Conditions at a GM plant in Mexico promote a labor challenge

SILAO, Mexico – When he took a job at General Motors in Mexico, Guillermo Ramírez thought it was his ticket out of poverty.

But a decade later, Mr. Ramírez says he still doesn’t earn enough to support his three children. Brothers and sisters eat at their mother’s house, he skips meals and borrows a car to take his 7-month-old child with a stroke to the hospital.

“You earn too little,” said Mr. Ramírez. “It makes you feel useless.”

Mexico has become an industrial powerhouse over the past two decades, attracting a lot of investment from some of the world’s biggest companies. However, a thorny problem persists: Although the country has become one of the wealthiest in Latin America, its workers still earn one of the lowest wages of most. all countries in the region.

One key reason, according to economists, is that for decades, Mexican workers have had little say in the choice of unions that represent them.

Instead of representing workers, the country’s traditional unions used to close alliances with politicians and employers. They have kept their wages low and their ability to organize really low – and as a result, they have amassed considerable wealth and power, at times suspected of corruption.

Now, inside one of the largest General Motors plants in the country, in Silao, a city in central Mexico, a group of workers assembling Chevy Silverados and GMC Sierra pickup trucks posed a direct challenge for those benefits. They have formed an independent union that will compete for the chance to represent thousands of employees in an election taking place this week.

The vote is the first major test of the ambitious labor reforms enshrined in the recently reworked North American Free Trade Agreement – and Mexico’s commitment to tearing up a system. complicated, the study found, leaving many workers unpaid or benefits beyond the minimum guaranteed by law.

Trade unions in Mexico have historically derived their power from relationships with politicians and the employers they serve by keeping wages low and preventing real organization within the unions. machine. This has made bringing jobs to Mexico all the more attractive – and allowed unions to continue to collect fees and benefit from political influence, with powerful labor leaders sometimes accumulating. personal fortune.

Economists say the victory for the independence coalition at GM could mark the beginning of a fundamental change in plants in Mexico.

Joyce Sadka, a Mexican economist who has testify before the United States Congress about Mexican unions. “It’s proof that you can really get a union that really tries to represent the interests of workers to win against one of these really big companies.”

Workers at the General Motors plant in Silao start earning less than $9 a day – less than wages at some Nissan, Audi and Volkswagen plants in Mexico represented by independent unions and just over 60 cents against the country’s daily minimum wage.

In interviews, more than two dozen workers at the plant described a punitive environment in which managers, prioritizing quick production, routinely denied employees showers for long hours. Some managers reported having told them that frequent toileting was not guaranteed in their employment contracts.

Elizabeth Jaramillo said three weeks ago, while menstruating, she stained her pants after she was not allowed to go to the bathroom to change her tampon. Claudia Juárez López said she developed a urinary tract infection after her managers repeatedly refused her requests to go to the bathroom during her 17 years at the company.

“How can this be a multinational company, and they make us work under these conditions?” said Ms. Juárez López, who joined the effort to form a new union because of the way she was treated.

David Barnas, a spokesman for General Motors, said that the allegations regarding the refusal to take a bathroom break were “untrue and inconsistent with the plant’s active employee satisfaction record” and that Staff members have not brought up this issue during independent labor inspections at plantations in recent years.

Workers remain at the plant in Silao “because of the positive and healthy environment we have established as company leaders in Mexico,” said Mr. Barnas, adding that the company The company will work with whichever union wins this week’s election.

The new coalition, called the Independent National Coalition of Autonomists, will compete with three other groups in the election. Two rivals with former union links; another is a relatively unknown newcomer.

María Alejandra Morales Reynoso, leader of the independence coalition, said that three people had come to her home to threaten her about the campaign.

“They are trying to intimidate us,” Ms. Morales said. “But we are committed to fighting.”

Officials from the union representing workers at the plant, the Mexican Workers’ Union, did not respond to questions.

Back in 2011, when Mr. Ramírez started working at the factory, he would never have thought of joining any form of worker uprising. He proudly wears his General Motors shirt around town. His children used to say to all their schoolmates, “My dad is a truck driver,” Mr. Ramírez said.

He spent five years climbing the salary ladder until he hit a ceiling — about $23 a day, less than employees at General Motors in Detroit make in two hours.

Then, even as production increased, his wages barely budged. He began to wonder, he said, “Why is the increase so small if everything else is up?”

It is possible that Mr. Ramírez entered the Nafta economy at the wrong time. After the agreement went into effect, in the mid-1990s real wages for industrial workers in Mexico spiked. But those employees’ profits began to decline after the 2008 global financial crisis and have only recently started to rise.

“Nafta has made a positive contribution to labor conditions, but much less than its potential,” said Luis de la Calle, a former Nafta negotiator for Mexico and now an economic consultant. The government, which did not significantly increase the minimum wage until recently, bears part of the blame. So does lackluster productivity.

However, Mr. de la Calle said part of the reason also lies with some of Mexico’s major unions, which have long been politically protected, but have failed to improve many of the people they represent.

Mr. de la Calle said: “The question is do union leaders in Mexico represent the best interests of workers? “Overall, the answer is no, and that has an impact on wages.”

In 2016, Ms. Sadka researched more than 1,400 union contracts in Mexico and found that three-quarters of them were what she called in congressional testimony “Fake arrangements,” which often give workers less benefits than they are guaranteed by law.

And today, even though Mexico is one of the richest countries in Latin America, its wages are comparable to El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to Development Bank data. Inter-American Development.

To do that, Mr. Ramírez turned part of his mother’s house into a living space for his family. He made cars all day, but couldn’t afford one – took his kids to ask, he said, “Why don’t you make one for yourself?”

Currently, Mr. Ramírez has to borrow a car to bring his son, who has had seizures for months, to the hospital. His 13-year-old daughter, Nathaly, dropped out of school because the family couldn’t afford to go to school.

Nathaly said: “My dad struggled. “He’s saving up to buy a car right now.”

When Mr. Ramírez asked the former union at the factory for financial help as medical costs rose, he said the highest they would offer was around $15.

“It was a joke,” said Mr. Ramírez. “I can’t buy a diaper bag with that.”

As part of the reworked trade agreement negotiations, Mexico has made sweeping changes to its labor laws in 2019, making it easier for independent unions to challenge incumbents and request review of hundreds of thousands of existing contracts.

The trade pact, which says Mexico must enforce new regulations, has won the support of US union leaders in part because they believe stronger protections could prevent job losses. made of America.

“If you have a race to the bottom, you have to raise the bottom, and then maybe the race slows down a bit,” said Jeff Hermanson, an official at the Solidarity Center, an affiliate of the AFL. -CIO

As workers at the General Motors plant voted on whether to quit in April, the government suspended the election after inspectors discovered destroyed ballot papers inside the office. of the existing union, part of the Mexican Federation of Workers.

The irregularities led the Biden administration to, for the first time, take advantage of a Labor dispute channel established in the new trade agreement, and formally asked Mexico to review the case. The Mexican government called for a new vote. In August, the workers elected to give up their contracts – and they are now preparing to vote for the union that will negotiate a new contract.

Mr. Ramírez said he planned to vote for the independent union.

Last week, he asked his boss to give him two days off because his wife had to spend the days alone with their baby at the hospital. The request was denied.

“You’re failing as a husband,” he said of himself, “because you can’t give her the reinforcement she needs.”

He has no idea how much his life will change if the independent union wins. But he hopes once again, workers will have a say. Conditions at a GM plant in Mexico promote a labor challenge

Fry Electronics Team

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