MEXICO CITY (AP) — It has been nearly two years since the United States began pressing Mexico over labor rights violations by using rapid dispute resolution methods contained in the U.S.-Mexico Canada free trade agreement.
The administration of President Joe Biden has brought six such complaints and brags that, for the first time, someone is challenging Mexico's anti-democratic, old-guard unions that have kept wages painfully low for decades.
But workers and union organizers are mixed on the results, saying it's hard to build a real union movement overnight, and that employers and old union bosses continue to resist change.
The first complaint was filed in May 2021 about attempts by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) union to interfere with a vote at the GM plant in Silao, in the north-central state of Guanajuato.
Under the pressure of the U.S. complaint — which could eventually have led to trade sanctions — Mexican officials and observers oversaw a squeaky-clean union vote in which the old-guard CTM union was thrown out, and a new, independent union won the right to negotiate.
The new union quickly won an 8.5% wage increase and more bonuses.
"On the economic side, the truth is the change came very quickly, though they were a little slow in giving us the increase," said Manuel Carpio, a GM worker. Carpio credits the reformed Mexican labor laws and the pressure brought to bear under the USMCA complaint.
"I think that had a lot to do with it," Carpio said.
Before, pro-company unions signed contracts behind workers' back, and employed thugs to keep workers from questioning the contracts, or relied on the company to fire dissidents. Carpio, an early union supporter, said that before, it was impossible to organize.
"There was a lot of retaliation, but now we were protected by the law, that protected us a little, they couldn't do as much against us," he said. Before, "if we had tried to do it, heads would have rolled."
Which is not to say the problems are all solved; Carpio said the new union, known by it initials as SINTTIA, has a learning curve, and has been slow to hand out benefits derived from union dues. And autoworkers in Mexico still earn as little as $300 per month, or $12 per day.
The new union got the minimum increased to about $14 per day, but that's still less than a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour. The U.S. government hopes one day wages will equalize with the United States, stemming the outflow of manufacturing jobs, though that's not going to happen for a very long time.
"That is very far away," said José Guadalupe Alonso, a representative of the new union, who is still trying to cope with the fact that the old CTM union took everything down to the chairs and computers in union offices, and left the treasury bare.
Alonso has no doubt that the U.S. labor complaints were key to getting the new union at GM.
"What really made the difference here was that the U.S. government forces pressured to get certain things," said Alonso.
But Alonso says similar organizing efforts at other area plants, which have not attracted as much international attention, are still often as hard as ever.
For example, an organizing effort by the same union at a German plant making automotive pipes and tubing met resistance recently. Alonso said that when Mexican labor authorities tried to carry out an inspection at the plant, guards told them they had the wrong address.
"Maybe we will have to submit another complaint to the U.S. government," Alonso said.
Mexico's Labor Department says it is committed to making the country's new labor laws work. The reforms guarantee workers the right to vote by secret ballots, see their contracts and periodically approve union leaders, all of which did not happen before. But Mexico still hasn't built the labor boards, inspectors and outreach that would make it all work.
But the U.S. labor complaints are no magic wand: the best example so far is the VU Manufacturing auto parts plant in the border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila,
It is the only place where the United States has had to file not one, but two labor complaints under the USMCA, asking Mexico to ensure that it's laws guaranteeing freedom to organize are being enforced.
The plant, located across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, illustrates some of the uphill battles that organizers face in making union freedom a reality.
The VU facility is largely staffed by women who often work 12-hour shifts assembling visors, armrests and dashboard parts for cars. Their base wage is about $15 per day.
Piedras Negras is a relatively small, isolated border city where there is so little tradition of unions that the old-guard CTM union dominated the plant but never even bothered to ask the owners for a labor contract, says Pablo Franco, a Piedras Negras labor lawyer.
After the U.S. filed a first labor complaint in July, the company was forced to allow a vote, but they let the CTM union inside to try to cow workers into rejecting the new union, the Mexican Workers Union League.
"They spoke to the workers and they told them they couldn't allow an outside union like the league in, that it would be better to go with the people they knew," said Franco. "They (the company) spoke to workers, and allowed the CTM to speak to workers, to try to convince them. That was what the company did."
Even though the new union won a vote in late August by an almost two-to-one margin, the harassment hasn't ceased, and the company has been loathe to negotiate, said union organizer Julia Quiñonez, a Piedras Negras labor activist.
Quiñonez has been the target of a number of social media videos in which workers at the plant were allowed to leave the factory — in their company uniforms — and hold a press conference attacking the new union for asking too much in terms of wage increases: a scandalous $32 per day.
"No company can do that," said one of the dissidents in the video. "Not even the owner has that much (money)."
Quiñonez disputes that — she says the new union is only asking for $19 per day — but says the company has refused to negotiate, and has allied with the CTM union to launch a smear campaign against the union.
"They say we are egging the workers on to ask for more than the companies can give, so they will close down and return to the United States," Quiñonez says.
The company also allegedly severely limited the new union's access to hold an assembly in the plant, and refused to hand over information as part of the negotiations.
VU Manufacturing did not respond to requests by phone and email for comment.
The situation drew an unprecedented second U.S. complaint on Jan. 30.
"Despite this facility taking positive actions in 2022, some of the failures we identified previously appear to be recurring." said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
Mexico's Labor Department said in a statement "VU Manufacturing is obligated to negotiate in good faith" with the new union and "must allow its representatives and advisors to enter the facility, participate in negotiations and inform the workers."