In Mexico, one of the biggest obstacles over the past several decades to organizing unions and negotiating genuine collective bargaining agreements is “protection contracts.” These contracts are brokered between employers, state governments and anti-democratic unions without the knowledge or consent of workers, and are often in place before workers are hired.
Workers who have challenged the corrupt powers that maintain protection contracts often face severe retaliation, including being fired, threats of violence and assassination. Despite the dangerous obstacles to worker organizing in the country, the National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry (SINTTIA) succeeded in establishing a truly independent and democratic union and winning representation of the workers at the General Motors (GM) plant in Silao, Mexico, in an election in February 2022.
At least 80% of union contracts in Mexico are considered to be protection contracts. Because these contracts do not represent the will of the workers, they often impose oppressive wages and labor conditions on workers. As a result, workers’ wages in Mexico have remained low—among the lowest in the Americas and half that of workers in China—in a country that also lacks robust social protections.
Mexico’s labor law reform in 2019 and the labor obligations under the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) are aimed at fixing Mexico’s broken labor law system. As part of these reforms, unions in Mexico are required to conduct a “legitimation” vote on all existing contracts, as one means of eliminating protection contracts.
In 2019, workers at the GM Silao plant, which was still covered by a protection contract, began to organize. At this time, and in the absence of genuine collective bargaining, the workers’ efforts began as small acts of rebellion and resistance. Over the course of the next year, some of the most vocal activists were unjustly terminated. The fired workers led a public campaign to denounce the protection contract and the corrupt relationship of the protection union with the company.
On April 20 and 21 of last year, during the legitimation vote required under the new law, workers were denied their right to associate freely when the protection union was caught destroying ballots. This, among other irregularities, resulted in the labor authority nullifying the vote and filing criminal charges with the state prosecutor. Unfortunately, there was no progress in this investigation.
A second legitimation vote was conducted later that year on Aug. 17 and 18. This time, under close supervision of the Mexican labor authority, which included prior input from the U.S. trade representative to ensure free and fair conditions and for the presence of national and international observers, the workers voted to reject the protection contract, paving the way for new union elections. After this victory, workers announced the creation of SINTTIA, a union committed to representing the workers through democratic collective bargaining. The creation of SINTTIA was the culmination of years of patient underground organizing, and was announced only after the defeat of the protection union.
Over the next six months, SINTTIA continued to work tirelessly to organize workers who sought genuine representation in their union. Indeed, this was in spite of the chilling effect many felt after the termination of the most visible activists in 2019 and the threats of violence directed at SINTTIA’s leadership. Nevertheless, in February 2022, SINTTIA was on the election ballot, along with three other unions, all of which had known links to the protection union. During this election, workers at the GM Silao plant overwhelmingly voted for SINTTIA, with the union receiving 76.5% of the vote.
The AFL-CIO honors SINTTIA and every worker who fought to establish an independent union at the Silao facility. By building an independent union movement in Mexico, workers on both sides of our border win by building power in the GM global production network that will enable GM workers everywhere to win higher wages and better working conditions. SINTTIA’s success underscores the importance of international labor solidarity. The AFL-CIO is committed to supporting SINTTIA and working with independent unions in Mexico to improve the lives of workers in Mexico and the United States.