“This Fight Is Global”: Workers Around the World Are Standing With Striking U.S. Autoworkers

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Author: Jeff Schuhrke
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In These Times

As the first-ever simultaneous strike at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis continues, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union is being cheered on not only by a majority of Americans, but also by much of the international labor movement.

Over the past two weeks, the UAW has received messages of solidarity from worker organizations in multiple countries, including a letter from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and an email from Malaysia’s National Union of Transport Equipment & Allied Industries Workers — both of which represent autoworkers in their respective countries.

“The world is watching, and the people are on our side,” UAW President Shawn Fain said last Friday. ​“From South Africa to Malaysia, we continue to receive letters and messages of strength and support, encouraging our members to hold the line and win big — and we will.”

Such global solidarity is not simply a boost to the strikers’ morale, but is also a critically strategic part of the UAW’s fight to reverse the decades-long race to the bottom, where multinational corporations like the Big Three automakers move production to wherever they can exploit workers the most.

This is especially true of Mexico, the largest auto parts supplier to the United States. Since at least the 1980s — and especially since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 — the Big Three have used the threat of moving production to Mexico to force concessions from the UAW. 

An estimated 300,000 jobs in the U.S. auto industry have been lost since NAFTA, and real wages for U.S. autoworkers have fallen by 30% over the past 20 years. 

“Most of that is accounted for by the transfer of work to Mexico,” says Rob McKenzie, a retired UAW representative who worked at the Twin City Ford Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minnesota. ​“The only thing that could have changed that was helping Mexican workers raise their wages, benefits and working conditions.” 

One of the biggest concessions the UAW made in recent decades was accepting the imposition of separate wage and benefit tiers, which the union is now fighting to eliminate. With the Big Three paying Mexican auto workers significantly less than their U.S. counterparts for doing the same work requiring the same skills (as little as $2.54 per hour), the extreme wage differential across the border is itself a tier.

“The first tier structure was created between Mexican workers and U.S. workers,” says Meizhu Lui, co-coordinator of the México Solidarity Project (MSP), an activist group promoting cross-border organizing.

She continues, ​“Just as the UAW wants to unify its members by getting rid of tiers, hopefully they also see they’ve got to get rid of this split between Mexican and U.S. workers.”

Anti-union figures like CNBC anchor Jim Cramer have openly encouraged the Big Three to completely relocate to Mexico rather than give in to the UAW’s demands, while Stellantis recently shut down a profitable assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois and moved production to Toluca, Mexico. These conditions indicate the urgency of international labor solidarity.

Mexico solidarity

Although the Mexican auto industry has long been heavily unionized, for decades, genuine collective bargaining was denied by corrupt ​“charro” union officials in league with employers and the state. But thanks to a 2019 labor law reform and the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism in the 2018 U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Mexican workers are forming democratic, independent unions willing to fight for higher wages and better standards despite intense opposition from both bosses and the old, company-friendly unions.

Starting at a GM assembly plant in Silao in February 2022, thousands of workers in Mexico’s export-oriented manufacturing facilities have successfully replaced their corrupt company unions with new, independent unions. The movement in Silao received encouragement and support from the UAW and Unifor, the union representing Canadian auto workers.

“Mexico is probably the most exciting place on Earth to organize because workers are pissed and the new labor law and USMCA create a ton of opportunity,” says Maxwell Ulin, a member of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a rank-and-file reform caucus in the UAW that helped elect Fain to the union’s presidency earlier this year. 

This spring, Ulin helped start the UAWD Mexico & International Solidarity Committee, which is encouraging the UAW to give financial support to Mexico’s nascent independent worker organizations and develop more direct, collaborative relationships so the unions can carry out strategically coordinated workplace actions on both sides of the border.

“It’s a worthwhile investment for the UAW and other unions to care about the industrial supply chain,” says Ulin. ​“The whole idea of a union is that you build unity across the workforce to be able to hold up all production.”

Meanwhile, Mexican unionists are already taking action.

Responding to the UAW’s strike, on September 18, a group of workers with the Independent Union of Goodyear Mexico Workers (SITGM) — an affiliate of the League of Mexican Workers’ Unions (La Liga) — held a solidarity protest in front of GM’s offices in Mexico City. Last month, the union overwhelmingly won a representation election to negotiate contracts covering 1,150 workers at a Goodyear tire factory in San Luis Potosí.

In a video message recorded during the demonstration, a SITGM representative addressed UAW members, saying, ​“We stand in solidarity with your demand for a salary increase, and we think that these corporations should provide a wage increase in every country they operate, such as Mexico.”

Other independent unions are also expressing support for the UAW, including the National Union of Mineworkers (Los Mineros), which represents about 1,500 employees at a Stellantis-owned foundry in Coahuila, and the National Union of App Workers (UNTA). The Federation of Independent Unions of the Automotive, Auto Parts, Aerospace and Tire Industries (FESIAAAN) — which is comprised of several independent unions, including Los Mineros — also sent a solidarity message to the UAW that states, ​“Regardless of where we work, the fight belongs to everyone.”

Lui says the MSP has heard that some rank-and-file GM assembly workers in Silao are pledging to refuse voluntary overtime in support of the strike, as they did during the UAW’s 2019 strike at the company.

