Mexico’s Struggle to Build an Independent Labor Movement
The Mexican labor regime during the neoliberal period has been in decline. This was already a decline of the corporatist system that had been successful. The one-party political structure under which the state controlled unions under the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI), was also degenerated. Unions not only became state-dependent under the PRI’s corporatist system but also entered a social pact with corporations to suppress wages and labor strife through “protection contracts,” so named because they protect employers from genuine worker organizing.
This corporatist system was in full swing from the 1930s through the 1960s, when the Mexican economy grew rapidly — the fastest in Latin America — and workers organized in national industrial unions and confederations like the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), and the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) were rewarded with relatively good salaries and conditions.
However, with the collapse of the corporatist structure and the rise in neoliberalism beginning in 1980s, labor was restructured using austerity budgets. The privatization and deregulation price controls, salary caps, deregulation of prices controls, deregulation and trade restrictions. These shock treatments retooled global economies to make it profitable for big business and the rich, and demobilized labor unions. This resulted in lower wages, and less benefits for workers.
The neoliberal offensive unleashed capital’s destructive power by gutting Mexico’s welfare state. It also created an expanded industrial working class in Mexico. These maquiladoras are mainly US-owned factories that export and produce goods to the United States.
Although their roots lie in efforts to transform Mexico’s society in the past, the corporatist unions became instruments of state control over the decades that followed. They have also been corrupted to unprecedented levels. Corporatist unions didn’t even bother to represent workers and instead curry favor with corporate and political elites, while suppressing worker opposition.
For more than 20 years, the Mexican labor system was the focus of a vigorous struggle for democratic reform by trade unionists and their Mexican allies. This effort was supported by American union allies.
That struggle forms the backdrop to the labor law reform in Mexico, passed in 2019, and the “labor chapter” of the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement, which includes terms enforceable through a “Labor Rapid Response Mechanism.”
The first step is to change laws and institutions. What changes are happening to the institutions of the ruling and working classes in the wake of these reforms?
Mexico’s labor system is rapidly changing. Movements to form independent, democratic unions have won major victories against “protection unions” in several states across the country.
These victories were the result of organizing by new unions such as the Mexican Workers Union League, the Independent Union of Auto Industry Workers(SINTTIA), and the Independent Union of Industrial and Service Workerss (SNITIS). Some older independent unions like the Mexican Order of Maritime and Port Professionals and the National Union of Mineworkers have also organized campaigns and won victories over protection unions.
These independent unions are supported by Mexican labor-rights activists from various organizations, including the Center for Labor Research and Consulting (CILAS), based in Mexico City, which played a major role in SINTTIA’s victory at General Motors; the Border Workers Committee (CFO), based in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, where auto parts workers at VU Manufacturing voted in August to join la Liga; and the Center for Worker Support (CAT) in Puebla.
They’re also receiving support from existing independent unions and federations such as the National Union of General Tire Workers (SNTGTM) and the Federation of Independent Unions of the Automotive, Auto Parts, Aerospace and Tire Industries (FESIIAAAN), as well as by international organizations such as the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, the United Steelworkers, the Canadian union UNIFOR, and my own organization, the International Union Educational League.
To support union organizing campaigns, worker centres have been set-up. The General Tire union, with the support of the Solidarity Center, established the Casa Obrera Potosina in San Luis Potosí. In Silao, Guanajuato, CILAS and Israel Cervantes, former leader of Generating Movement (an organization of workers fired by GM Silao in the fight to replace the CTM union) have formed Casa Obrera del Bajío, with the support of UNIFOR. There are more centers like this in the pipeline.
International support has also come via the USMCA’s Labor Rapid Response Mechanism. This labor dispute settlement tool allows for each of the three countries in the trade pact to request a review of whether workers’ free association and collective bargaining rights have been violated. The dispute settlement mechanism permits penalties to be imposed on companies if they are found to have violated these rights. This could include a suspension of tariff benefits, or even denial of entry for goods to an importing country.
These democratic and independent trade union movements won significant victories, especially in the automotive sector.
