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One factory worker challenges Mexico’s powerful unions. By Stocksak


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By Daina Beth Simon

PIEDRAS, Mexico (Stocksak), – Julieta Monica Morales worked in a factory making T-shirts in central Mexico until last year. She was frustrated by low wages and a broken union system that she believed served workers more than companies.

Now she is leading her own union and taking on the old, more politically connected ones she used to hate. She wants better pay and more benefits, but most importantly, she wants workers to be able to choose who represents them.

Her union, La Liga, won its first major victory in August when it was granted the right to represent workers at VU Manufacturing, a small auto upholstery factory near the U.S. border.

In September, they set the foundation for support at another factory, this one belonging to 3M Co., an American industrial giant.

These victories and those of other new unions are signs that there is a revived labor movement, benefiting from tailwinds in Mexico and the United States, which are encouraging upstarts to challenge powerful entrenched interests.

Morales, 38 years old, knows it will be hard.

She said, “The other union” and kept her eyes on the road as she drove to the VU Manufacturing plant. There, La Liga was opposing the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a dominant force in the country’s labor market for decades.

Morales informed VU Manufacturing employees later that La Liga (which means The League) was available for fight outside the factory that produces door upholstery and armrests for brands such as Toyota, Honda, Chrysler.

She said, “We’re a very distinct union because we are made up of workers.” “We know what it takes to start from the bottom.”

Morales cannot serve as Secretary General for more than three years before returning to production.

Morales states that this worker-driven vision is a departure from Mexico’s past history of top-down union leadership, mainly by men, who have never worked a minute on a factory floor.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has made it easier for workers and others to form new unions or overthrow powerful incumbents with the introduction of new laws.

A revised trade deal with America has also helped La Liga’s rise. Under this agreement, companies can be sanctioned for preventing workers from forming unions.

This mechanism, which is part of the 2020 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, (USMCA), has already been implemented five times in Mexico, including at General Motors Co (NYSE), Stellantis, and VU Manufacturing.

Representatives from CTM say that their unions support worker rights, offer perks (e.g. scholarships and programs for the sport-inclined) and abide to Mexico’s new labor regulations.

3M states that it respects workers’ freedom to organize and will work with the union they choose to ensure job stability.

VU Manufacturing, Michigan, did not respond when asked. A letter was posted inside the factory stating that VU Manufacturing would not intervene in workers’ votes to choose their union.

“WHEREVER WE HAVE to Go”

La Liga may still be a small fraction of Mexico’s workforce. With only one plant secured and victory close to the other, its emergence is a sign that Mexico is changing after 30 years of stagnant wages, while U.S. salaries climbed more than 50%.

Mexican inflation is at an all-time high of two decades and is affecting pay. This makes it a fertile ground for a revival in the labor movement.

“This is an exciting moment,” said Kevin Middlebrook of University College London, a professor in Latin American politics. “It’s as favorable a combination of forces to democratic labor reform in Mexico… as one could possible imagine.”

Other unions have also won victories over strong rivals in Japan’s Panasonic (OTC), and France’s Saint-Gobain. They are promising better pay.

La Liga stands out even among the new crop because of its broad vision: targeting companies regardless sector or location.

Morales said, “We’ll be going wherever we have”

Next on her list is Mex Mode, a sportswear maker in her native Puebla. Mex Mode is owned by Korea’s Kukdong Corp.

Mex Mode stated that it has offered higher-than average salaries and better benefits over what is required by law in the past and that workers can freely join any union.

Activists supporting La Liga are also meeting with workers in Queretaro, Durango, and Coahuila at the northern border.

Companies are watching closely the rise of these emerging unions, even though they are still small and infrequent. It is not clear how expensive their demands might be or what strategies they may use.

Employers are also concerned that major pay-hike requests could increase costs and set industry precedents. This is as businesses navigate surging inflation and economic slumps, and government policies that have scared investors.

Jose Zozaya (director of Mexico’s largest auto industry association, AMIA) stated that “the unions, whatever they may be, must understand that competitivity, our limit,”. To protect jobs and attract more companies, we must keep it.

STACKED DECK

The deck has been stacked against Mexican workers for decades. 

The organized labor movement grew alongside the Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI) since the Mexican revolution in early 1900s.

The PRI was established and ruled Mexico for seven decades, ending in 2000. The party maintained a close relationship with major unions to lower wages. It argued that this was necessary to make Mexico more competitive and industrialize.

Even after the PRI was dissolved, the most powerful unions like CTM were still favored with the victorious National Action Party. They were able to quell strikes and keep a lid of pay.

However, Lopez Obrador’s election in 2018 brought about the most left-leaning government in Mexico’s democratic past.

It was in line with President Donald Trump’s push to revise the trade agreement. This, among other things, aimed at protecting American jobs and strengthening worker rights in Mexico.

Mexico’s USMCA was accompanied in Mexico by new laws that required secret ballots in union elections and created independent tribunals to replace corrupt local panels.

FACTORY BY ACTORY

Morales wants to make the most out of the opening.

She left her three children behind and moved from factory to factory in search of support.

She knows that her movement faces a mountain to climb. Many La Liga workers have no experience organizing or contract negotiation and face lawyers and companies that want to preserve the status quo. La Liga must also fight an embedded culture of fear, apathy, and silence in order to gain support.

Next year could prove crucial. The labor reform was designed to eliminate sweetheart agreements between unions and employers that were made behind workers’ backs. Thousands of these protection contracts are expected to be dissolved by May 2023.

La Liga is a potential partner for workers who are suddenly without contracts. La Liga will offer its expertise and resources to workers while they are directly responsible for developing their collective contracts.

Morales will soon have the opportunity to put her vision into reality as La Liga negotiates the first collective contract at VU manufacturing.

Workers want better pay, more cafeteria options, easier transport, and better ventilation on hot production floors. The air is thick with glue smell and employees strain to hear over the clacking staplers.

Morales sat at the outdoor lunch benches when she visited the plant in August and listened patiently to complaints that La Liga couldn’t compete with an older, rival union.

Morales responded: “Who are you going to change things?”

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Stocksak Editorial

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