Israel Cervantes, a former GM worker who helped lead the independent union drive in the Silao plant (and was fired by the company for his efforts), will be joining UAW strikers on the picket lines in Detroit this week. Now an organizer with the Casa Obrera del Bajio worker center, Cervantes was invited to speak at the Latina/​o Worker Leadership Institute at the University of Michigan before the strike began.

In a statement earlier this month, Cervantes wrote, ​“With the clear vision that if the employer is transnational, the union representations also have to globalize, we call on the workers of these companies [GM, Ford and Stellantis] and the automotive industry in México to not allow them to increase the speed of their production lines.”

Members of the Border Workers' Committee (CFO) in northern Mexico.(PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANK HAMMER)

The Border Workers’ Committee (CFO), a nonprofit group focused on women’s and workers’ empowerment in northern Mexico, also posted a solidarity message. Last year, the CFO helped 400 workers at a facility in Piedras Negras who make car upholstery win an independent union. Rather than negotiate a contract, VU Manufacturing — the Michigan-based owner of the facility—shut down production earlier this year and laid off all the workers, leaving 71 of them without legally-mandated severance.

Organizers worry VU’s move could set a negative precedent that slows the progress of Mexico’s independent union movement.

“If they get away with closing and leaving the workers high and dry — not even paying severance packages as was required — that’s just going to be a signal that the USMCA has no teeth and that other companies could try to get away with the same thing,” Lui says.

This morning, activists from the MSP, UAW, UAWD, Labor Notes, Democratic Socialists of America, Latina/​o Worker Leadership Institute and Casa Obrera del Bajio (including Cervantes) are holding a protest outside VU’s corporate headquarters in Troy, Michigan to demand the company pay severance and owed wages to the laid-off workers. 

“Workers in both countries are now realizing how critical it is to build international solidarity to advance their own interests,” says McKenzie, who recently authored a book on a union struggle at a Mexican Ford plant that was violently crushed in 1990. ​“This hasn’t happened before. This is significant and positive.”

“What’s really surprising is that all of this is organic, which says a lot about the UAW’s message—it’s universal.” Peter says.

“This fight is global”

Beyond Mexico, unions in VenezuelaGermany and Italy have pledged their support for the UAW’s strike, as has the global union federation IndustriALL. Kristyne Peter, director of the UAW’s international affairs department, tells In These Times that unions and rank-and-filers in Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom and Thailand have also sent messages of solidarity.

“What’s really surprising is that all of this is organic, which says a lot about the UAW’s message — it’s universal.” Peter says. 

Unionized Stellantis workers at an assembly plant in Melfi, Italy staged a one-day strike on September 18 to protest the company’s failure to provide details about new car models set to be produced there. Though the daylong work stoppage was not directly connected to the UAW’s ongoing strike, Fain called it ​“an inspiration” and voiced support last Friday.

“There is a stronger inclination by today’s UAW to see international solidarity as key,” says Frank Hammer, a UAW retiree and former president of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan.

A long time international activist and member of UAWD, Hammer says he hopes the UAW’s new leadership will support a group of Colombian GM workers in Bogota who were fired without workers’ compensation in 2011 after suffering injuries on the job, and have been demanding justice ever since.

“There’s enthusiasm in the UAW for international solidarity, but I would like to see more of it,” he says.

Perhaps no worker organization outside the United States has shown more passionate support for the UAW strike than Brazil’s powerful Metalworkers’ Union, which represents autoworkers in the major industrial areas of the country’s southeast.

In Curitiba, thousands of workers at Volvo and Renault held mass rallies outside their factories last week in solidarity with the UAW. ​“It is a shame that executives of [the Big Three], who produce nothing, have their salaries and benefits skyrocket while those of the workers, who are the ones who actually produce, do not keep up with the same pace,” said Sérgio Butka, president of the Metalworkers’ Union of Greater Curitiba. ​“This fight is global and so is our solidarity.”

The Metalworkers of São José dos Campos and São Paulo also each recorded video messages expressing enthusiastic support for striking U.S. autoworkers.

At the same time that these actions were happening, on September 19, Brazilian Labor Minister Luiz Marinho — who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly—met with leaders of UAW Region 9 and 9A.

Like Brazil’s left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Marinho got his start as an autoworker and leader in the Metalworkers’ Union. 

Peter, the UAW international director, attended the meeting with Marinho and says the labor minister was joined by the presidents of six Brazilian unions, who wanted to show support for the UAW and discuss the impacts of new technology on workers in both countries.

“He understands what it’s like to put your blood, sweat and tears into the line and what a toll it takes on the body,” says Peter. ​“He understands what UAW members are trying to achieve.”

Afterward, Marinho briefed Lula about the meeting and the two posed for photos holding a UAW t-shirt. The next day, Lula and Joe Biden announced a new partnership between Brazil, the United States, and International Labor Organization to promote workers’ rights at multilateral forums like the G20 and the upcoming COP30 climate summit.

Back in Brazil, as in many other countries, unionists continue to watch the UAW’s contract fight closely.

“The strike at North American automakers is of great importance for workers around the world, who, in recent years, have felt a restructuring that has lowered wages and rights,” reads a statement by the Metalworkers’ Union of São José dos Campos. ​“Now, our U.S. comrades are reacting and seeking to recover and expand rights. Their victory will be our victory! All our solidarity!” 


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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.

Reprinted with permission from In These Times. All rights reserved. 

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Source URL: https://portside.org/2023-09-28/fight-global-workers-around-world-are-standing-striking-us-autoworkers