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Why The UAW Is Standing Up With Mexican Auto Workers

Above photo: The United Auto Workers is backing the growing independent union movement in Mexico, recognizing its importance for workers on both sides of the border. Jim West/jimwestphoto.com.

Our Class Has No Borders.

The United Auto Workers announced February 23 that it will provide material support to Mexican auto workers organizing in the independent union movement. As a member of the UAW Executive Board, I’m proud that our union understands how the futures of auto workers in the United States and Mexico are tied together.

Our Mexico solidarity project is about empowering our membership to win strong contracts and protecting our jobs in the United States—and it’s also about ensuring justice for workers across the border.

The auto industry is not nationally bound, and neither should the labor movement be. For every record contract there will come the threat of moving production to Mexico, where a partnership between the companies and the corrupt company unions keep wages low—a whipsaw that oppresses workers on both sides of the border.

The irony of free trade is that even with expanded production, Mexico still imports most of the vehicles sold to its own people. Meanwhile 75 percent of Mexican-made vehicles are shipped to the U.S., and they do not cost any less because they’re produced with cheaper labor.

Low-Wage Zones

The North American Free Trade Agreement completely changed the makeup of the continent’s auto industry, integrating cross-border supply chains in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. That integration has facilitated growth and profitability for the bosses in the three countries, while hurting auto workers regardless of nationality.

NAFTA cost the working class in the U.S. millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs. Before it was signed in 1994, the U.S. auto industry was by far the biggest on the continent. Afterward, the Mexican auto workforce of 112,000 workers grew sevenfold, reaching nearly 900,000 by 2019, an increase that was especially concentrated in the parts sector. By 2016, the U.S. employed only about 51 percent of North American auto workers, and Mexico employed 42 percent.

Corporate profits from free trade do not trickle down. The real wages of auto workers in all three countries have stagnated—one of the reasons driving the militancy of the stand-up strike at the Big 3 and the new organizing at non-union plants.

When the U.S. media decries the decline of manufacturing here, they assume that the growth of Mexican industry meant that Mexican workers reaped some of the benefits. No such thing happened. In fact, Mexican auto workers’ wages declined after the passage of NAFTA—from an average $6.65 an hour for final assembly jobs in 1994 to $3.14 in 2016.

Mexico didn’t “take our jobs.” The Big 3 automakers set up in Mexico to exploit cheap labor. Now Mexican auto workers make one-tenth of U.S. workers wages.

That allowed the bosses to discipline U.S. auto workers, driving a concessionary bargain with UAW leaders who had no stomach for a fight. The company would threaten to offshore jobs to Mexico, and the union would buckle, assuming it had no leverage to resist.

Company Unions

The auto companies also leaned on the support of corrupt charro unions, what Mexican unionists call company unions. They’re a legacy of Mexico’s former one-party rule, where official unions were incorporated into the state. Their contracts are known as “protection contracts” because they protect companies and anti-democratic union officials from rank-and-file challenges.

This arrangement allowed state-dependent unions to maintain political control over workers while also suppressing wages and militant worker organizing. The unions would welcome the arrival of more industry and investment in Mexico, and those at the top would get their share, disregarding the interests of their membership. This is company unionism in its most perverse form.

In Mexico, the Big 3 could count on not just lower wages, but also the power to enforce degrading working conditions. We can tell the same story about the U.S. South, where German, Korean, and Japanese auto companies have decided to use homegrown right-to-work laws and low union density to suppress wages and keep the UAW out—until now.

As the UAW continues to organize nonunion plants in the U.S. and looks to bargain even better contracts at the Big 3, we will continue to face the threat of offshoring work. And as long as the charro unions have control, Mexican auto workers will have limited power to bargain their own strong agreements.

The question is how auto workers on both sides of the border can regain our leverage in the industry. On the one hand, we’re organizing the nonunion plants in the U.S. South. But on the other hand, we have to get over our tendency to fret over VIN numbers (which show where a particular vehicle was assembled) and instead double down on our commitment to international solidarity. Simply “buying American” is not enough.

Rather than thinking of Mexican workers as our adversaries, we need to see each other as partners in the struggle for worker power. No worker benefits from the international race to the bottom that the companies like to call “global competition.” Just like we did during the Stand-Up Strike, it’s time to whipsaw the companies against each other—but this time across North America.

Whipsaw The Companies

The UAW will join the fight alongside Mexico’s growing militant independent labor movement. For instance, we’re supporting the National Union of Auto Workers (SINTTIA), which is taking on General Motors in the central Mexican city of Silao and organizing parts suppliers at Fränkische and Draxton from the bottom up, not through backroom deals.

The most recent trade pact, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, created an enforcement tool with some teeth, known as the Rapid Response Mechanism, that has contributed to real victories for workers. The UAW has petitioned the U.S. government to request that Mexico investigate violations of the right to unionize at an auto parts plant owned by Stellantis.

Mexican auto workers are also taking advantage of the 2019 labor law reform in their country to continue organizing through new unions, including the Mexican Workers’ League (La Liga) and the National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers (SNITIS), which was formed in a huge strike where workers won a 20 percent raise and a 32,000 peso bonus.

Past UAW administrations expressed verbal support for Mexico’s independent labor movement, but their follow-through was limited. Our recent decision under President Shawn Fain’s leadership is not just talk.

We will engage with the growing movement of Mexican independent unions committed to new organizing and democracy. We will not dictate to them; we will learn from each other in our common fight for survival.

The UAW will assign organizers to work alongside Mexican independent unions and coordinate our campaigns together. We will offer technical and bargaining support and research, where resource constraints inhibit the Mexican unions from developing their own campaign infrastructure.

This is not a question of one union being better or smarter than another. It’s about committing to share our resources with those who need it most, which in turn will improve our own bargaining position. When our Mexican union family goes on strike, we’ll provide assistance to help them hold out against the companies’ pressure to settle for less than they deserve.

A United Working Class

Leaders and staff of the UAW can make these commitments, but we also need to facilitate connections among rank-and-file members. The working classes of the U.S. and Mexico have been pitted against each other for too long.

Right now the ruling class is using people’s anxieties over border security to stoke division. When we turn a blind eye to it, we enable the Donald Trumps of the world to continue deceiving workers. Capital can move freely across borders, but workers are criminalized.

The best resistance to Donald Trump is to unite our working-class struggles.

For me, this international commitment is personal. My family left Guatemala during the 1980s and moved through Mexico to cross the border. My family was able to achieve a level of stability —largely through union jobs—in this country that so many Latino workers are not able to enjoy because they work under terrible conditions with little to no representation or recourse.

In the last few decades, I’ve seen how free trade agreements decimated families across North and Central America. So having the opportunity to make this motion and commit my union to solidarity across the supply chain has been one of my proudest moments on the union’s executive board so far.

The UAW, and the labor movement as a whole, face an existential question: are we going to consent to our decline, or do what it takes to end the international race to the bottom?

For our part, our answer is now definitive: The only way we’re going to be able to organize for power on both sides of the border is by embracing the Mexican working class as our ally, not our enemy. The UAW will stand up for all auto workers. And we’re proud to deepen our partnership with our union family in Mexico.

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