In Mexico, Workers Are Struggling for Independent Unionism

For a century, the official labor movement in Mexico has been a racket of company unions and protection contracts for bosses. Now that there’s a genuine push to grow independent unionism, President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador must get behind it.

Union workers take part in a demonstration for International Labor Day in Mexico City, May 1, 2022. (Luis Barron / Eyepix Group / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Modern Mexico was built on the back of labor struggle. In 1906, a miners’ strike at a US-owned copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, was brutally repressed by the rural police of dictator Porfirio Díaz, together with US Rangers dispatched from Arizona. The following year, a strike at a French-owned textile mill in Río Blanco, Veracruz was put down with similar ruthlessness. These actions helped spark the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which, in turn, caused important labor protections to be enshrined in the Constitution of 1917.

A generation later, in 1938, the refusal of multinational oil companies to settle with striking workers, despite a ruling by the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JFCA) and a failed appeal to the Supreme Court, led to the expropriation of the oil industry by President Lázaro Cárdenas. The willingness of the petroleum workers’ union to allow the president to call the negotiating shots, however, was a sign of things to come. Inspired by the in-vogue corporatism of the 1930s, the emerging hegemon of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was busy grouping workers into the worker, campesino, and popular sectors, each with its own confederation and all of them fully subservient to the ruling party. The era of union simulation had begun.

The Era of Simulation

Over the following decades, the PRI machine domesticated official unionism into a racket of company unions and protection contracts. Employment and wage details were worked out between company and union bosses, who ruled with iron fists and often for life. Attempts at forming independent organizations were stymied by chummy labor boards, paid goons, or the force or law, most spectacularly in the case of the rail workers’ strike of 1959, which sent leaders Demetrio Vallejo and Valentín Campa to languish for over a decade in the political-prisoner gulag known as the “Black Palace” of Lecumberri.

From the 1980s, conditions became even more extreme. Devaluations, the sell-off of public assets, and the 1994 introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) combined to increase precariousness, layoffs, and working hours while crashing wages. The longshore union was disbanded when the army took over the port of Veracruz. Independent state chapters of the National Teachers Union (SNTE) fought a rearguard battle against their colluding national leadership. Union leaders at the airline Aeroméxico and the health system, the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), were jailed for opposing privatizations.

As the nation’s railway network was sold off piece by piece, workers at the Pacific North Railroad went on a series of wildcat strikes — and lost. The public power company Luz y Fuerza del Centro was shuttered by the administration of Felipe Calderón in an attempt to smash the Mexican Electricians’ Union (SME); Calderón was also responsible for a 2012 counterreform that opened the door to outsourcing.

The mining company Grupo México, owned by Germán Larrea — the same magnate who had bought Pacific North — proceeded to scoop up a series of mines at fire-sale prices (including the legendary Cananea). Over the following two decades, an explosion at its Pasta de Canchos mine buried sixty-five people, a spill at its Buenavista del Cobre mine dumped 10.6 million gallons of copper sulfate into the Sonora River (arguably the worst environmental disaster in Mexican history), and a miners’ strike broke out in 2009 that remains unresolved to this day. Although there were a few bright spots in the constellation of “new unionism,” such as the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the National Union of Workers (UNT) organized by telephone workers, and the incipient miners’ organization known as the International Confederation of Workers (CIT), labor in general was corralled and on the defensive.

The Fight Back Begins

On May Day 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) signed into law a sweeping package of labor reforms. Built on the back of international pressure and the newly minted National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) majority in Congress, the modifications to the federal labor law include a secret-ballot provision for union elections instead of the customary “show of hands”; the requirement to provide all union employees with a copy of collective agreements and inform them of any deductions made to their pay; gender proportionality in workplace representation; the renewal of all collective contacts every four years; and the replacement of the old, collusion-prone labor boards with a set of labor tribunals governed by the judicial branch.

Implementing these reforms will be difficult. Elections require inspectors, contracts require tracking and storing (to be performed by the new Federal Center for Labor Registry and Conciliation), and the tribunals require trained advocates and specialized, incorruptible judges. On the workplace floor, organizers have to deal with the overriding challenge of creating a culture of workplace democracy in often hostile circumstances. And even once all of that is in place, there is a lot to plough through. Of the 550,000 or so collective agreements existing in Mexico (other estimates place the figure as high as seven hundred thousand), it is estimated that fully 90 percent of them are protection contracts.

By August 2022 — three years into the four-year renewal period — barely five thousand contracts had been validated, the vast majority being held up by a lack of budgetary resources and employer resistance. The risk is that many of these contracts will expire without a vote, leaving workers in a legal limbo.

In the face of such circumstances, progress has been frustratingly slow. But in the intervening years, organized labor has chalked up a share of victories which, it is hoped, will serve as beacons for a wave of independent unionism to come.

1. The 20/32 Movement, Matamoros

In the heart of maquiladora territory, an issue ostensibly separate from the labor reform bill set off the most important organizing movement at the border in a generation: a raise in the minimum wage. Immediately upon taking office in December 2018, AMLO announced that the wage at the border would double to 176 pesos (approximately nine US dollars) a day.

