By: Daniel Rangel, Rethink Trade Research Director
After an eventful 36-hour trip, which included a nail-biting 18-hour union vote after a missed flight and a high-speed drive along one of Mexico’s most dangerous roads, I started to write this entry from Matamoros, Tamaulipas. The industrial city on the Mexican-U.S. border has hosted a great deal of the most intense labor conflict and organizing activity in Mexico’s recent history.
I was there for a February 28 union vote with continental consequences. The election would decide what union had the right to represent more than 1,600 workers at three auto parts plants operated by Tridonex, a subsidiary of Philly-based Cardone Industries.
Tridonex workers, who refurbish brakes that are exported for sale in the United States, have been fighting for better wages, treatment and a real union for years. In retaliation to their most recent organizing drive more than 600 workers were fired. And those who stayed at the company were intimidated and denied contract benefits. Plus, the workers’ then-legal advisor, Susana Prieto Terrazas, was harassed by local government officials and detained under bogus criminal charges aimed at obstructing her labor rights advocacy.
But even so, why would a union election in a small border city have continental consequences? Unfortunately, these kinds of labor abuses are not uncommon in Mexico.
It is because Tridonex and its labor rights’ violations were the target of the first stakeholder-initiated labor enforcement case under the agreement that replaced the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The new deal, rebranded United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA or T-MEC if you use the name in Spanish), has innovative labor enforcement provisions conceived to deal with precisely this kind of situation. The pact includes a new powerful company-specific device, the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), which can be used to challenge specific firms that deny workers’ rights to organize. Under this system if workers trying to organize unions or negotiate better wages and working conditions are fired, threatened or otherwise denied specific rights under Mexico’s 2019-reformed labor law, the RRM can be used to try to speedily redress the situation. The companies involved can face sanctions if the abuse continues.
The very first RRM case was brought by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who challenged outrageous “irregularities” that occurred during an April 2021 union contract ratification vote at a General Motors (GM) plant in Silao, Mexico. The RRM action forced a revote and ultimately an election to choose a new union. In February 2022, workers elected an independent union in a celebrated victory.
The Tridonex vote was viewed as a test of the RRM system by fans, skeptics and opponents alike: It either would reaffirm the auspicious outcome of the GM Silao case or Silao was an anomaly in the long history of disappointment regarding the use of trade pacts to defend labor rights.
Encouraged by the GM victory and the international oversight that the RRM case created, finally, after years of being unable to choose what union would represent them, the Tridonex workers could decide. They had two options. They could vote for the incumbent Sindicato Industrial de Trabajadores en Plantas Maquiladoras y Ensambladoras de Matamoros y su Municipio (SITPME), a sham “protection” union that for decades had represented the interests of management instead of workers. Like many unions affiliated with CTM, a labor federation linked to a conservative political party, SITPME had not negotiated decent wages and working conditions or even held elections, member meetings or adhered to any principles of union democracy.
Or, they could vote for the Sindicato Nacional Independiente de Trabajadores de Industrias y Servicios “Movimiento 20/32” (SNITIS), a scrappy independent union that was formed in 2019. SNITIS emerged after wildcat strikes arose throughout Matamoros with tens of thousands of workers seizing industrial parks and taking to the streets to demand their employers honor a labor clause won decades before. Tridonex was the epicenter of the 2019 demonstrations insisting that Matamoros wages be raised in line with the minimum wage established by the federal government. Workers demanded and largely gained a 20% raise and a 32,000 pesos one-time bonus, hence, the name “Movimiento 20/32” became part of SNITIS’ christening.
Emboldened by forcing their bosses to give in to their demands, Matamoros workers founded SNITIS later that year, and the new independent union filed several legal claims to challenge SITPME’s control over the collective contract covering Tridonex’ plants.
Initially, SNITIS pursued its case before authorities in the state where Matamoros is located, Tamaulipas. Local authorities refused to act on SNITIS’ legal demands for over a year, not even formally admitting the independent union’s lawsuit. Tamaulipas state authorities have a long history of colluding with corporations in the sprawling maquiladora industrial parks and with the sham “protection” unions there that commonly sign “union” contracts that protect the employers’ interests without even consulting workers or trying to get their approval.
SNITIS only was able to force an election at Tridonex after prying control over the fate of the collective bargaining agreement out of the hands of the local authorities and getting the federal government to handle the case. Then, after much struggle, the Federal Board of Conciliation and Arbitration (Federal CAB) set a date for the vote that would give the Tridonex’ workers a fighting chance to decide what union should represent them.
