Hard-Won Workers’ Rights in New NAFTA

Public Citizen News / March-April 2022

By Sally King

This article appeared in the March/April 2022 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

In the first week of February, a historic union election happened inside one of Mexico’s largest General Motors (GM) plants. Workers in the city of Silao in central Mexico voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the National Independent Union for Workers in the Automotive Industry (SINTTIA). The union, which gained strength as an alternative to the corrupt, boss-friendly “protection unions” that have long plagued workplaces across Mexico, will now represent more than 6,000 employees at the plant.

This vote was not only a historic moment for the Mexican labor movement; it was a first test of the labor reforms written into the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The USMCA and New Labor Rules

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch fought against the original NAFTA and has called for reform of that agreement since 1994. Our goal with the USMCA was to bring about real and enforceable changes, including mechanisms in the agreement itself and ensuring that Mexico committed to its labor laws within a four-year period.

Many of the USMCA’s strongest rules were made possible through the pressure Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and groups like Public Citizen forced on former President Donald Trump to renegotiate his proposed revision of NAFTA. The result was improved labor provisions and a novel Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM). The RRM is a targeted, facility-specific enforcement mechanism unique to the USMCA devised to protect workers’ right to organize. For decades, Mexico’s laws and institutions have at best been permissive of — and in many instances even fostered — the collusion between corporations, employer-controlled unions and government officials to the detriment of the rights and interests of Mexican workers. The result is that 25 years after NAFTA, Mexican real manufacturing wages are lower than manufacturing wages in China. This corporate race-to-the-bottom system worked to keep wages down and helped big companies export over a million U.S. jobs to low-wage, exploited labor under the original NAFTA.

Instead of standing with workers, Mexico’s traditional protection unions, many tied to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have historically been closely allied with employers and politicians, keeping wages low and preventing workers from organizing to improve conditions within factories. These secretive “unions” often finalized contracts without workers’ knowledge and with even fewer benefits than was guaranteed under the law, undermining Mexican workers’ rights and interests.

The system has been stacked against workers for decades. Mexican workers have had little say in choosing the unions that represent them. Workers have been blocked from engaging with or even seeing their collective bargaining agreement. Workers who step out of line or attempt to organize have faced repression and violence from the companies they worked for and even from local authorities.

But the USMCA’s labor rules and the domestic reforms made by Mexico during the deal’s negotiation require a commitment to eradicate protection contracts and address deep corruption in the labor system. This includes improved enforcement rules to ensure fair union elections and requirements that workers be able to see union contracts in advance of voting on them.

What’s Happening Now

In April 2021, workers at the General Motors plant held a vote on whether to throw out their contract, but destroyed ballots were found in the offices of the existing protection union. Thanks to the new labor rules under the USMCA, workers were able to utilize the RRM. That then prompted the Biden administration to formally ask Mexico to review the case. The workers elected to throw out their old contract in August, leading to last month’s historic vote for an independent union that will negotiate a new contract.

This win to provide opportunities for workers with representation from an independent union at GM marks a possible new beginning for a shift to stronger labor standards with real enforcement in Mexican factories.

Everyone will be watching this and other RRM cases. We still have a way to go to realize improvements on working conditions, wages, and overall labor rights across North America under the USMCA.