Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 37: Hyperglobalization, COVID and Failed Supply Chains: Now What?
Tuesday Press Conference: MoCs, Civil Society and Labor Leaders Urge Biden To Launch Global Plan to End Pandemic at Next Week’s UN Summit

Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 38: Labor Day Special: An Historic Vote in a Mexican Auto Plant

On August 19th, workers at the massive General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico participated in an historic vote that ousted the corrupt and undemocratic protection union that had long controlled labor relations there. The effort to win such a vote was made possible by the labor rules and Rapid Response enforcement mechanism of the USMCA trade deal.

In this Labor Day special, we sit down with Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch Research Director Daniel Rangel and long-time labor organizer Jeff Hermanson, who has been supporting the General Motors campaign through the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. We discuss the situation at Silao, its significance in the context of trade policy and what it says about the prospect for workers to utilize the USMCA to fight for labor rights in North America.

Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3831-groove-grove.

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan 
Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I'm Ryan and I'm joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. It's Labor Day we're doing a Labor Day special episode about a quite historic union vote at a General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico. Joining Lori and I is Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch Research Director Daniel Rangel. As well as Jeff Hermanson, former Mexico director of the Solidarity Center and a longtime labor organizer. Jeff has been pretty involved in supporting the efforts at the General Motors plant in Silao. Jeff, why don't you just start by telling us what just happened at the Silao plant. And then we're going to talk about how significant this is for the Mexican labor movement but also for the prospects of the revised NAFTA, the USMCA's labor protections, and enforcement mechanisms.

Jeff Hermanson 
The General Motors plant employs 6,400 workers. They have a collective bargaining agreement that's known as a protection contract with the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers), the largest union in Mexico. And under the labor law reform in Mexico and the USMCA, every contract has to be legitimated by a secret ballot vote of the workers for the first time. And the workers voted it down. And that's a big deal.

Lori Wallach 
There was a really exciting development, one that involves a lot of different streams of organizing and policy change. One, I think the key thing was the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, which is officially called the US Mexico Canada agreement, the USMCA. That agreement going into place required the labor law changes, Jeff, that you mentioned in Mexico and also created this mechanism, Rapid Response Mechanism that for the first time allows company-specific cases to be filed to directly enforce against an individual company, the new labor rights that were required, basic core ones right to organize rights in the revised NAFTA. And there's a lot riding on whether or not that mechanism can work. It definitely is an important new tool. And at the same time, it's, you know, first trial runs. So the US government under US Trade Representative Katherine Tai self-filed one of these rapid response cases against GM, with respect to the outrageous basically malfeasance that occurred during the first effort to have a vote on this contract. I'm wondering, Jeff, if you could explain to us a little bit of the context of this, because, you know, folks are probably not that familiar with the idea of a protection contract. And also, the obligation under the new NAFTA is that every one of these old contracts, a lot of them, which were really, you know, protecting the boss, not protecting labor rights have to be revoted. And so this came to a head in the context of that process. And I'm gonna ask you, Jeff, to take it away and give us some context of how we got to this and why this is so important.

Jeff Hermanson 
So in Mexico, there are very few non-union workplaces. But 90% of the contracts are considered protection contracts, that means that they're put in place by the employer and an union before workers are hired in many cases, without worker knowledge in many cases. But even if there is some worker knowledge as there is in the General Motors situation for the purpose is to protect the employer from any legitimate union representation. And in this case, for example, for the 12 years that this union held this contract, there was not a single assembly, not a single vote on leadership, not a single ratification of contracts, and very little help from the union on any individual grievances. So because every one of these contracts is now going to have to be voted by the first of May, 2023. Because of the importance of the plant the size of the plant. The eyes of the Mexican government and the US government were on this vote. And in April when the first vote was held, it was a two-day vote. The first day of the vote went forward, the ballots boxes were put in the union office for safekeeping, supposedly, but when they came the next day to start the second day of voting, they found that the ballot boxes had been broken into, and ballots destroyed. And they had done a count of the vote up to the end of the first day. And the vote was leaning towards rejecting the contract, 45 to 55. A surprise to everyone. The workers and the secret ballot had voted this contract down, however, because of the irregularities, as they're called the Secretary of Labor suspended the second day of voting did an investigation, and issued a finding that yes, serious irregularities had occurred. The same day that finding came out, the US Trade Representative filed a complaint under the terms of the labor chapter of the USMCA calling upon the Mexican government to take steps to remedy the situation. Labor Secretary in Mexico ordered a second vote, which was supposed to take place within 30 days of her order, the 30 days came and went, the CTM just didn't run the election. And so then an agreement was reached between the US Trade Representative and the Mexican Secretary of Labor, that a rerun election had to be held by August 20. And if it wasn't held, the contract would be invalidated. So that puts some real sanctions into the agreement. And it also required observers. And the bottom line is when they voted again, they voted the same way: 45% Yes / 55% No. And they rejected the contract.

