Mexican Auto Parts Plant Is Battleground For Independent Union’s First Contract Fight
In the Mexican border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, auto parts workers are throwing down yet again against their employer, Michigan-based VU Manufacturing, and its chosen union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).
Last August, VU workers voted to form an independent union, the Mexican Workers’ League (la Liga), defeating management’s effort to impose an employer-friendly union affiliated with the CTM.
After a union wins an election, Mexican labor law grants six months to bargain a contract. In the League’s case, the timetable runs through March 6. Bargaining a new contract usually takes about two months, say Mexican labor activists.
At GM Silao, workers negotiated a new contract last May, three months after voting in a new union.
But workers say VU Manufacturing has renewed its campaign to bust the independent union. If no contract is signed during the six-month period, a union must refile to represent the workers—and other unions can step in and force a new election.
“The company is betting that time passes and the six months expire,” said Julia Quiñones, a delegate for the League at VU and director of the Border Workers Committee (el Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, CFO), a local worker center. She said that with the support of the CTM the company is removing supporters of the League through firings and suspensions.
“The company has actively refused to negotiate in good faith with the union on a contract, has expelled union organizers from the plant, and has continued to discriminate in favor of representatives of the CTM, including facilitating efforts by the minority union to smear, intimidate, and threaten the members of the League,” said José Carrillo, assistant general secretary of the League at VU, during a press conference last week.
The VU plant employs 400 workers in an industrial park just three miles west of the Rio Grande. Other nearby plants are controlled by the CTM. VU was non-union until the August vote, but workers say the CTM would like to stop the new union from gaining momentum on what it views as its terrain.
The League has campaigns in other export factories in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Puebla, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosí. In Nazareno, Durango, workers affiliated with the League went on a wildcat work stoppage at a Levi’s supplier last week to protest lack of pay increases. The League also won an election to represent 2,000 workers at a 3M Purification consumer goods factory in San Luis Potosí, and continues to organize in the union’s hometown of Puebla to represent workers at the MexMode textile plant.
STRIKE ON THE HORIZON?
Employers have long relied on protection unions like the CTM to suppress wages and kneecap genuine organizing. National labor law reforms and labor provisions of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) have created an opening for workers to form genuine unions and fight to raise standards. But the VU case shows that workers will have to force bargaining on intransigent employers.
The League notified VU on January 5 that due to stalled contract negotiations, workers would strike on February 6. The company is granted one month to respond by bargaining to avert a strike. Mexican labor authorities can also intervene before the strike deadline to try to broker an agreement between management and the union.
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A strike is a potent weapon under Mexican labor law because the work stoppage is complete and total if the strike is declared legal. Unlike in the U.S., no replacement workers can be hired; facilities must shut down during a work stoppage.
Meanwhile, the CTM has also targeted Quiñones, a seasoned organizer with decades of experience in the Mexican labor movement, accusing her of taking money from U.S. unions to disrupt the auto sector and drive companies out of Mexico. She has characterized these accusations as “lies to cast doubts on the authentic objectives [of our union], which are to win justice, respect, and dignity for the workers and their families—that the rights of workers be respected, and that the charro unions, irresponsible companies, and governments subordinated to capital stop imposing on [the workers] and deciding for them.” (Charro is a term used to refer to corrupt Mexican union leaders.)
In December, the League and the CFO submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Labor under the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism of the USMCA asserting multiple violations of Mexican labor law by the company.
The petition marks the second time the Piedras Negras factory has been probed under the USMCA. The first complaint, filed in June, alleged that VU was favoring the CTM in the run-up to last year’s union election; the U.S. and Mexico declared the dispute resolved after the League won the election.
Under the rapid response mechanism, the U.S. and Canada can investigate labor rights complaints and impose trade sanctions or fines on companies that violate Mexican labor law. Penalties for multiple violations can include a ban on imports.
VU workers produce armrests and door upholstery for vehicles made by companies including Tesla, Toyota, GM, and Stellantis. They provide parts to other parts companies represented by the United Auto Workers, including Adient, Magna, and Yanfeng.
U.S. labor activists visited the Michigan headquarters of parts supplier Marelli, another VU customer, on January 11 to highlight VU’s abuses, warning in a press release about “the possible disruption to Marelli’s supply chain” stemming from the complaint.
Meanwhile, ballots are out in the run-off election to decide the presidency of the 400,000-member UAW. “Workers and unions everywhere need to stand together to take on global corporations that are dividing us for profit,” said Shawn Fain, who is challenging incumbent President Ray Curry, in a written statement to Labor Notes. “Raising the standards at VU, which is what the independent union is trying to do, benefits workers everywhere. The Department of Labor and the U.S. Trade Representative must ensure that workers’ rights are respected at VU.”
Sandra Engle, head of the UAW public relations department, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Auto sector unions must work together,” said Quiñones. “Mexican workers don’t deserve less than those in other countries… It is time to force companies to comply with the law. With the support of unions, we can make them listen to the just demands of Mexican workers. It’s now or never.”