February 28 started with swaths of SITPME thugs surrounding Tridonex plants while workers were going in to vote and get on with their jobs. Despite the fact that federal authorities had ordered both federal and state forces to guarantee the safety of the proceedings, the day passed by without any presence from the federal police. Early in the morning a couple of state police patrols parked outside of one of the plants. But, they left before sunrise and never came back.
All of this, lack of police surveillance and lurking officials from the protection union as well as the various thuggish characters on the premises created a tense ambiance that lasted until the results of the vote were announced.
SNITIS activists, while confident about the arduous organizing work that they had carried out for months, were concerned about reports of workers being offered illegal bribes to vote in favor of the incumbent union. This was the deal: 500 pesos if you voted for SITPME and 1500 pesos more if you got 10 coworkers to vote for the incumbent union as well.
Adding to the concerns was the fact that the Federal CAB had refused to accept independent observers overseeing the election. Hence, only three SNITIS lawyers, three CTM lawyers and a handful of officials from both unions were allowed near the ballot boxes. Inexplicably, federal authorities admitted more CTM than SNITIS officials in the plants where the vote took place. And because the federal authority had ordered the election less than two weeks after its decision, there was no time for International Labor Organization observers to intervene.
However, over the course of the day, news trickling out from the plants hinted that workers had not fallen for SITPME’s latest ruse or the intimidation and were voting overwhelmingly for SNITIS. One Tridonex worker even sent an exhilarating voicenote to SNITIS activists saying that she received SITPME’s bribe money but still casted her vote in favor of the independent union. (I wonder if SITPME is planning on suing her for breach of contract.)
By 6pm the polls had closed and vote-counting started. SNITIS activists, despite arriving pre-dawn, didn’t budge. They wanted to know the outcome as soon as possible. Some Tridonex workers that had finished their shifts came back to the factory to hear the news as well.
The hours went by. Anxiety built. While the SNITIS activists and Tridonex workers had a hunch they had won, SITPME thugs continued to circle the plants. SNITIS’ people feared the thugs would provoke a confrontation, as had happened in the past.
Then news started leaking out of the factory: It seemed that SNITIS triumph was undeniable. SNITIS activists couldn’t contain anymore their joy and started celebrating. The SITPME thugs began to disband, melting into the darkness. At 10:25 pm, 18 hours after voting started, Susana Prieto posted a video on her Facebook page announcing the results:
SNITIS won 1,126 of 1,313 casted votes! That is 86% of the vote in an election where 80% of the workers eligible to vote went to the ballot. A resounding victory without a doubt.
Unbelievably but at the same time unsurprisingly, the next day, SITPME’s chief, Jesus Mendoza Reyes, announced that he would challenge the outcome of the vote. But there is no precedent in Mexico of a union election featuring such an overwhelming margin of victory being annulled.
So what’s next? Once the SITPME legal threats blow over and the vote is officially certified by the Federal CAB, SNITIS will gain control over the contract. Then, it will have to arrange elections for workers to choose their union delegates and, when the time comes, renegotiate the terms of the agreement with the company to better serve the interests of the workforce.
SNITIS will also start receiving Tridonex workers’ union dues. This will give to the movement a direly needed fund boost that will contribute to SNITIS fight to gain better wages and working conditions for people in Matamoros and the rest of Tamaulipas.
SNITIS has already announced that it will file new legal challenges to gain control of six additional collective bargaining agreements in facilities where workers support SNITIS in Matamoros and Reynosa. For decades, Matamoros’ industrial workers haven’t had the chance to elect their union leaders, approve or even read their collective contracts or count on a union to defend their interests. Now they are determined to change this.
NAFTA’s renegotiation in 2019 and the resulting Rapid Response Mechanism are an essential part of the backdrop to this story. The outcomes to date of the first two RRM cases are hopeful. I will keep you looped in about how the new independent unions are faring with their efforts to secure better wages and conditions for the Tridonex and GM workers. The implications are enormous for the future of workers throughout Mexico and the Americas.
That the USMCA RRM helped to empower independent unions to fight for new, better contracts for these two groups of Mexican workers is undeniable. How is it that a trade deal is being used as a tool to promote workers’ welfare in Mexico that could create a domino effect that benefits U.S. workers? I will explore this question in a future entry. Stay tuned!