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Will the “New NAFTA” Provide Any Benefit for Workers?

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A view of the main entrance to the General Motors assembly plant in the city of Silao, Mexico, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2008. General Motors Corp. reported a $38.7 billion loss for 2007, the largest annual loss ever for an automotive company. (AP Photo/Mario Armas)

That NAFTA was utterly disastrous for the working classes of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is well-known and well-documented. In Mexico, part of the problem is that official unions themselves are entirely captured by the state, meaning that they are dominated by leaders who have a personal interest in making sure that workers keep working and keeping employers happy. It’s been at least 70 years since a meaningful independent labor movement existed in Mexico. Naturally, the architects of NAFTA knew this and acted upon it, knowing they would face no real opposition to whatever they did in Mexico.

The “new NAFTA” worked out a couple of years ago supposedly provided more protections for workers. I was and remain quite skeptical of this. But workers also know that they have some possible redress now. And at a GM plant in Guanajuato, they are going to find out if it matters.

Now, inside one of the largest General Motors plants in the country, in Silao, a city in central Mexico, a group of workers who assemble Chevy Silverados and G.M.C. Sierra pickup trucks has mounted a direct challenge to those interests. They’ve formed an independent union that will compete for the chance to represent thousands of employees in an election set to take place this week.

The vote is the first major test of ambitious labor reforms written into the recently reworked North American Free Trade Agreement — and of Mexico’s commitment to dismantling an ossified system that, research shows, keeps many workers from getting pay or benefits beyond the minimum guaranteed by law.

Unions in Mexico have historically derived their power from connections with politicians and employers who they serve by keeping wages low and preventing real organizing inside factories. This has made it more attractive to bring jobs to Mexico — and allowed the unions to continue to collect dues and benefit from political influence, with powerful labor leaders sometimes amassing personal fortunes.

A win for the independent union at G.M., economists say, could mark the beginning of a fundamental shift in Mexican factories.

“It would have a domino effect in the sector,” said Joyce Sadka, a Mexican economist who has testified before the U.S. Congress on Mexico’s unions. “It’s proof that you can actually get a union that’s really trying to represent the workers’ interests to win against one of these really big firms.”

Workers at the General Motors plant in Silao start out earning less than $9 a day — lower than the pay at some Nissan, Audi and Volkswagen plants in Mexico that are represented by independent unions, and just 60 cents above the country’s daily minimum wage.

In interviews, more than two dozen workers at the plant described a punishing environment in which managers, prioritizing speedy production, routinely deny employees bathroom breaks for hours on end. Several said managers have told them that regular trips to the bathroom were not guaranteed in their labor contract.

Organizing GM in Mexico would be like organizing Amazon in the U.S. It would change the entire nature of the labor force. I remain skeptical until it happens. The combination of the state, the corrupt official unions, and GM, well, that’s a lot to overcome. Last year, the workers did not make this choice. But this is very much worth watching.

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