The weekly newsletter of the México Solidarity Project


July 27, 2022/ This week's issue/ Meizhu Lui, for the editorial team

Photo: IBT 856 

Hail to the Stewards, Our First Line of Defense!

Rank-and-file worker activists, we all know, act as the yeast that stimulates ferment within a workplace and helps all workers rise. That yeast can’t come from the top down or from the outside in. Once a union takes root, the same story: Rank-and-file workers who step up to be shop stewards hold the key to strong democratic unions.


Shop stewards build the trust that leads to effective collective action. These stewards have the same take-home pay, live in the same neighborhoods, and share the same working conditions as their peers. In their daily interactions with their fellow workers, stewards act as employment advisors, mental health counselors, and political educators — not to mention as lawyers who defend their fellow workers to management. 


At times, stewards have to function as innovative problem solvers. At one local library, a clerk felt that evil spirits had possessed her desk and refused to work as assigned. Her steward brought in an exorcist and saved her job! And stewards, to build unity, quite often have to be the superheroes who tackle internal contradictions. In one hospital, a black housekeeper found herself harassed by a white security guard, a fellow union member. The steward filed a grievance, and the guard kept his job only by stopping his racist behavior.  


In México, not many workers have had experience as stewards, an unsurprising reality given the long history of the nation’s corrupt “yellow” unions, notes Hector de la Cueva of México City’s Center for Labor Research and Advocacy in our interview this week. The Center, commonly known as CILAS, is helping workers overcome that history. In central México, CILAS set up a Casa Obrera, a workers’ center, where workers in the independent SINTTIA auto workers union and workers from other nearby plants can hold meetings, gain an understanding of the system they work within, and learn how to unify, fight, and win. 


Workers in México — and the US — have had it with autocratic union leadership. New labor activists on both sides of the border are thinking like the great US socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. Noted Debs well over a century ago: “I don’t want to rise from the masses, I want to rise with the masses.” Hail to the rank-and-file activist, hail to the union steward!


A bit of México Solidarity Bulletin housekeeping: We're going to be taking our annual summer publishing break the next two weeks. If you miss us, just check out our back issue archives, in both English and Spanish.


We take pride in our bilingual publishing, but sometimes we do get signals crossed. We’ve just placed online an updated corrected version of our Voices interview last week with educator María de la Luz Arriaga Lemus. Our apologies!


Don’t miss an issue. Subscribe to the weekly México Solidarity Bulletin!


Independent Unions in México: Free at Last!

Hector de la Cueva, the long-time general coordinator of the Center for Labor Research and Advocacy in México City, has spent the last four decades tirelessly supporting workers looking to get out from under the corrupt company unions that just make their lives more miserable. Today, with the right to free association now the law in México, the Center is redoubling its efforts to give rank-and-file workers the information and skills they’ll need in what still figure to be distinctly uphill battles.

Back in those long years of repressive labor rights conditions, when did you begin to commit yourself to building independent unionism?


I became an activist in my student days, and, of course, with the 1970s mostly years of global left-wing ferment, I belonged to a socialist group. In the ’80s, I got a job in the Ford plant in Cuatitlán Izcalli. Workers there faced terrible conditions, and I began to talk inside the plant about getting rid of the CTM company union. I became part of an underground workers’ group that put out a bulletin called El Pistón, The Piston. No one knew who we were. But, gradually, what we wrote convinced most of the workers to become dissidents. El Pistón became the internal law at the plant!


Some of those comrades working on El Pistón won local union positions and stood poised to run for national union office — and to win. To crush us, in January 1990, CTM sent 200 gunmen into the plant. The clash left 11 injured, and one worker died. But even after that horror — and the firing of a thousand workers — our dissident group almost succeeded in winning leadership. Almost! We lasted ten years, but, in the end, we could not sustain the effort. The right-wing forces had too much strength.


After all that, Ford workers, other labor activists, and supporters of union democracy — lawyers, economists, militants — joined together to form CILAS, the Centro de Investigación Laboral y Asesoría Sindical, whose purpose would be supporting independent unionism. CILAS functions today as a network of about 50 people.


Given the odds against independent unions taking root, how did some independent groups, like those at México’s VW and Nissan plants, manage to win and hang on? 


In the 1970s, we saw a wave of defections from the “yellow” Labor Congress. And then, in 1994, the Zapatista uprising created a political and an economic crisis as well. With the government in disarray, more unions broke with the Labor Congress. 