These are the biggest victories of these movements:
Workers aligned with Independent Union of Auto Industry Workers (SINTTIA),In an August 2021 contract legitimization ballot,, defeated the CTM-controlled contract at Silao’s GM assembly plant. The CTM affiliate, which had more than 150 contracts in the auto industry, controlled that contract. It was headed by Tereso Medina (PRI senator), one of Mexico’s most powerful men. SINTTIA won in February 2022 the union election. This was a huge victory that inspired workers at other export and auto manufacturing plants to vote against protection agreements and start independent unions. SINTTIA was granted the right of representation for the 6,500 workers in the GM Silao factory. The first contract was a positive one, with an overall increase by 13.5 percent. With the support and participation of 85 percent of workers, the contract that provided the greatest wage increase in the history the plant’s history, as well as the largest in this year’s auto industry, was ratified. SINTTIA now focuses on setting up its representation structure at the plant, and is preparing for a general assembly.
La Liga (the League)., a newly formed national union, is campaigning in export manufacturing factories in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Puebla, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosí. In September, the League defeated a local CTM affiliate to win a Piedras Negras union election at VU Manufacturing’s four-hundred-worker auto parts plant. In San Luis Potosí, League members, backed by the General Tire union and FESIIAAAN, have won the right to represent the two thousand workers at the 3M Purification consumer goods factory, where the CTM contract was rejected in a close vote last January. They make everything, from Post-its to N95 Masks.
The League is also working with the Border Workers’ Committee (CFO) and the US garment workers’ union Workers United–SEIU (which also represents Starbucks workers) on a campaign at a 1,100-worker Levi’s, Gap, and Carhartt plant in Nazareno, Durango. Four League activists were fired in August from the factory. Through Workers United’s intervention with the brands, all four were reinstated with back pay.
The League continues to sign workers to get the support needed to request an electoral replacement for the CTM. It currently holds the contract at Nazareno’s Nazareno plant. However, it has demanded the right access to the plant to represent its members. The League won a favorable labor tribunal ruling on rights of minor unions in Puebla. These rights were also successfully asserted in Morelos by the independent union Saint Gobain.
SNITIS (the National Independent Union of Industry and Services Workers). has had broad support in the area of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, since it was formed after a big strike by maquiladora workers in January 2019. The strike was led by 455,000 workers from 48 maquiladoras and lasted for two weeks. It secured a 20 percent wage rise and 32,000 pesos bonus in what was called the 20/32 Movement. Susana Prieto Terrezas, a labor lawyer, was the leader of the movement. She was later detained by Tamaulipas state authorities and placed in prison. She is currently a federal deputy of the MORENA, a center-left ruling party. SNITIS has thus far won election campaigns against the CTM at Tridonex in Matamoros and Panasonic Automotive in Reynosa, both auto parts plants.
Los Mineros (the National Union of Mineworkers). recently won a landslide election victory at a Stellantis engine block foundry, Teksid Hierro de México, in Frontera, Coahuila. Los Mineros defeated the CTM affiliate who had previously held the contract at GM Silao. The struggle at Teksid dates back as far as 2014. Hundreds of workers were dismissed by the company due to their organizing, which included in multiple strikes. In 2018, Los Mineros won an election, but that victory was held up for years awaiting confirmation by the Supreme Court, and was only recognized by the company in May, after a complaint filed jointly by Los Mineros and the United Steelworkers under the USMCA’s Rapid Response Mechanism. CTM was in the factory while Los Mineros were out. The CTM requested another election shortly after Los Mineros gained access to the plant earlier in the year to represent their members. The Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board ordered it to be held in two weeks. This gave the miners very little time to campaign. Still, Los Mineros won in a landslide.
The Independent Union of Free and Democratic Workers of Saint Gobain Another powerful, employer-friendly protection union, Confederation of Workers and Peasants, was defeated at the two-thousand worker Saint Gobain autoglass plant in Cuautla (Morels). The leaders of the newly formed union waged an open campaign after rejecting CTC’s July contract. However, they were threatened by the CTC.
FESIIAAANThe largest federation independent unions in auto industry has a new leader,. Pedro Luévano of the Union of Workers of the Metallic, Steel, and Iron IndustryAn affiliate of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT). Now, the coalition is headed by Aguascalientes. FAT was a leader in the long struggle for labor law reform. It has also been an important force for international labor solidarity. Robin Alexander’s recent e-book gives a great overview. International Solidarity in Action). FESIIAAAN hopes that independent unions from the automotive and other industries will join it and strengthen the initiative. However, so far, no new autoworker unions have joined.
