SILAO, Mexico – When he got a job with General Motors in Mexico, Guillermo Ramírez thought it was his ticket out of poverty.
But a decade later, Mr. Ramírez says he still does not earn enough to care for his three children. They eat at his mother’s house, while he skips meals and borrows a car to take his 7-month-old baby, who is suffering from convulsions, to the hospital.
“You earn so little,” Mr. Ramírez said. “It makes you feel useless.”
Mexico has transformed into an industrial powerhouse over the past two decades, attracting a torrent of investment from some of the biggest companies in the world. And yet, a nagging problem persists: although the country has become one of the wealthiest in Latin America, its workers still earn among the lowest wages of almost any country in the region.
One important reason, economists say, is that for decades Mexican workers have had little say in choosing the unions that represent them.
Instead of representing workers, the country’s traditional unions have always been closely allied with politicians and employers. They kept wages low and the possibility of real organization at a distance – and in turn they amassed considerable wealth and power, sometimes suspected of corruption.
Now, at one of the largest General Motors plants in the country, in Silao, a town in central Mexico, a group of workers who assemble Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierra pickup trucks have issued a direct challenge to those interests. They have formed an independent union that will compete for the chance to represent thousands of employees in an election 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 of Mexico’s commitment to dismantling a ossified system that research shows prevents many workers from obtain salary or benefits beyond the minimum guaranteed by law.
Mexican unions historically derive their power from their relationships with the politicians and employers they serve by keeping wages low and preventing meaningful organization inside factories. This made job creation in Mexico more attractive and allowed unions to continue to collect dues and enjoy political influence, with powerful union leaders sometimes amassing personal fortunes.
Economists say a victory for GM’s independent union could mark the start of fundamental change in Mexican factories.
“It would have a domino effect in the sector,” said Joyce Sadka, a Mexican economist who testified before the US Congress on Mexican unions. “It’s proof that it is possible to make a union that really tries to represent workers’ interests win against one of these very big companies.”
Workers at the General Motors plant in Silao start earning less than $9 a day, less than the wages of some Nissan, Audi and Volkswagen plants in Mexico which are represented by independent unions, and just 60 cents more. above the country’s daily minimum wage.
In interviews, more than two dozen workers at the plant described a trying environment in which managers, prioritizing rapid production, routinely deny employees bathroom breaks for hours on end. Several said managers told them that regular trips to the restroom were not guaranteed in their employment contract.
Elizabeth Jaramillo said three weeks ago, while on her period, she had stained her pants after not being allowed to go to the bathroom to change her sanitary napkin. Claudia Juárez López said she suffered from multiple urinary tract infections after managers repeatedly denied her requests to go to the bathroom during her 17 years with the company.
“How is it possible that it is a multinational and that they make us work under these conditions?” said Ms. Juárez López, who joined the effort to create a new union because of the way she was treated.
David Barnas, a spokesman for General Motors, said the allegations about the denial of restroom breaks “are not true and are inconsistent with the positive record of employee satisfaction at the plant” and that employees do not did not raise the issue during independent labor inspections at the factory. plant in recent years.
The workers are staying at the Silao plant “because of the positive and healthy environment we have established as a business leader in Mexico,” Barnas said, adding that the company would work with the union which would win this week’s election.
The new union, called the Independent National Autoworkers Union, will compete with three other groups in the election. Two suitors have ties to the old union; another is a relatively unknown newcomer.
María Alejandra Morales Reynoso, the leader of the independent union, said three people came to her home to threaten her during the campaign.
“They are trying to intimidate us,” Ms Morales said. “But we are committed to our fight.”
Officials of the union that represented workers at the plant, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, did not respond to questions.
In 2011, when Mr. Ramírez started at the factory, he would never have considered joining a labor uprising. He was proud to wear his General Motors shirt around town. His children would tell all their classmates, “My dad makes trucks,” Mr. Ramírez said.
He spent five years climbing the pay scale until he hit the ceiling – about $23 a day, less than General Motors workers in Detroit earn in two hours.
Then, even as production increased, his salary barely moved. He started wondering, he said, “Why are the increases so low if everything else is going up?”
It is possible that Mr. Ramírez entered the NAFTA economy at the wrong time. After the agreement took effect in the mid-1990s, real wages for industrial workers in Mexico jumped. But earnings for these employees began to plummet after the 2008 global financial crisis, and only recently began to recover.
“NAFTA has made a positive contribution to working conditions, but far less than its potential,” said Luis de la Calle, a former NAFTA negotiator for Mexico who is now an economic consultant. The government, which did not raise the minimum wage significantly until recently, is partly to blame. The same goes for poor productivity.
But Mr de la Calle said part of the blame also lies with some big Mexican unions, which have long enjoyed political protection but have done little to improve the lot of the people they serve. represented.
“The question is, do union leaders in Mexico represent the best interests of workers? Mr. de la Calle said. “Overall, the answer is no, and that has an impact on wages.”
In 2016, Ms Sadka studied more than 1,400 union contracts in Mexico and found that three-quarters of them were what she called in congressional testimony “sham deals”, which often offered workers less more benefits than what was guaranteed to them by law.
And today, although Mexico is among the richest countries in Latin America, its salaries are comparable to those of El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to data compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank.
To get by, Mr. Ramírez turned part of his mother’s house into a living space for his family. He builds cars all day, but can’t afford to buy one – leading his kids to ask, he says, “Why don’t you build one for yourself?”
For now, Mr. Ramírez has to borrow a car to take his baby, who has been suffering from convulsions for months, to the hospital. Her 13-year-old daughter, Nathaly, misses school because the family could not pay for her trips to school.
“My dad is struggling,” Nathaly said. “He’s saving up to buy a car right now.”
When Mr. Ramírez asked the factory’s former union for financial assistance amid rising medical costs, he said the maximum they would offer was about $15.
“It was a joke,” he said. “I can’t buy a diaper bag with this.”
As part of negotiations over the reworked trade deal, Mexico made sweeping changes to its labor laws in 2019, making it easier for independent unions to challenge incumbents and requiring a review of hundreds of thousands of existing contracts.
The trade pact, which said Mexico must enforce the new rules, won support from U.S. labor leaders in part because they believed stronger protections could prevent job losses in the United States.
“If you have a run down, you have to raise the low, then maybe the run will slow down a bit,” said Jeff Hermanson, an official with the Solidarity Center, an AFL branch. -CIO
When workers at the General Motors factory voted to cancel their contract in April, the government suspended the election after inspectors found destroyed ballot papers at the offices of the existing union, which is part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers.
The irregularities prompted the Biden administration to, for the first time, take advantage of a channel for labor disputes established in the new trade deal and formally ask Mexico to reconsider the case. The Mexican government has called for a new vote. In August, the workers opted out of their contract – and they are now preparing to vote for the union that will negotiate a new one.
Mr. Ramírez said he planned to vote for the independent union.
Last week, he asked his boss for two days off because his wife had spent days alone with their baby in hospital. The request was rejected.
“You fail as a husband,” he said of himself, “because you can’t give her the backup she needs.”
He doesn’t know how much his life will change if the Independent Syndicate wins. But for once, he hopes, workers will have a say.