© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The new GM logo is seen on the facade of the General Motors headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., March 16, 2021. Picture taken March 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo
By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -General Motors Co workers in Mexico were on track to scrap the contract negotiated by one of the country’s biggest unions in a vote last month that led to a U.S. complaint under a new North American free trade deal, a Mexican government report showed.
The Biden administration on Wednesday called for a probe into allegations that worker rights were denied at GM’s Silao pickup truck plant during the vote to ratify workers’ collective contract with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday said he accepted the U.S. recommendation to make sure there would be no fraud in union votes.
“They are right,” Lopez Obrador told his daily news conference, adding that many “irregularities” had been detected in the union-led vote.
The CTM, which is aligned with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for decades, is one of several traditional unions accused by workers and activists of putting business interests over workers’ rights.
A ministry report into the vote, reviewed by Reuters, shows that 1,784 workers cast ballots against keeping the CTM contract, while 1,628 workers voted to maintain it.
Allegations of interference – including the ministry’s findings that some blank ballots in union possession were cut in half – have raised suspicions among some activists and experts that the CTM may have been headed for a deeper defeat.
A follow-up vote, which the Labor Ministry ordered to take place within 30 days, could result in a wider margin against keeping the current contract, especially if more workers who were apathetic or scared of voting turned out the second time, said Alfonso Bouzas, a labor scholar at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
“This whole new opportunity is going to awaken conscience and interest,” Bouzas said.
‘DOESN’T SEEM RIGHT’
The ministry document showed that just over half of the 6,494 workers eligible to vote did so in the first of two days of voting, before labor inspectors found the destroyed ballots and halted the process.
Many collective bargaining contracts in Mexico consist of deals between unions and companies without workers’ approval, which has helped keep Mexican hourly wages at a fraction of those in the United States.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which came into effect last year and replaced the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, sought to strengthen worker rights in Mexico as well as slow migration of U.S. auto production south of the border.
Ratification votes are now required under Mexico’s 2019 labor reform, which underpins the renegotiated free trade pact, to ensure workers are not bound to contracts that were signed behind their backs.
GM has said it respects the rights of its employees to make decisions over collective bargaining, and that it was not involved in any alleged labor violations. It declined to comment on the Labor Ministry report.
Workers at other plants have also protested against the 85-year-old CTM, which represents 4.5 million workers, including in the border city of Matamoros and at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
The CTM’s Miguel Trujillo Lopez union at GM is run by PRI politician Tereso Medina.
Medina and other CTM representatives did not reply to requests for comment. Medina told newspaper La Jornada last month that the organization was following rules to ensure a fair process.
The CTM leader for Guanajuato state, where Silao is located, questioned why a foreign country was intervening in Mexico’s labor affairs.
“It doesn’t seem right to me that foreigners meddle in matters that relate directly to Mexico, and especially in labor issues,” Hugo Varela told El Sol de Leon newspaper on Wednesday.
“We’re respectful of them. We ask for the same treatment.”
If GM workers scrap their contract, either the CTM or a new union could negotiate new collective terms.