Israel Cervantes was a worker at a General Motors plant in central Mexico when he was suddenly called in for a drug test. Within five minutes of providing a urine sample, he was told he had tested positive for marijuana and fired on the spot after 13 years at the company.
He was never provided proof of the results. The real reason for his dismissal, said the 43-year-old father of three, was because he was organizing workers to reject a union which had never represented their interests.
Two years later, Cervantes and his fellow organizers won a resounding victory, when the plant’s workers voted to throw out their contract with the company in what labor advocates hope could prove to be a watershed moment for workers’ rights in Mexico.
The result of the vote last week—which seemed an impossible dream only a couple years ago—allows the workers to break free from a powerful labor federation that they say worked for the employer’s benefit, not their own, and form their own independent union to negotiate a new contract. The vote at the GM assembly plant in the city of Silao was closely watched by labor activists in the United States as well as organizers across Mexico who might gain new confidence to follow the same path.
“We’ve shown them that you can beat two giants,” Cervantes said, referring to the labor federation and the automaker. “You only need the unity of the workers.”
“[Fellow workers] are hoping that we can achieve this historic change so that they can do the same at their own companies,” he added.
The fight for a free vote became an international cause, reaching senior officials of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. The latest version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, now known as USMCA, has a clause that allows the United States to request a review of violations of labor rights in Mexico.
Unions in Mexico have long been dominated by a handful of large labor federations allied to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which experts say do not always represent the interests of the workers. Those unions remained powerful even after voters rejected the PRI in 2000.
“The dominant form of labor organization doesn't have a lot of space for worker input, worker interest, worker representation,” said Kimberly Nolan, a labor expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City. “It's a weird system where labor organization is really tamped down and there's a lot of collusion between employers and major union leaders.”
Pushed by labor rights’ advocates at home and by the Obama administration, Mexico first started to make changes to the old system with a constitutional reform in 2017. But the government at the time dragged its feet on implementing those changes.
That changed in 2019, after Democrats in the U.S. Congress insisted on adding stronger labor rights conditions to the USMCA which the Trump administration was negotiating with Mexico. Then President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in Mexico, promising to improve conditions for Mexican workers, and he pushed a new labor law through congress.
Around that time, Cervantes and about a dozen workers at the GM plant started organizing and formed an advocacy group called Generating Movement. “The principal idea was to form an independent union that really fought for better conditions for the workers at the plant,” Cervantes said.
Under GM’s contract with a union that is part of Mexico’s Confederation of Mexican Workers, known as the CTM, wages and benefits were kept low, Cervantes said. The average base salary at the plant is now about $685 a month, he said, and workers were unhappy with the plant’s COVID response. GM’s Mexico office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It wasn’t long before the company caught wind of the group’s plans. In August 2019, Cervantes was summoned for the drug test and fired.
Other organizers were fired in the following months, but the workers’ determination wasn’t broken. “They fire us for raising our voices, but we don’t give up, we just continue to fight,” said Cervantes.
Under Mexico’s new labor law, companies in Mexico must allow workers to vote to ratify or reject their collective bargaining agreements. The voting began in May 2020 and must be completed by 2024. Of some 85,000 agreements in the country, around 1,500 companies have held votes to date, according to Nolan. Workers at just a handful of small companies have thrown out their contracts. The vote at the GM plant, with nearly 6,000 employees, was one of the biggest yet.
The vote first took place in April, but it was riddled with irregularities. In the lead up, union and company representatives attempted to sow fear, telling the workers that if they voted to reject the agreement then they would lose their benefits or jobs. Then, after the first day of voting, union leaders, apparently realizing that they were losing, tampered with the ballots, impeding the vote’s continuation, according to a report by Mexico’s labor secretary reviewed by VICE World News.
As a result, Mexico’s labor secretary annulled the vote and scheduled a new round for August, this time with a large contingent of observers from the ministry, Mexico’s electoral institute and observers from the International Labor Organization, and ordered the union and the company to take measures to promote a fair process.
The Mexican government was backed by the United States Trade Representative under a binational agreement which required GM to “issue a statement of neutrality.”
Organizers with Generating Movement worked hard to educate their fellow workers, and in the end, the agreement was soundly rejected by a vote of 3,214 to 2,623. Now they must win the approval of 30 percent of employees for a new union which will negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the company.
“An historic door has been opened that allows the workers to join a union that was formed by the workers and defends their rights,” said Cervantes, who hopes to have his job reinstated.