SILAO, Mexico (CN) — Two tents outside the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, provided a pair of small oases from the heat of the relentless sun of the dry season in Central Mexico.
A group of union representatives and labor organizers mingled with activists and reporters over quesadillas made with handmade corn tortillas and stuffed with cheese and spicy chiles.
The first workers to vote in what promised to be an historic referendum on labor representation in Mexico had yet to leave the plant.
Most had arrived around 5 a.m. to cast their ballots for their union of choice before starting their 12-hour shifts at 6 a.m.
Most of the unions present had applied to serve as independent observers inside the plant during the 41-hour voting process, and the Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registration even initially accepted some.
To their dismay, however, the Federal Labor Center quickly changed course.
“The Mexican government approved us at first,” said Maicon Michel of the National Confederation of Metalworkers of Brazil.
He bought his ticket to Mexico after receiving the encouraging news.
“Then the labor authority said we couldn’t come, because it would infringe on the authenticity of the process. But that’s not true, because we don’t represent anyone in the GM plant, only our union’s workers in Brazil,” he said.
But despite his misgivings over not being allowed inside, Michel was confident that the GM workers would prevail in their quest for quality representation.
“Even if we don’t have full faith in the process, we have faith in the employees of GM,” he said. “There have been reports of intimidation and bribery, yes, but this process here looks much different from what we see in Brazil.”
Others were not as forgiving as Michel of the decision to revoke their permission to observe.
“I have a lot of faith in what the workers have done so far to get here,” said Claudia Magaña, organizing director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which also received an email rescinding an initial invitation to observe the vote.
But Magaña wasn’t surprised that unions unaffiliated with the GM plant in Silao weren’t allowed to observe.
“I think the systems are set up against workers, always. This is the case everywhere. Corporations have more power, more influence, and I don’t think we’re working from a neutral environment,” she said.
Mohamad Alsadi, director of the International Department and Social Justice Fund at Canada’s Unifor general trade union, expressed unalloyed frustration at the Federal Labor Center’s revocation of its initial approval of his request to observe.
The email cancelling his invitation to act as an observer came little more than an hour afterwards on Friday night.
“If they can’t even get something like that right, how can you trust that they’re going to be doing well making sure that the vote is done the proper way?” he said, adding, “We are still hoping that they will, but certainly that showed that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, and it’s a concern.”
Alsadi suspected that the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the powerful coalition of unions to which the GM plant’s previous union belonged — as do two on the current ballot of four — had made its presence felt in the federal government, ultimately getting his and other unions kicked off the list of observers.
Current and former employees expressed similar skepticism of the process, but hope as well.
Ezequiel Balandrán, 19, was on his way to cast his vote. The intimidation of a union leader at her home two days earlier concerned him, but he was hopeful for change.
“Yes, I have faith in the process,” he said before hesitating and clarifying. “I'd say I’m 80 percent sure that it will be done right.”
He knew workers who had accepted bribes from unions on the ballot.
Arturo Martínez was fired after more than two decades in the plant along with several other employees for attempting to organize during the initial push to oust the union that was voted out in August and which this week’s vote will replace.
The father of four was hopeful that the vote would create a change in the factory. He remembered grueling 12-hour shifts that paid little and left him drained during his days off.
Ben Davis, director of International Affairs for the United Steel Workers, said that low pay was the “fundamental issue” for his union based in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
“Our biggest worry has always been the low wages in Mexico,” said Davis.
“Ask these workers who make cars sold in the United States how they get to work,” he said and raised a hand at GM employees waiting at a bus stop outside the factory entrance across the street. “Buses. They don’t have cars. They can’t afford them. They get paid a tenth of what GM workers in the States do.”
He and the other union representatives waiting outside the GM plant will know early Thursday morning if the vote was conducted fairly and cleanly, and if it was able to effect the change they say these workers so desperately need.
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