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Independent union wins historic vote at GM plant in Mexico

One of the first tests of labor provisions established in the new free trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, the vote and its transparent execution Thursday set a historic precedent for labor democracy in Mexico.

SILAO, Mexico (CN) — “We won, man, we won! We did it!” Armando Farjado Rivera said in an audio message sent from inside the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, once enough votes had been counted to assure a winner. 

After 41 hours of voting and four more of counting, the independent autoworkers union for which he serves as press secretary, SINTTIA, had swept to victory with more than 76% of the historic vote, clenching the collective agreement for the union at 2 a.m. Thursday.

Alejandra Morales, 32, secretary general of SINTTIA, also sent a statement via audio message from inside the plant as signatures sealed the deal.

“The workers have made their choice," she said. "They want change, and now it’s up to us to work arduously to live up to that choice and improve their working conditions.”

In the chill of the midnight air outside the plant, several former GM workers who lost their jobs when they began to organize in opposition to the old, mafia-style union that previously represented the plant rejoiced at the news. 

“We paid a stiff price for this, but today we won,” said Israel Cervantes, 43, who was fired in 2019 for attempting to organize. “It was worth it.”

María Guadalupe Ibarra and Arturo Martínez watch their former fellow workers celebrate SINTTIA's union victory on Feb. 3, 2022. They were fired in 2019 for injuries and attempting to organize, respectively. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Arturo Martínez, 43, was likewise fired for trying to organize against the Miguel Trujillo union that was finally ousted in August of last year.

“It’s a great joy,” said the man who spent more than two decades in the plant. “This comes after nearly three years of hard work. Now we’re finally going to see a change.”

Trying to stay warm in a padded vest and leaning on a metal cane, María Guadalupe Ibarra, 36, also beamed at the thought of things changing inside the sprawling factory. 

After injuring her back on the assembly line, she, too, was fired in 2019 and received no support from the previous union, up against a multinational corporation that no longer required her services. 

“It’s going to be good. If workers unite all over the state of Guanajuato, we’ll see corruption finally go,” she said. “SINTTIA is now on the frontlines for people who get injured like me.”

She and others present hoped their victory would start a ripple effect throughout the state of Guanajuato — known for auto manufacturing, among other industries — as well as the rest of Mexico.

“A new wave of labor organization is coming,” said Hector de la Cruz of the nonprofit Center for Labor Research and Union Consultancy, which advised SINTTIA over the course of its nearly three-year path to victory.

De la Cruz attributed the independent union’s win over others he called “mafias” in part to the new laws at workers’ disposal after historic labor reforms in Mexico in 2019, as well as labor protections granted by the United States-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement (USMCA), which entered into force in July 2020.

For de la Cruz, however, these laws were merely tools that could work only in the hands of determined people like the supporters and organizers of SINTTIA. 

“The labor reform and new laws indeed work, they provide opportunity, but without organized workers, they’re nothing,” he said. 

Fired in 2019 for attempting to organize, Israel Cervantes hugs a current GM employee who won a historic victory in a union vote on Feb. 3, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

A vote to oust the GM plant's previous union in April of last year was marred by irregularities and rescheduled for August. Increased scrutiny on the second vote allowed employees to finally remove the union they decried as corrupt.

The first important test of the USMCA labor provisions, this vote was largely conducted with transparency and fairness.

While there were some reports of voter intimidation and bribery, the vast majority of voters who spoke with Courthouse News reported seeing nothing of the sort and feeling confident that their votes would be counted accurately. 

Mexico’s Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registration, which conducted the vote, reported receiving two official complaints by the end of the referendum.

In the end, around 5,500 cast ballots of the nearly 6,300 employees who were eligible to vote. Of those, 4,192 voted for SINTTIA. 

For former employees like Cervantes, Martínez and Ibarra, the overwhelming victory was proof that their hard work and sacrifice had not been for nothing. 

“Today the voice of the worker was heard, the worker who wants a better future,” said Cervantes with tears in his eyes.

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