Daniel Rangel 
Thank you, Jeff, for chairing this. I think that what our listeners are wondering now is what will come next? What's the process for workers to get through in your representation at GM- Silao.

Jeff Hermanson 
So now we're in a situation where this contract will be invalidated. I mean, there's a period in which the CTM can object to the election. And throughout that period, the contract stays in effect, we hope that that 20 day period will result in the contract being eliminated. And the workers then have the opportunity to form their own union, they've already applied for the registration and gotten registration of an independent union. And now they're campaigning to get enough support to apply to negotiate a contract.

Lori Wallach 
So what do you think was the relevance of the Rapid Response complaint for the outcome because this is like a pretty stunning outcome after decades of workers getting screwed by protection unions in Mexico was a brave thing to vote the way they did the fact that the vote actually got redone in a fair way, as you know, knockdown, drag-out stunning, given the context. Does the USMCA and the USTR self-initiated case had anything to do with that? Or is it all about internal organizing, which I know we want to hear about the amazing work that the workers did also to represent themselves? But was the RRM part of the story?

Jeff Hermanson 
Absolutely, this second vote probably never would have occurred without that complaint, because as I said, the Secretary of Labor ordered to election rerun in 30 days, and the union just didn't do it. They said, "No, we don't have to do it, we have until the first of May of 2023 to do it." Without that complaint, the second rerun probably wouldn't have occurred.

Lori Wallach 
You figured they were thinking about the sanctions and the RRM, that we're going to hit the company and the government was going to look bad, and they were all seeing that chewing on their ankles?

Jeff Hermanson 
The government in Mexico really does not want sanctions to be applied. They do not want, you know, investors to see that sanctions could be applied to them. So basically, they were ready to do just about anything that the USTR asked to get past this complaint. And what they did was order a rerun election under conditions in which the workers could vote freely, secretly, without coercion, and vote their conscience. And that's what they did. You know, and it really is an amazing testimony to the courage of these workers. Because in the past, this never would have happened in the past the CTM would have brought in, you know, 100 thugs to intimidate the workers. I mean, we've seen this so many times, there would have been no secret ballot, you know, it would have been an open vote in front of everybody. And, you know, I never would have happened. So this is a turning point in the history of the Mexican labor movement, in my opinion.

Daniel Rangel 
This case appeared on the radar of many people with these outrageous episodes of the representatives destroying to ballots of the workers that were voting no against the contract. But this fight and struggle of many workers started many years ago, right? Could you give us a little bit of the background of what was going on in that plant? And what were the main drivers for workers at the GM-Silao plant to both know for this contract?

Jeff Hermanson 
I think you know that it's true that there has been dissent within this company for years, but dissent that was repressed, the dissent that resulted in workers being fired dissent that really, you know, could not come into the open without retaliation from the company. And so as a result, the main voice of the workers was a group of fired workers, eight fired workers formed a group called Generando Movimiento (generating movement) using the initials GM, you know, they were a presence on social media, they were a presence with their personal connections to folks in the plant. And it's quite obvious that they had some real impact because we've seen other legitimation votes recently in auto plants that were one-sided in favor of the Union. Because there was no such movement in the plant because workers were intimidated. In this case, we saw the CTM, holding captive audience meetings with the help of the company, before the first vote, in which they were telling workers that if they voted the contract down, they'd lose their benefits, which is a lie. We saw threats and intimidation of workers, we saw the idea floated that if the yes vote won, that they would raffle off 10 brand-new GM vehicles, of course, workers know in Mexico that a lot of promises are made in election campaigns that are never fulfilled, and this is one of them. But you know, it was a situation in which the workers themselves had built enough of a support network in that plant that people felt safe to vote their conscience. And that's really an amazing thing.