And now you see a new window of opportunity?


After the defeat of the PRI, the long-time Mexican ruling party that had the CTM as one of its arms, the Morena government passed a Labor Reform law in 2019 that protected the right of workers to “freedom of association.” 

At about the same time, the US labor movement succeeded in inserting that freedom into the legal framework of the new USMCA trade agreement, and the Biden administration has been willing to enforce labor rights. But a law can never be enough: Change happens only when workers organize from below. 


That’s why the victory earlier this year at GM Silao ranks as México’s most significant labor victory in decades. The triumph of the independent SINTTIA union at GM proved the utility of the USMCA mechanisms and the Morena labor reforms. This historic win affects workers all over México. To keep the window open, we need to keep Morena in power in México — and the Democrats in the US — and keep pushing both parties to the left. 

México’s 2019 labor reform requires that all existing contracts be ratified by workers. Has that helped break the power of the CTM?


All 500,000 existing contracts were supposed to be ratified by May 2023, a crazy timeline! Of those contracts, we see only 80,000 as legitimate.

Workers so far have voted on only 5,000 existing contracts, and most of these contracts, as terrible as they might be, have been legitimized. Why? For one thing, the existing corrupt unions oversee the voting! 


The Morena labor authorities have also acted in a contradictory way. They say they’re promoting greater union democracy, but, in practice, they’re looking for a new understanding with those yellow unions. They haven’t been in dialogue, much less partnership, with independent unions. 


And even where existing yellow contracts don’t get legitimated, the result may not be a better union and a better contract. The government remains full of old PRI leaders masquerading as Morena. Some of the old CTM leaders claiming to be Morena’s “labor arm” even have an office in Washington, and they’re learning in the US about the “right to work” — the freedom to have no union at all! That “freedom” could become another possibility.


AMLO’s role? He has increased financial benefits for the poor and has raised the minimum wage, but he has not helped foster independent unionism. He only sees “me and the people” and doesn’t recognize the in-between layer of movements and civil society organizations as anything he needs to pay attention to. 


What’s CILAS doing to ramp up independent organizing and take advantage of the current window of opportunity?


México’s long history with unions that aren’t operating as true workers’ organizations has left us with little experience in rank-and-file unionism to draw from. Workers can easily fall into an old habit of trusting non-workers to lead them, feeling that “professionals” have the needed expertise. These new leaders could foster a paternalistic relationship with workers and fall into the old corrupt practices of the CTM.


In Silao, CILAS has set up a Casa Obrera, a workers’ center, a place where workers can get a political education to understand how the capitalist system works and the role of unions within that system, as well as basic skills training on how to handle grievances, negotiate contracts, and put democratic processes in place. We’ve started several Casas Obreras, and we’re planning to open more of them all around México.


Does international support make a difference? What should we be doing in the US?


In the last decade, we’ve had more international attention on México and support from institutions like the ILO, the International Labor Organization. That support has been significant. Official support from government and labor, of course, has the biggest impact. 


US ambassador to México Ken Salazar, for example, invited me, SINTTIA general secretary Alejandra Morales, and GM managers to a meeting at his home. He wagged his finger at GM and told them they’d better negotiate a fair contract! Official union support, including funding from the UAW and the Canadian auto workers’ union Unifor, have also been also major factors in SINTTIA’s victory in Silao. 


But please don’t think that the statements of support and the material support provided by the México Solidarity Project and Labor Notes haven’t also been important! We appreciate your supplying a printer and paper to the Casa Obrera office in Silao, your organizing resolutions of support from local unions and community groups, and we hope that worker delegations in both directions will be possible in the coming years. 


In fact, growing the kind of worker-to-worker support you’ve brought to bear will be the most significant kind of solidarity. US government and official union support often have strings attached. in all of our struggles for worker power, the only thing in the end that will bring us to victory will always be: “Workers of the world, unite!” 


In Reynosa, a Major Advance for Grassroots Labor Activists

Panasonic workers in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico have just won a significant victory for independent trade unionism, as Reuters reporters Doina Chiacu in Washington and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City detail in this July 14 dispatch.

Washington, D.C. — The United States and Mexico announced a resolution to a dispute at a Panasonic auto parts plant in Mexico on Thursday, July 14, with workers receiving an above-inflation pay rise after the firm rejected an agreement with a union that lacked lawful bargaining authority.

