumbent for representation.

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In April, the CTM in Silao convened a consultation to validate the collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the car company. The union leaders gathered the workers to ask them to vote in favor. “What if we voted for he was not going to return the plant to the US because it was not going to be profitable,” Armando Fajardo, a member of SINTTIA, recalls what they were told. During the vote, the Secretary of Labor found “serious irregularities” on the part of the union and ordered that it be repeated. The US Government also received complaints and filed a formal complaint through a dispute resolution procedure under the TMEC, the first time it was activated.

Alejandra Morales Reynoso, leader of the National Union of Automobile Workers, during a press conference in Silao.
Alejandra Morales Reynoso, leader of the National Union of Automobile Workers, during a press conference in Silao.Mauricio Palos (Bloomberg)

In August, a second consultation with external observers was organized and 55% of the workers voted against the collective agreement negotiated by the CTM. That opened the door to a change of union representation. A week and a half later, Morales, Fajardo and their companions left the garage and presented SINTTIA, now legally registered, as an “independent, democratic and legitimate alternative.” In its logo, two gloved worker hands hold the letters “T” of the name and the arm of a robot places the dot of the “I”.

Since its uncovering, SINTTIA has dedicated itself to sowing among the workers the idea that a change of representatives was possible. “Do not forget your identification, your vote is free, direct and secret, exercise your right,” read a propaganda brochure spread on social networks. “In these elections you decide, do not scare you,” said another. The goal was for employees to shake off their fear. Intimidation has been the daily bread of those who dare to question the control of the majority unions.

Two days before the election, three unknown individuals got out of a van without license plates and knocked on the door of Morales’ house. Since she was not there, they left a message for her mother: for her safety, she should not show up. Nobody resigned. After two years of efforts, that was inconceivable. Finally, the results of the election, organized by the Federal Conciliation Center and not by the CTM, have given a boost to the fight that began after an unjustified dismissal in the painting area. General Motors has described the vote as an “unprecedented democratic exercise” and has appreciated “the active participation” of the workers.

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Arteaga García, who was an observer in the election, affirms that the labor reform has made it easier for new unions to fight against giants like the CTM, but points out that the key is the “will” of the workers to organize internally. “A little more than 3,000 collective contracts have been legitimized. Many have been impeccable procedures from the legal point of view, but the executive committee of the union is the one who convenes. They are judge and party. On many occasions, half of the staff does not get to vote”, he points out. The election of the new general secretary of the oil union, also held this week, has given a very different result to the change seen in Silao. The winning candidate, Ricardo Aldana, has been treasurer since 1978 and has been involved in corruption scandals with the historic leader Carlos Romero Deschamps.

SINTTIA, for now, is an exception. At the negotiating table for the new collective contract, the US automaker will have a union that will shake its hand after the accommodating lethargy of recent years. Morales already has a series of demands ready. The main one is a salary increase of 10% per year, so that it is not swallowed by inflation. “We know that it is not much, but we have to build little by little,” he says. They also plan to train workers from other state factories and take the example of the Silao plant beyond their walls. Garages to start new unions, of course, are not lacking.

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