Have you ever felt like you were at the wrong party, or you are at the wrong meeting? Well, let me tell you, that is how I felt the first time I had
to negotiate with a union in Matamoros, Mexico!
I started working with unions by accident. In fact, I had never thought of pursuing a career in Human Resources. Fast forward 22 years later and here I am dealing with unions from different countries.
My first encounter with unions in Mexico was with a maquiladora that was located at the boarder of California in a city called Mexicali. A maquiladora is a factory in Mexico run by a foreign company and exporting its products to the country of that company.
Unions in Mexicali where friendly and easy to deal with. The negotiations where collaborative and the union reps were always open to new ideas. I worked in Mexicali for 2 years before returning to Canada and then worked in other various industries. About 4 years ago, I accepted a new role to work in a US company in Texas that has a maquiladora in Matamoros, Mexico, which borders Texas.
I was naïve to believe that all unions in Mexico would be the same. The union in this city, called Matamoros, has been in power for over 50 years and has a strong backing from the Mexican government. During my first meeting with the union representatives, I noticed they barely addressed me, barely looked at meet and instead would only converse with the General Manager of the plant. After the introduction I shared with them my experience in dealing with Mexican unions and that I looked forward to a partnership with them. My comments were not well received. They started asking me: What should we trust you? You are part of corporate. You are woman and who has never worked in a plant before. We have been here for 50 years, and we will continue to win. You will be replaced like the others.
I was speechless! On the surface I was composed, but inside a had a wave of emotions going up and down my spine, I was on fire! I had no idea how respond. After the meeting I spoke the General Manager and asked him if this was, the way they always conducted themselves and he responded: Welcome to Matamoros!
I was not going to let this first encounter scare me. Union negotiations where approaching and this was not a good start. So, I build a plan. I started by learning about this union, I studied the collective agreement inside and out, I met with various employees at the plant to get to know them, I held listening tours, etc. Now, one thing you need to know is that unions in Mexico are industry based and they are not always honest with the workers. So here is what I learnt:
Up until 2019, Mexico workers could not freely choose a union and negotiations were not transparent. The business of unions in Mexico has historically been dubious, giving rise to manipulated elections and “protectionist” unions, or unions that are not accountable to workers but rather protect the interests of the employer. The recently established Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registration is a key part of changing all that. The Federal Center is established a centralized website that provides public access to all collective bargaining agreements in force, as well as access to union governing documents, across the country.
This meant that union registration and collective bargaining agreements where now public through a newly established National Union Registry. This is a HUGE step in helping workers make a more informed decision when exercising their right to freedom of association. The website provides public access to union governing documents that allow workers to hold unions and employers accountable to commitments to workers’ rights under the United States -Mexico- Canada Agreement (USMCA), which substituted NAFTA, and the 2019 labor law reform.
Due to this change, the union negotiation at the plant started very heated and there was a lot of posturing from the union. They tried intimidating me by shouting, huffing, and puffing, walking away, crying, name calling, etc. I felt like I was in telenovela! It was tough, exhausting, and at times unbearable. I kept my cool, always had my poker face on and provided facts such as, we cannot start negotiations until the union is officially registered in the new National Union Registry. This meant that employees need to vote and agree to be represented by this union to begin with. This song and dance lasted 2 months until they agreed to follow the new process. By pushing to follow the rules, it did not make more popular with the union, but I knew it was the right thing to do. In that part of Mexico, corruption and rule breaking is very overt and I knew I was entering a dangerous territory. That is why my plan was to meet with as many employees at the plant as possible so, they could know me, be aware of who I am, and build trust with the employees. I also partnered with female lawyers and other females from other plants to support each other. This has allowed us to have more bargaining power and be able to support each when it starts to get really heated.
In the end, employees did vote to be represented by the union and we finished negotiating 1 month later. Every 2 years the entire collective agreement is negotiated and each year salary increases are negotiated.
I have now been working with this union for 4 years and it does not get any easier. This year, we start salary negotiations in December, and I already got wind that they will start by asking for a 23% salary increase! Let the hunger games begin!