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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Independent Unions in México: Free at Last!

from the July 27, 2022 Bulletin

labor unions economy & economic reform education

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!”