This piece originally appeared in Labor Notes.
Just weeks after auto workers at General Motors in the central Mexican city of Silao voted by a landslide to join a new independent union, auto parts workers in the border city of Matamoros are hoping to do the same in a vote later this month.
“We want a new change, someone who truly represents us,” said Pablo Flores, who has worked at the Tridonex plant since 2016 as a grinding operator. [Pablo Flores is a pseudonym, which Labor Notes has used to protect the identity of a worker who may face retaliation for speaking with the press. —Editors.] Tridonex, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Cardone Industries, refits second-hand car parts for sale in the United States and Canada.
Following the example of the GM workers in Silao, Tridonex workers are looking to oust an employer-friendly union affiliated to the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), Mexico’s largest labor confederation, which is closely tied to Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, widely known by its initials PRI. CTM affiliates have long been accused of signing “protection” contracts which lock in low wages and prevent workers from joining genuine unions, to the benefit of multinational employers and corrupt union leaders.
“We are fed up with the fact that the CTM always does what it wants with us,” Flores continued, adding that the current union “only seeks its own benefit and that of the company.”
Voting, initially scheduled for February 21, will now take place on February 28, with 1,632 workers eligible to cast ballots. There are two unions on the ballot: the incumbent Industrial Union of Workers in Maquiladora and Assembly Plants (SITPME), and the National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers, 20/32 Movement (SNITIS), which has its roots in a 2019 strike wave by workers in Matamoros’s auto parts plants.
500 PESOS PER VOTE
Flores is hopeful that by uniting with co-workers to form a new union, they can improve their physically grueling jobs and combat speed-up. The company routinely shifts workers to different assembly lines without proper training to meet production targets.
But Flores also recognizes the challenges they face. The quick turnaround — the election was announced on February 16 — leaves little time for the independent union to organize and provides ample opportunity for the CTM to dig into its deep pockets to buy votes.
Flores said that the incumbent union is offering bribes of 500 pesos per vote.
In a Facebook video, the prominent labor lawyer and federal deputy Susana Prieto said workers will only receive the 500 pesos if they snap photos as evidence of casting their ballot in favor of the CTM-affiliated SITPME, which is led by Jesús Mendoza Reyes. Workers who convince 10 or more co-workers to vote for SITPME will allegedly receive 1,500 pesos, Prieto said.
Like the vote in Silao, workers have drawn from previous organizing efforts. The election at Tridonex comes three years after thousands of Matamoros workers joined a wave of wildcat strikes as part of the “20÷32” movement that won a 20 percent wage hike and $1,600 bonuses.
Flores was a participant in that strike wave along with other Tridonex workers. “There were layoffs, and I couldn’t speak or give an opinion because [supervisors] would take it the wrong way,” said Flores about the aftermath of the 20/32 movement. The company and CTM-affiliated union “don’t want people to wake up or fight for their rights,” he said.
BORDER FACTORY MOVEMENT
The movement produced an independent union, SNITIS, led by Prieto. Soon, the independent union became a lightning rod for other workers fired without cause.
One of those workers was Irene Baltazar Fortanelly, 44, who was fired after working for more than 15 years for the medical supplies company ConVaTec in the border city of Reynosa.
When Baltazar Fortanelly and more than 750 co-workers went to the CTM-affiliated union after being stripped of their seniority, she said they refused to address their complaints. They turned to Prieto and SNITIS to seek representation.
“We began the process of changing unions. And the ‘ringleaders,’ as they called us, they fired us all.”
Now, Baltazar Fortanelly is one of the stalwarts of the independent union movement in Tamaulipas, the border state that includes Reynosa and Matamoros and is home to major clusters of export-oriented manufacturing plants.
“Today, I go plant by plant in the industrial parks, informing the workers of their rights and inviting them to join SNITIS,” she said.
