Mexico’s Struggle to Build an Independent Labor Movement
Throughout most of the last century, the Mexican labor movement has largely seen its unions become corrupt instruments of state control. That’s slowly beginning to change, but the road to independent, democratic Mexican unionism remains a steep one.
The labor regime of the neoliberal period in Mexico is in full decline. It was already a degeneration of the successful corporatist system, a one-party political structure in which the state controlled the unions under the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). 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.
But with the erosion of the corporatist system and the rise of neoliberalism, beginning in the 1980s, the labor regime was restructured through austerity budgets, the privatization of state enterprises, deregulation of price controls, salary caps, conversion to lean production, and the lowering of trade restrictions. These shock therapies retooled the global economy to serve the profit imperatives of big business and the wealthy, while demobilizing labor unions, which meant lower wages and fewer benefits for union workers.
In Mexico, the neoliberal offensive not only unleashed the destructive power of capital by gutting the welfare state but also produced an expanded industrial working class toiling in maquiladoras, mostly US-owned factories that produce and export goods to the United States.
The corporatist unions had their roots in earlier struggles to transform Mexican society, but in the ensuing decades, they had deformed into instruments of state control and reached unprecedented levels of corruption. The corporatist unions no longer even bothered paying lip service representing workers, instead currying favor with political and corporate elites while repressing worker opposition to business interests.
This Mexican labor regime was the subject of vigorous struggle for democratic reform by trade unionists and their allies in Mexico for more than twenty years, supported by union allies in the United States.
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.”
But changing laws and government institutions is only the first step. How are the institutions of the working class and the ruling class evolving in response to these reforms?
The New Union Movement
The labor regime in Mexico is changing rapidly. Movements to form independent, democratic unions have won major victories against “protection unions” in several states across the country.
Those victories are the product of organizing by newly created unions like the Mexican Workers Union League (la Liga), the Independent Union of Auto Industry Workers (SINTTIA), the Independent Union of Industrial and Service Workers (SNITIS), and the Union of Free and Democratic Workers of Saint Gobain. There are also some older independent unions, such as the National Union of Mineworkers (los Mineros) and the Mexican Order of Maritime and Port Professionals, which have undertaken organizing campaigns and have won victories against 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.
Worker centers to support union organizing campaigns 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. More such centers are in the offing.
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. If a company is found to have violated these rights, the dispute settlement mechanism allows for penalties to be imposed against them. Such penalties include the suspension of tariff benefits and even the denial of entry of goods to the importing country.
These independent and democratic trade union movements have won important victories, particularly in the automotive industry.
Here are the most significant victories of these movements to date:
Workers aligned with the Independent Union of Auto Industry Workers (SINTTIA), defeated the contract held by the CTM at the GM assembly plant in Silao in an August 2021 contract legitimization vote. That contract had been controlled by a CTM affiliate with more than 150 auto industry contracts, headed by PRI senator Tereso Medina, one of the most powerful men in Mexico. Next, SINTTIA won the union election in February 2022 in a landslide victory that has inspired workers at other auto and export manufacturing plants to vote against protection contracts and launch independent union efforts. After winning the right to represent the 6,500 workers at the GM Silao plant, SINTTIA negotiated a good first contract, gaining an overall increase of 13.5 percent. The contract, with the best wage increase in the history of the plant and the largest in the auto industry this year, was ratified with the support of 85 percent of workers. SINTTIA is now focused on establishing its representation structure at the plant and preparing to convene 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 won a union election in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, at the four-hundred-worker VU Manufacturing auto parts plant, against a local CTM affiliate. 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. Workers there 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 activist workers were fired from the factory in August. Through Workers United’s intervention with the brands, all four were reinstated with back pay.
While it continues to sign up workers to obtain the necessary support to request an election to replace the CTM, which currently holds the contract at the Nazareno factory, the League has also demanded the right to access the plant and represent its members there. The League won a favorable labor tribunal decision on the rights of minority unions in Puebla, rights which were successfully asserted by the independent union at Saint Gobain in Morelos as well.
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. That strike, by forty-five thousand workers at 48 maquiladoras, lasted two weeks and obtained a 20 percent wage increase and a bonus of 32,000 pesos in what was known as the 20/32 Movement. The leader of that movement, labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, was arrested and imprisoned by state authorities in Tamaulipas after the strike, and later won her freedom through an international pressure campaign. She is now a federal deputy for the ruling center-left MORENA 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. In the recount, Los Mineros defeated the same powerful CTM affiliate that had previously controlled the contract at GM Silao. The struggle at Teksid dates back to 2014, with hundreds of workers dismissed by the company for their organizing, including in several 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. Until that moment, the CTM was inside the factory and Los Mineros outside. When Los Mineros finally got access to the plant to represent their members earlier this year, the CTM quickly requested another election. The Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board ordered that it be held within two weeks, giving the miners little time to campaign. Still, Los Mineros won in a landslide.