Daniel Rangel 
Before you finish. Let me ask you this, how was this news and this historic vote received? And how is this gonna change the landscape for the relationships between employers and workers in Mexico?

Jeff Hermanson 
I expect this sends a message to employers and unions, you know, it received tremendous press coverage in Mexico. This was one of the top stories for a few days after the vote. And there are employers right now thinking, "What am I going to do when my contract is up for a vote?" In many of these cases, the workers don't even know there's a contract. So we think that a lot of these contracts will fade into history, when the deadline, first of May 2023 rolls around, most of these contracts will not have been legitimated and they will no longer be in force. Those that are voted on, we're going to see, we're going to see more defeats of protection contracts.

Daniel Rangel 
And why are you so certain that workers are going to vote down these contracts?

Jeff Hermanson 
You know, these contracts are protection contracts for a reason. And the reason is to keep wages low. And wages in the General Motors plant are half what the wages are in the Volkswagen plant in Pueblo where they have had an independent union, negotiating real wage increases for the past 25 years. And you know, the differences are very obvious. There are three independent unions in the assembly plants in Mexico, one in Volkswagen, one in Nissan, and one in Audi. And all three of them have at least 1/3 higher wages than in the GM plant. And some of them have double the wages. That's a big deal. It's a big difference. People can see that. Workers are fed up. They were fed up with the CTM in this plant, they're fed up with protection contracts in many plants throughout Mexico.

Lori Wallach 
Well, that begs the next and sort of final question, which is what needs to happen now for actually the workers at the Silau plant to get an independent union? They still have to get a new union. And GM has to recognize that new union and then they need a new collective bargaining agreement. So are there challenges between saying no to the old and getting the new that could actually change worker's lives? What are the prospects there?

Jeff Hermanson 
There definitely are challenges. Other protection unions are circling around the GM plant and talking about how they're going to represent these workers. But the workers themselves have formed an independent union, national independent union of workers of the auto industry. They have received their registration papers from the federal authorities and they are seeking right now to sign up, you know, they have to sign up 30% of the workers in order to demand collective bargaining, we expect there will be real competition for support. I mean, we can't forget that the CTM did get 45% of the vote, we expect that they will try to negotiate a new contract. If the independent union gets a 30% signup, there'll be an election between any union that can provide a 30% showing of interest, essentially, they'll be on the ballot. So we might see a competitive election between an independent union and the CTM union or another protection union.

Lori Wallach 
And the very fact they have the opportunity to have that vote and have an independent union challenging the corrupt CTM protection union is a pretty amazing development. Dear listeners, to put this in perspective, this is historic. And I think the thing thinking forward about these challenges and all is for all of us to think about what work we need to do as activists, as organizers, as policymakers listening to this interview to actually translate this opportunity, these instruments into the reality that workers throughout North America have been fighting for together since the NAFTA itself was hatched in the early 90s, to actually have a mechanism for workers to improve their lot and the transnational companies have been playing workers off of each other, taking their high wage union jobs in the US to Mexico to pay people $2-3 an hour, making sure there are no real unions. How do we translate this opportunity, this moment through action through the RRM cases through solidarity into real change? And that is what is before us. And Jeff, I don't know if you have some specific ideas about that?

Jeff Hermanson 
You know, the recommendation of the Independent Mexico Labor Experts Board has been for massive funding of US and Mexican union binational organizing efforts. I'm very much in favor of such a program. I mean, this is what needs to happen. We need to train a generation of professional trade union organizers. We need to help them create industrial unions that are independent of government and employers that are democratic, and that actually represent the interests of workers. And that can be done with the cooperation of US, Canadian and Mexican unions, this is possible now for the first time in my career. I see this as a real possibility.

Ryan 
Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit rethinktrade.org. You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.

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