SILAO, Mexico — When he got a job with General Motors in Mexico, Guillermo Ramírez thought it was his ticket out of poverty.
But a decade later, Mr. Ramírez says he still doesn’t earn enough to care for his three children. They eat at his mother’s house, while he skips meals and borrows a car to take his 7-month-old baby, who suffers from seizures, to the hospital.
“You’re earning so little,” said Mr. Ramírez. “It makes you feel useless.”
Mexico has transformed into an industrial powerhouse over the last two decades, attracting a torrent of investment from some of the world’s largest companies. And yet, a stubborn problem persists: Though the country has become one of the richest in Latin America, its workers still earn among the lowest salaries of almost any nation in the region.
One important reason, economists say, is that for decades, Mexican workers have had little say in choosing the unions that represent them.
Instead of standing for workers, the country’s traditional unions have historically been closely allied with politicians and employers. They have kept wages low and the possibility of real organizing at bay — and in turn, they have accumulated considerable wealth and power, sometimes under suspicion of corruption.
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…
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