Landmark landslide win for independent union at big GM Mexico plant

SILAO, Mexico—The landmark landslide win for an independent union at the big General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico, may well be a precursor of the future of Mexican organized labor—a precursor that augurs well for their U.S. colleagues, too.

That’s because the 4,192-932 February 3 victory by SINTTIA, The National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry, (Sindicato Independiente Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria Automotriz) got national attention south of the border, opening the way for workers elsewhere in Mexico to achieve the same goals.

SINTTIA beat the incumbent pro-company union, after the Silao workers rejected that union’s contract with GM, last August, automatically throwing representation at the plant up for grabs.

That sequence, in turn, would benefit U.S. workers, if independent unions such as SINTTIA oust the old company unions, in free and fair elections—as this one was—and then bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.

And even when they don’t, as a subsequent victory days before for the presidency of old-time pro-company union at PEMEX, Mexico’s national oil company, shows, the election process was free and fair even there, and that’s a change. The election was contested, websites show, with 55,000 votes among the 89,000 workers. A candidate allied with the old-time union won.

Wages and working conditions were a big key in SINTTIA’s win at Silao, one of many plants both U.S. and foreign car companies have erected south of the border. In Silao, auto execs—like other corporate honchos–could exploit Mexico’s low wages, company unions, lax enforcement, and failure to enforce environmental laws. The wages at Silao were as low as $9 a day. Top pay was $23 daily.

“The brave workers” at Silao “voted resoundingly for real change at work,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said. The United Auto Workers, who represent GM workers in the U.S.’ “congratulates the workers of GM Silao on forming a free, fair, and independent SINTTIA union. We commend the Biden administration for ensuring a fair election process and we look forward to a new era of free, fair, independent unions in Mexico.”

“This win, made possible by the reforms we helped negotiate into the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, is significant not only for workers in Mexico but around the world,” Shuler added. “SINTTIA…was the only independent union on the ballot. It has committed to democratic union practices and accountability to its members in the collective bargaining process.

“Together, in a democratic union, workers will advocate for higher wages and improved health and safety standards at Silao, helping to set new standards in the automobile industry,” Shuler continued. “Workers overcame gross intimidation and election meddling.

“This vote represents a rejection of the past and a new era for Mexican workers’ right to associate freely,” Shuler concluded. “it could mark a fundamental shift in Mexico’s labor movement,” she added in a tweet.

Workers themselves told the New York Times of the low pay and lousy conditions. Many couldn’t even afford cars, much less the Chevy Silverados they manufactured for the U.S. market.

Abuses included the low pay, lousy conditions, and—despite the old contract’s provisions—repeated denial of breaks, notably bathroom breaks. As a result, workers suffered urinary tract infections or worse. GM, of course, denied the allegations.

The new labor law, and its enforcement, which the USMCA pushed Mexico to put in place, is expected to change all that, by empowering the Mexican workers—and by setting up a completely new enforcement system of inspectors and labor courts to handle corporate law-breaking there. The new system saw 47 independent overseers during the Silao vote.

Thea Lee. the Biden administration’s Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs.

What Shuler didn’t say was the AFL-CIO, and specifically its former top economist, trade specialist, and deputy chief of staff, Thea Lee, wrote most of the pact’s new pro-worker provisions. The win gratified Lee, now the Biden administration’s Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs.

“This is pretty stunning,” she said in a telephone interview with People’s World. “I think it will be very instrumental” in Mexico’s future.

Lee gave great credit to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the first progressive president Mexico has elected in more than 150 years. He’s putting in place the inspectors, enforcement, and labor courts the USMCA calls for, and which were used to guarantee a free and fair vote at Silao, Lee said.

“It’s a pretty ambitious labor law reform,” she added. “It’s a major overhaul and a validation” of what U.S. unions and their congressional allies worked for. Former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s USMCA had some pro-worker provisions, but not the extensive structural rewrite.

SINTTIA, Lee said, conducted “a massive grass-roots organizing campaign,” complete with worker centers and raising awareness. The first objective was to get the Silao workers to reject the old pact. USMCA kicked in then, too, Lee said. A vote last May on that contract was tossed out after massive irregularities. Workers then voted it down last August.

The second objective was to convince them the vote pitting SINTTIA against the old pro-company union, CTM, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico, would really mean something.

It showed the workers, in Silao and elsewhere, that “there could be a change after 60 years of company unions,” Lee added. “That’s why this is so important. Workers around the country can see it’s a success, especially psychologically. It’s a very exciting moment in the history” of Mexico.

As for herself, Lee added: “I spent 30 years” at the AFL-CIO “working to put such language into trade agreements. Now it’s great to see it’s working.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.