LABOR LAW REFORM
In 2019, Mexico’s labor law reform went into effect, requiring unions to hold secret-ballot votes to validate all existing collective bargaining agreements by May 1, 2023. That reform, along with provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, the successor to NAFTA), includes provisions aimed at allowing workers to organize freely and bargain collectively for better wages and conditions, freedoms that have long eluded Mexican workers.
The reform also creates new labor courts in Mexico, housed under the judicial branch, to replace the tripartite conciliation and arbitration boards that have long served to uphold the protection contract system. But the rollout of these courts has been slow, especially in border states like Tamaulipas.
Under Mexico’s constitution, union contracts at auto parts plants like Tridonex are supposed to be under federal jurisdiction. Despite that, many unions have historically gotten away with filing their contracts with state-level labor boards controlled by their allies, who erect innumerable procedural hurdles to thwart independent unions.
At Tridonex, SNITIS filed a petition to take over the collective bargaining agreement with the Matamoros labor board in late 2019, which should have triggered an election. Instead, the local labor board dragged its feet and refused to formally acknowledge the petition.
A group of 400 workers rallied outside the Matamoros labor board to demand that their independent union effort be allowed to proceed, according to Reuters. Tridonex fired more than 600 supporters of the independent union between April and October of 2020, SNITIS alleged.
Using the “rapid-response” labor enforcement mechanism negotiated into the USMCA, SNITIS, the AFL-CIO, and SEIU filed a complaint in May 2021 that Tridonex denied workers their rights of free association and collective bargaining. The company agreed three months later to provide severance and nine months back pay to 154 workers, totaling $600,000, or the equivalent of $4,000 per worker. It also made a commitment to remain neutral in future union elections.
Another outcome of the complaint was that the Tridonex case was moved to the federal labor board, which is now overseeing the vote.
AWAITING THE RESULTS
Daniel Rangel, research director at Rethink Trade at American Economic Liberties Project, told Labor Notes that while the situation of workers fighting for the independent union has improved somewhat, they still have to contend with labor rights violations.
“Tridonex workers have been harassed, beaten by the police, illegally fired, and denied contract benefits just because they are trying to toss away a sham ‘protection’ union that hasn’t represented their interests,” he said.
“Their lawyer, Susana Prieto, was thrown into jail under bogus criminal charges in retaliation for her leadership and even when released she was banned from entering the state of Tamaulipas.”
Following the complaint under the USMCA trade deal, he added that Tridonex hasn’t lived up to its commitment with the U.S. government to remain neutral. “SNITIS activists have had a lot of trouble getting access to workers and Tridonex has not facilitated spaces for them to convey their proposals to the workforce.”
Benjamin Davis, director of international affairs for the United Steelworkers and chair of the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board, created by Congress under the USMCA, told Labor Notes that SNITTIS has a strong base of support but the odds are still formidable.
“The CTM controls access to the plant and they have decades of experience in maintaining that control,” he said. “A lot will depend on whether [Mexico’s labor] board controls the kinds of violations that we often see — workers voting twice with the same ID, or workers being offered money by the CTM if they produce a photo of their marked ballot. Also, the voter’s finger is supposed to be marked with indelible ink, but that does not always happen.”
Supporters of the independent union have taken to Facebook to share photos of people alleged to be buying votes.
A POINT OF REFERENCE
Nevertheless, workers like Baltazar Fortanelly remain hopeful about the space opened up by the reforms.
“The votes are of great value, because in this way the scope of freedom of association can be expanded,” said Baltazar Fortanelly. “Workers will be able to assert their rights by exercising democracy. They themselves will choose their representatives, their benefits and will also decide how their union dues are used. Because the union leaders are administrators of the union dues — not the owners of them as they’ve made a practice of.”
For Flores, the vote offers an opportunity to fulfill what started back in 2019 with the 20/32 movement and “take full advantage of the opportunity given to us by the federal labor law and be able to freely choose who we want to lead our collective bargaining agreement.”
If the independent union wins, he added, “we will be a point of reference for other maquiladora workers.”
Dan DiMaggio contributed to this article.
Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.