The agreement involved the Panasonic Automotive Systems facility in the northern border city of Reynosa, Mexico, “where workers were previously denied their freedom of association and collective bargaining rights,” the US trade representative said in a statement.


Workers are set to get a 9.5 percent salary increase under a contract negotiated by a recently elected independent union, coming as Mexican annual inflation is running at a 21-year high of nearly 8.0 percent.


The agreement marks the second time that a case scrutinized under the two-year-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), has helped workers achieve salary increases after bringing in an independent union of their choice.


In addition to scrapping a bargaining agreement with a union that lacked authority, the Panasonic plant agreed to remove the union, reimburse workers for union dues deducted from paychecks, and recognize an independent union, SNITIS, USTR said. Panasonic also hired back 19 workers who had been dismissed after what they said was a reprisal for backing SNITIS.


Mexico's Labor Ministry said all of the issues raised in the investigation had been resolved, and that it would monitor the plant to ensure the re-hired workers could freely support the union of their choice.


Recent news reports and commentaries, from progressive and mainstream media,
on life and struggles on both sides of the US-México border


Medea Benjamin, AMLO Is Trying to Free Mexico and Latin America from the US’s Imperial Grip, Jacobin. Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s key role in challenging US dominance in Latin America has helped him become wildly popular.


Lizette Alvarez, Fake news speaks many languages, but it’s particularly fond of Spanish, Washington Post. An epidemic of Spanish-language right-wing disinformation that spiked around the 2020 election is revving up again ahead of the fall midterms.


PRI, PAN y PRD se hunden rumbo al 2024, revela encuesta, Polemón. La oposición conformada por el PAN-PRI-PRD volvió a irse en picada, rumbo a los comicios de 2024. De esta forma, ha disminuido de 41 a 36 por ciento entre abril y julio, mientras que el apoyo a Morena y sus alianzas ha aumentado de 46 a 51 por ciento.


Kendal Blust, AMLO: Major solar plant underway in Sonora will be replicated in other border states, Fronteras. México’s president says his country could help provide energy to the US through major investments in new solar farms.


Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, La CIT, una nueva era del sindicalismo mexicano, La Jornada. El nuevo modelo de sindicalismo que estamos impulsando y liderando desde la CIT es transparente y tenaz; está vinculado con el Nuevo Modelo Laboral, donde se busca darle voz a quienes fueron silenciados y reprimidos.


Will Daniel, México’s president taunts Biden over energy policy trade fight: ‘Ooooh, I’m so scared,’ Fortune. The dispute started last Wednesday when US officials argued that AMLO’s energy policies favor México’s state-run electrical utility and oil companies and undermine American business.


Federico Arreola, Claudia y Adán, lo que rompen las élites de Morena y el poema de Neruda, sdpnoticiasLa unidad en Morena nadie la rompe, pero se está rompiendo. La rompen las élites de ese partido.


Adam Liptak, Supreme Court Refuses for Now to Restore Biden Plan on Immigration Enforcement, New York Times. A federal judge in Texas has blocked Biden guidelines designed to roll back the broad immigration arrest policies of the Trump administration.


Amparo a Bayer-Monsanto amenaza soberanía alimentaria: Campaña Sin Maíz No Hay País, La Coperacha. Más de 300 organizaciones campesinas, ambientalistas y de derechos humanos realizaron un “enérgico extrañamiento” a la resolución del juez Francisco Javier Rebolledo en favor de la trasnacional.


The Mexico Solidarity Project brings together activists from various socialist and left organizations and individuals committed to worker and global justice who see the 2018 election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of México as a watershed moment. AMLO and his progressive Morena party aim to end generations of corruption, impoverishment, and subservience to US interests. Our Project supports not just Morena, but all Mexicans struggling for basic rights, and opposes US efforts to undermine organizing and México’s national sovereignty. 


Editorial committee: Meizhu Lui, Bruce Hobson, Bill Gallegos, Sam Pizzigati, Courtney Childs, Victoria Hamlin, Agatha Hinman, Steven Hollis. To give feedback or get involved yourself, please email us!


Web page and application support for the México Solidarity Project from NOVA Web Development, a democratically run, worker-owned and operated cooperative focused on developing free software tools for progressive organizations.