Volkswagen workers in Puebla are members of the independent union SITIAVW After narrowly rejecting it twice, the company ratified a new contract in September. The contract offers a 9 per cent salary increase and a 2 per cent increase in benefits. In the end, the company made the wage increase retroactive. The vote was still close.
SITIAVW is a respected independent union in Mexico and has the largest contract in the automobile industry. However, there has been a steady decline in unionized workers at Puebla’s VW plant. It was 10,500 in 2001 and now it is less than 7,000. Volkswagen built an engine plant at Guanajuato and signed a contract to the CTM.
The Nissan Cuernavaca plant is experiencing job loss. However, members of the iconic independent union (SITNMThe number of employees at TM has decreased over the years, from four thousand at its peak to just one thousand today. In Aguascalientes, Nissan built four factories that were the subject of a battle between the CTM union and the neocorporatist union CATEM. CATEM is led by a MORENA politician with a questionable past as a PRI and CTM leader from the private-security sector. The union styles itself as the “union of the 4T,” referring to the “fourth transformation,” as Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador refers to his program to end corruption and improve conditions for ordinary Mexicans.
These victories have raised the flag for independent and democratic unions in the Mexican labor movement. The rise in organizing at large companies has weakened the grip of employer-protection Unions affiliated with CTM and CTC and allowed Mexican workers to form genuine unions for first time in decades. Workers are poised to send Mexico’s historic corporatist labor regime into a tailspin.
The crisis facing worker organizing is deepening, and new opportunities are opening up for building a new democratic and representative labour regime. The only question is whether the resources — human and material — will be available to support a massive organizing campaign by the Mexican independent labor movement, harkening back to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) campaign in basic industries in the United States in the 1930s, which doubled the membership of the US labor movement in five years.
The support of the Solidarity Center — the international solidarity wing of the AFL-CIO — will be useful. But it will also be crucial to have direct engagement with independent and democratic Mexican unions by individual US and Canadian unions as well as the global union federations IndustriALL, UNI Global Union, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation. They can help workers get out of the protection contracts that suppress their wages by sharing their knowledge, experience, relationships, and relationships with multinational corporations. This struggle can benefit greatly from the research, communications and organizing skills of global unions, as well as those of Canada and the United States.
Mexico needs an organizational strategy that is both industrial and national. It should focus on key employers and sector in the regions along the northern border, or in the auto supply chain of Guanajuato. This strategic approach can overcome the limitations of an organization approach that favors organizing only a few workplaces and relies solely on worker uprisings.
This does not diminish the achievements of independent unions in the past year that have laid the foundation for an even more ambitious national industrial organization effort. To seize the opportunity for labor reforms and increase in worker organizing, you need a strategy that fits the current moment.
Corporatist protection groups are learning from independent union movements and adapting to keep their dominant position at work. CROC and CTM are, for example. They are purportedly in the process of reforming and discussing union democracy. But their corrupt entrenched leaders do not appear to be willing to relinquish their power. They have even formed new unions disguised as “independent and democratic unions.”
During the vote over which union would hold the GM Silao contract, one of the new ones, the “Coalition,” claimed to be “purely workers” — when in reality, its general secretary was a CTM officer from Jalisco, and the union’s registered address was the CTM building in Guadalajara.
The FROC-CROC of Puebla is now launching its own “new independent union,” the FROC CONLABOR. It is encouraging workers in the local auto parts industry — which the FROC-CROC has long controlled, thanks to protection contracts, completely unknown to the workers, that locked in low wages and locked out independent unions — to hold one-day strikes to get a “new” union or to get a substantial payoff from the employer to abandon the workers.
These developments highlight how formidable corporatists unions still remain, and how they have reorganized in order to meet worker organizing challenges. That’s why the time to organize strategically is now. Collective agreements that have not been legitimized by a democratic election will be invalidated on May 2, 2023. This will result in literally millions of workers being without representation or contracts.
Who will fill the void? Who will fill this void? The employer-protection and new unions or the legitimate independent and democratic unions formed by workers? The strategies adopted by the independent unions — and the support they receive from allies elsewhere — will play an important part in answering this question.