The Independent Union of Free and Democratic Workers of Saint Gobain recently defeated another powerful employer-friendly protection union, the Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CTC), at the two-thousand-worker Saint Gobain auto glass plant in Cuautla, Morelos. After rejecting the CTC contract in July, leaders of the newly formed independent union carried out a courageous open campaign despite threats from representatives of the notoriously violent CTC.
FESIIAAAN, the largest federation of independent unions in the auto industry, including unions at Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Goodyear, and General Tire, has new leadership. Pedro Luévano of the Union of Workers of the Metallic, Steel, and Iron Industry (STIMAHCS), an affiliate of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in Aguascalientes, now leads the coalition. The FAT was one of the leading organizations in the decades-long struggle to win labor law reform, and has been a leading force for international labor solidarity (for a good overview, see the recent e-book by Robin Alexander, International Solidarity in Action). The hope is that new independent unions in the automotive and other industries will join FESIIAAAN and strengthen this important initiative, although thus far, none of the newly organized autoworker unions have joined.
At Volkswagen in Puebla, workers with the independent union SITIAVW ratified a new contract, in September, after narrowly voting it down twice. The contract provides a 9 percent salary increase and 2 percent increase in benefits, and the company finally improved it by making the wage increase retroactive. The final vote was still close.
SITIAVW is one of the most respected independent unions in Mexico, with the richest contract in the automotive industry. But there has been a gradual reduction in the number of unionized workers at the VW plant in Puebla, from 10,500 in 2001 to fewer than 7,000 today. Meanwhile, Volkswagen has built an engine plant in Guanajuato, where it signed a contract with the CTM.
Job loss is also an issue at the Nissan Cuernavaca plant, where membership of the iconic independent union there (SITNM) has gradually shrunk over the years, going from four thousand at its peak to one thousand now. Meanwhile, Nissan opened four factories in Aguascalientes that have been the subject of a struggle between the CTM 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.
An Industrial and National Strategy
These victories have lifted the flag of independent and democratic unions across the Mexican labor movement. The uptick in organizing at major companies has weakened the stranglehold of employer-protection unions affiliated with the CTM and CTC, and opened real space for Mexican workers to organize genuine unions for the first time in decades. Workers are poised to send Mexico’s historic corporatist labor regime into a tailspin.
As worker organizing deepens the crisis of the withering corporatist regime, new opportunities open up to build a new democratic and representative labor 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. Their knowledge, experience, and relationships with the multinational corporations that are the major employers (directly or indirectly) of Mexican workers can be crucial in assisting the workers in liberating themselves from the protection contracts that are suppressing their wages. The research, communications, and organizing experience of the US, Canadian, and global unions can be of great value in this struggle.
The moment calls for an organizational strategy in Mexico that takes an industrial and national approach, focusing on key employers and sectors in regional industrial concentrations along the northern border or in the auto supply chains of Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Morelos, and Puebla. This strategic approach is needed to overcome the limitations of an approach that favors organizing enterprise unions narrowly focused on individual workplaces and relies on the spontaneous uprisings of workers.
This is not in any way to diminish the tremendous victories by independent unions over the last year, which have set the stage for a more ambitious national industrial organizing effort. Even with many material resources, to seize the opportunity of the labor reforms and rise in worker organizing, it is essential to have a strategy that is adequate to the moment.
Corporatist Unions Are Still a Challenge
The corporatist protection unions are drawing lessons from the independent union movement and adapting to maintain their dominant position in the workplace. The CTM and the CROC, for example, are ostensibly undertaking a process of reform and talking about union democracy, though their corrupt entrenched leaders show no signs of giving up their control. 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 point to how formidable the corporatist unions remain and how they have reorganized to meet the challenge of worker organizing. That’s why the time to organize strategically is now. On May 2, 2023, all collective agreements that were not legitimized by a democratic vote will be invalidated, and literally millions of workers will be without contracts and union representation.
Who is going to fill this vacuum? The employer-protection unions in a new guise, or the legitimate independent and democratic unions, formed by the workers themselves? The strategies adopted by the independent unions — and the support they receive from allies elsewhere — will play an important part in answering this question.