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'Fed up' GM workers in Mexico pick new union in historic vote

Published 02/03/2022, 05:23 AM
Updated 02/03/2022, 07:32 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the main entrance of the General Motors' pickup truck plant as workers vote to elect a new union under a labor reform that underpins a new trade deal with Canada and the United States, in Silao, Mexico February 1, 2022. REUTERS/Sergi
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By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - An upstart union supported by international activists on Thursday won an election to represent General Motors (NYSE:GM) workers in central Mexico, opening the door to the prospect of bigger pay rises, inspired by U.S.-backed labor reform.

The election was one of the first under the new Mexican law, which underpins a trade deal with the United States and Canada, and aims to help improve pay by breaking the grip of unions that critics say signed deals with companies behind workers' backs.

The union known as SINTTIA won 78% of the votes cast by several thousand workers at GM's plant in the city of Silao, beating three rivals including Mexico's biggest labor organization that had held the plant contract for 25 years.

Worker Jesus Barroso said he chose SINTTIA to push out the past union, which he said did little to help its members, a frequent charge by workers and activists about "protection" unions that they say prioritize business interests.

"We're fed up. Being fed up is what's making us take this decision," said Barroso, noting he takes home 480 pesos ($23.27) in his daily 12-hour shift after more than a decade at GM.

"I think we have the right to give our families, our kids a better quality of life."

U.S. lawmakers hailed the vote as a win for Mexican and U.S. workers under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal, with U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell, Earl Blumenauer and Dan Kildee calling it a "boon to American workers who have suffered from multinational corporations moving jobs offshore."

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai called the vote a victory for workers. "The next, and equally critical, stage of the process will be good faith bargaining between General Motors and the new union," she said.

GM, which employs 6,300 people in Silao, said it would work with SINTTIA to begin a contract negotiation and thanked employees for voting.

'BIT BY BIT'

SINTTIA said it was still preparing a pitch, but would like to see raises above inflation, which ended 2021 above 7%.

"For years, we lost so much. Now we'll have to go bit by bit," the group's secretary general, Alejandra Morales, told a news conference.

SINTTIA is looking at some of Mexico's few independent auto unions as models to achieve better wages and working conditions.

At Volkswagen (DE:VOWG_p)'s plant in Puebla state, the union has helped ensure average pay of 600 pesos ($29.15) a day for an eight-hour shift.

The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, said the vote would help set standards across the auto sector.

"This vote represents a rejection of the past," AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.

Still, other auto plants may not get the same scrutiny from U.S. and Mexican officials that helped ensure a fair vote, said Arnulfo Arteaga-Garcia, a professor at Mexico's Metropolitan Autonomous University who was one of 100 election observers.

"It may be a reference, but not automatically," he said. "We can't ring the bells yet."

U.S. officials threatened to impose tariffs on GM exports last year if the automaker did not protect worker rights after a contract ratification vote at the plant was marred by irregularities, including destroyed ballots.

In August, GM's Silao workers chose to end their contract with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which had held the contract since the plant opened in 1995 and is aligned with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Observers said this week's union vote went smoothly overall, although SINTTIA's leader Morales and another female colleague said they received personal threats in the days before the vote.

The CTM won 5% of the vote, while a separate group that critics say has ties to CTM, known as The Coalition, took 17%.

Cecilio, a worker who declined to give his last name, said he voted for SINTTIA and was not surprised the group won.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Activists hold a protest outside the General Motors' pickup truck plant as workers vote to elect a new union under a labor reform that underpins a new trade deal with Canada and the United States, in Silao, Mexico February 1, 2022. REUTERS/Sergio Maldonado

"For so long, us workers have been waiting for a real change," he said.

($1 = 20.5831 Mexican pesos)

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