By Charlie Saperstein and Dan DiMaggio / Labor Notes
In August 2022, auto parts workers at VU Manufacturing won a landmark election to gain recognition for a new independent union, the Mexican Workers’ League (La Liga). A year later, after refusing to negotiate a new contract, the company has shut down, leaving 400 workers jobless—and 71 workers without their legally-mandated severance pay.
VU is located in the border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, where politicians brag about maintaining “labor peace” in the foreign-owned factories known as maquiladoras. This “peace” is largely mediated by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a powerful company-friendly union notorious for signing contracts behind workers’ backs and preventing them from organizing genuine, democratic unions.
At VU, a Michigan-based interior auto parts manufacturer, workers—supported by the Border Workers’ Committee (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s)—took on the company, the CTM, and the local political establishment last year to form the city’s first independent union. But in the months after that victory, the company refused to negotiate a new contract, and organizers at VU faced heavy retaliation, including the firing of two leading activists in the plant.
Earlier this year, VU began to slow down production in Piedras Negras, laying off hundreds of workers. By July, VU shut its doors completely, leaving the final 71 workers without any severance pay—even as the company’s supervisors and management collected their full severance on the way out.
Now, workers say the local business elite, in conjunction with the CTM, has instituted a de facto citywide blacklist against all former VU workers, regardless of their union affiliation.
‘A MESSAGE AGAINST ALL INDEPENDENT UNIONS’
All of this comes amidst a burgeoning independent union movement in Mexico, with workers across the manufacturing sector taking advantage of the country’s 2019 labor law reform and the strengthened “labor chapter” of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade agreement to form independent, democratic unions. Several new independent unions now exist across Mexico, at companies including General Motors, Goodyear, Panasonic, Saint Gobain, and 3M.
However, workers organizing independent unions continue to face major obstacles from employers and company-friendly unions, including stolen ballots, threats of violence, and attempts to buy votes. Genuine worker-oriented unions still remain few and far between.
VU is the only company to have two complaints filed against it under the USMCA’s rapid response mechanism, which allows the U.S. to bring complaints against employers in Mexico who violate workers’ right to organize. Violators can have their tariff benefits suspended or even have their goods denied entry to the U.S.
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Given the company’s ultimate refusal to negotiate with its employees, the VU case poses a real test for the provisions of the USMCA aimed at safeguarding Mexican workers’ rights — and for Mexico’s independent union movement more broadly.
Miguel, a worker-activist from VU, sees the obstacles faced by him and his co-workers as a warning against future organizing campaigns in Mexico. “This will be a message against all independent unions in the future,” he said. “If you involve yourself in something like this again, you know what will happen.”
‘WE ARE UNEMPLOYABLE’
Miguel, who did not want to share his full name for fear of further reprisals, has been unable to find work since being laid off from VU in June. “When you go to an interview, they won’t tell you why they won’t hire you, but they won’t hire you,” he said. “Legally, they can’t say it’s because you’re from VU. But we all know it’s because we’re from VU.”
In the course of reporting this article, we spoke with more than two dozen former employees from VU, none of whom had succeeded in finding work at other maquilas in Piedras Negras.
“I’ve been looking for work for two months, and no one has talked to me,” said Juan Mares, a worker who was the deputy treasurer for La Liga’s chapter at VU. For applicants from VU, the companies will “push you to the side and talk to other applicants, even though they don’t have experience.”
Elsa, another worker-activist from VU, tried going to a local job fair, where companies were advertising open positions at factories in town. “It looked like a funeral,” Elsa said. “The majority of the people at the job fair were from VU. But they didn’t hire any of us.”
In Mexico, companies are legally required to pay laid-off employees a severance, equivalent to at least three months’ salary plus extra pay for seniority and benefits. While the first batch of workers laid off from VU received some severance pay, the final 71 workers at the plant have yet to receive anything, two months after losing their jobs. Many of these workers also have not received money that they voluntarily put into a savings account with the company over the course of their time at VU.
Victor Sevilla Peralta is one of these workers. He estimates that he’s due about 75,000 pesos ($4,400) for his three years of service to the company. To this day, he’s received nothing. “There’s a lot of us who still don’t have work, and we all have debts,” said Peralta. “So we’re all waiting for our severance pay, to be able to catch up with our debts.”
Before bonuses, most workers at VU earned the weekly minimum wage of 1,560 pesos ($91). While local labor authorities have placed an embargo on VU’s remaining machinery to help pay these workers’ severance, workers like Sevilla Peralta worry that selling that machinery won’t be enough to cover the pay for all 71 workers. As of this writing, the workers still have not received an update about when they might receive their severance.
ORGANIZING ACROSS BORDERS
VU workers produced armrests and door upholstery for vehicles made in the US by Tesla, Toyota, GM, and Stellantis. Parts manufactured in Piedras Negras were sent to other parts companies represented by the UAW, including Adient, Magna, and Yanfeng.
Mexico is by far the leading foreign supplier of U.S. auto parts, as well as home to a growing number of assembly plants producing primarily for the U.S. market. So the conditions of Mexican auto workers are tightly connected to those of their American and Canadian counterparts.
For decades, companies have taken advantage of low wages and the lack of genuine unions in Mexico (as well as the southern U.S.) to lower costs and boost profits. Automakers use the threat of moving to Mexico as a cudgel against U.S. and Canadian unions—as can be seen in Stellantis’s move to shutter its Belvidere, Illinois, assembly plant in February, and move work to Toluca, Mexico. The company is now using Belvidere as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the UAW.
But there have also been stirrings of solidarity between auto workers on both sides of the US-Mexico border. At a GM plant in Silao, Guanajuato, in 2019, five workers were fired for refusing to work overtime in solidarity with striking GM workers in the U.S. The 6,000 workers at that plant went on to form an independent union, the National Union of Auto Workers (SINTTIA), in 2022.
Goodyear Mexico workers, who voted to join La Liga this summer, rallied on September 19 in front of GM’s headquarters in Mexico City in support of the ongoing UAW strike. “If transnational corporations make multimillion dollar profits, workers deserve strong union contracts … and we think that these corporations should provide a wage increase in every country they operate.”
“I saw that the UAW, auto workers in the U.S., are in la lucha (the struggle) right now,” said Lupita, one of the laid-off worker-activists from VU. “Their struggle is for the whole world: the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and other countries.”
U.S. unions and labor activists, in turn, have supported Mexican workers in their efforts to shed employer protection contracts and form new, independent unions, including at VU.
On Tuesday, September 26 at 10 a.m., the México Solidarity Project is organizing a protest at VU’s headquarters at 2151 Livernois Road in Troy, Michigan, calling for the company to pay the workers’ severance and put an end to the blacklist in Piedras Negras—as well as for U.S. labor authorities to sanction the company to prevent it from continuing to export from a new location in Mexico. They will be joined by solidarity activists from the UAW, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Casa Obrera del Bajío, a Mexican workers’ center.
In a flyer shared with UAW members in Michigan, organizers for the action emphasized the need for international worker solidarity to improve conditions for all workers, regardless of nationality.
“Auto companies work across borders. SO CAN WE!”
Charlie Saperstein is a labor activist currently based in Piedras Negras. He helped form a union last year at Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served as a shop steward and bargaining committee representative with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 328.