The effect of this was twofold: first, it activated a clause in collective agreements that any minimum-wage rise be reflected in the salaries of unionized workers. Second, an additional clause required the annual bonus to be calculated in multiples of this increase. Thus, the “20/32” demand was born: a 20 percent pay hike accompanied by a 32,000 peso (1,650 US dollar) bonus.

Predictably, owners responded by arguing that the wage trigger didn’t apply to them; when that didn’t work, they resorted to accounting gimmicks in an attempt to get around it. After pressuring their union — the Day Laborers, Industrial Workers, and Maquila Industries Union (SJOIIM), a member of the PRI-dominated Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) — to enter into negotiations, workers at some forty-eight factories, representing over half of the city’s maquiladora workers, walked out in late January. By February 9, and with the maquila factories bleeding millions, the bosses gave in.

Victory, although impressively swift, was not perfect. At least a thousand workers were fired and potentially blacklisted. Workers in several factories were subject to physical attacks. Then, in March, the JFCA declared a knock-on 20/32 strike at a Coca-Cola bottling plant illegal; the two-month stoppage ended in April with a total of 154 workers fired. Despite this, workers in Matamoros had shown that, even without a fully independent union, they could take on the muscle of multinational corporations and win.

2. The 2022 Trifecta

Three times in three months, upstart organizations scored important victories in union elections in 2022. In February, the National Independent Automotive Industry Workers’ Union (SINTTIA) won a smashing victory at a General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, taking 78 percent of the vote en route to becoming the factory’s official representative.

Clear as the margin was, it came after a series of twists and turns: in April 2021, an initial vote won by the old-guard CTM union was contested among allegations of fraud and destroyed ballots. The Mexican Labor Department ordered a new election while, at the same time, the United States filed a complaint through the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism (RRLM) included in the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement. In August, a slim majority of workers voted to reject a new collective agreement, paving the way for the SINTTIA triumph months later.

And despite worries that the novice union wasn’t going to be able to negotiate a convincing contract with the automotive behemoth, in just fifty days it came away with an 8.5 percent pay rise (on what remains a miserably low wage of about twenty-five US dollars a day), an increase in productivity bonuses, and the right to intervene in a greater range of workplace matters. The SINTTIA story is all the more significant for taking place in one of the nation’s most conservative bastions: Guanajuato was the only state AMLO failed to win in 2018.

In March, the independent union SNITIS won its election at the Tridonex autoparts plant in Matamoros with 80.4 percent of the vote. Owned by the US company Cardone, the plant had also been the subject of an RRLM complaint by the United States for anti-labor organizing, leading to a compensation settlement for fired workers. Then, in April, SNITIS won again at a Panasonic Automotive Systems plant in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, with a nearly identical percentage. Although the vote took place under tense conditions, with some two hundred CTM members grouped outside of the plant, the process was successfully completed and certified.

But for every two steps forward, there has been either marching in place or a frustrating step back. A strike at the state news agency Notimex has dragged on for nearly three years with no end in sight. And at the powerful oil workers’ union for the state company Pemex, an ally of the legendarily corrupt former leader Carlos Romero Deschamps won handily, thanks to a fragmented slate of opposition candidates and the government’s unwillingness to act on apparent violations of union statutes during the contract renewal process, or a series of complaints leveled against the election itself.

Whither MORENA?

Despite the welcome passage of the 2019 reforms and a companion law reining in outsourcing, labor issues have occupied a surprisingly small part of public debate over the first four years of AMLO’s “Fourth Transformation.” Union questions rarely come up in his daily press conferences, in the communications of MORENA officials and members of Congress, or in the debates that rage between the president’s supporters and detractors on social media. The president’s social programs, moreover, are dominated by direct transfer mechanisms to individuals that eschew intermediary and collective organizations entirely.

In part, this is due to an ingrained and very unfortunate skepticism among the general public due to eighty-odd years of company unions — or as they are known, sindicatos charros. It may also be due, as labor writer David Bacon surmises, to a mutual desire on the part of both the president and progressive unions to avoid a return to the old PRI days of union submission to the party in power.

Whatever the case, it is a missed opportunity. If MORENA is to become a generational movement, rather than simply a one- or two-term party in power, it is going to need the muscle of unionism to provide clear and lasting gains in wages and living standards, as well as to withstand the constant attacks of well-financed opponents both domestic and international.

Unions also represent a key — and largely overlooked — element in the fight to stem the violence unleashed by the ill-named “war on drugs.” In short, a more tightly knit community of workers and families is in much better shape to fend off the infiltration of organized crime than one in which people have little contact and communication with each other.

While community and indigenous organization has fulfilled this role to an extent in the south of the country, the more individual dynamic of the north, together with the oppressive and dehumanizing conditions of the region’s factories and maquiladoras, has made it easier prey to drug-related violence and other horrors such as the decades-long killings of women in Ciudad Juárez.

Finally, the vaunted, post-pandemic “nearshoring” of industry from Asia to Mexico will provide a much greater need, and opportunity, for labor organizing across the newly minted shop floors.

All the more reason, then, for MORENA and its allies to shake off historical ghosts and support the uphill struggle for independent unionism with everything they have. Legislation, while necessary, is not enough; the organizing won’t happen on its own.