Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Solidarity Center News
Solidarity Center News
Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles
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As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, women workers around the world are leading struggles to safeguard democracy and improve wages and working conditions, often facing arrest or violence.

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Haiti

Women garment workers are on the front lines of the fight for a living wage in Haiti, where four-fifths of their day’s earnings are wiped out by necessities like food and transportation. This year, after not receiving an increase for more than three years and despite punishing inflation,  workers took to the streets to peacefully demonstrate for a minimum wage increase. They were met with police violence, including tear gas and live ammunition.

Berinette, a worker who was part of the February 9 and 10 demonstrations, spoke about the shocking police violence. “We thought they were protecting us and they were destroying us,” she said. “They shot rubber bullets and they fired tear gas at us. They beat us but, despite this, we didn’t fear and we were never afraid.”

Mexico 

In February, General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso led the National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA) to a landmark election victory in Mexico, when the independent union won the right to represent over 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao. 

In a union election with a 90 percent turnout, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots. SINTTIA defeated the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years and derived its strength from cultivating relationships with politicians and corporations while keeping wages low.

SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso Credit: Solidarity Center

Workers succeeded in making their voices heard despite attempts to buy votes and threats of violence against union leaders and activists. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote. 

“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.

In a podcast interview with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, Morales Reynoso said the union’s victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely.

“We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Morales Reynoso said. 

Myanmar

On February 1, one year after the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by a military junta, Phyo Sandar Soe, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), was among five-member presidium elected by the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). Sandar is the youngest person and the only woman elected to the presidium.

Women workers played a leading role early on in the protests against the Myanmar coup, in which the country’s 450,000 garment workers were especially active in organizing civil disobedience and factory shutdowns. They have asked international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.

Myanmar, Sandar, CTUM assistant general secretary, military coup, unions, Solidarity Center

CTUM General Phyo Sanda Soe, Credit: Solidarity Center

An estimated 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup, and nearly 12,000 imprisoned, most tortured. The military junta especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many others fled the country or went into hiding. Demonstrating workers continue to be arrested under the pretense of spreading Covid-19 as Cambodian authorities repeatedly abuse the country’s COVID-19 law to break up the strike

Speaking from a safehouse, in a podcast interview with Bader-Blau, Sandar spoke of the strength of workers standing together despite repression and personal danger.

“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other. We are finding solutions to fight back. That’s why I want to tell our brothers and sisters to endure this duration because we have very high motivation to fight back against the junta, she said.”

Cambodia

In early January in Cambodia, Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) President Sithar Chhim was one of nine union leaders arrested during a peaceful strike and was violently taken away when she attempted to join her colleagues in a picket line at the NagaWorld hotel and casino. 

Hundreds of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians are on strike to demand the reinstatement of 365 workers who were fired months earlier. While management claimed the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say nearly all of those laid off were union leaders or members. 

The layoffs took place shortly after the union won a wage increase that boosted pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September 2019 for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages.

Striking workers petitioned several embassies and consulates to contact the government about the arrests of union leaders and urge officials to respect human rights. 

Podcast: Mexican Auto Workers Win Landmark Victory

Podcast: Mexican Auto Workers Win Landmark Victory

Thousands of workers in Mexico recently formed an independent union at a GM auto plant in Silao, in central Mexico, voting out a corporate-supported union that did not operate in their interest. On the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso, general secretary of SINTTIA, the union that now represents the workers, tells why this victory is a milestone for many Mexican workers who are forced to be part of sham unions. (En español)

Morales shares how workers at the Silao plant stood strong in the face of widespread corruption, laws tilted against them and incredible pressure to cast their vote for a protection union that did the bidding of the company.

The union victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely,” she says. “We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs.”

“It takes courage to take on an entire, entrenched, corrupt system. Yet the workers in Silao did just that, inspiring workers all over the world,” says Podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

“And they did so at one of the biggest companies in Mexico, with more than 6,000 workers. This is living proof that worker power and global solidarity is a powerful voice and force for democracy and worker and human rights. When workers come together, we cannot be stopped.”

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Mexico: Independent Union Wins Landmark Election

Mexico: Independent Union Wins Landmark Election

The new, independent union, Sindicato Independiente Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Industria Automotriz (SINTTIA), won the right to represent more than 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao, Mexico, in a closely watched election. SINTTIA won the election by a wide margin, defeating the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years, and two other groups with ties to CTM.

SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots, in an election with 90 percent turnout. The three CTM unions combined won just over a thousand votes.

The victory happened despite attempts to buy votes and intimidate workers, and threats of violence leveled against union leaders and activists. One of those threatened was SINTTIA General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso. She spoke about the victory at a press conference.

SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso / Credit: Solidarity Center

“Today is a day in history for Mexican workers,” says Morales Reynoso. ” And we have just begun.”

SINTTIA’s victory could signify the beginning of the end of CTM’s decades-long hold on power. The labor group derived its strength from secret contracts, intimidation of workers and close relationships with Mexico’s previous ruling party and employers, whom they appeased by keeping wages low.

The election is a significant test of the impact of trade reforms, which expand worker rights and establish union votes by secret ballot to validate labor contracts. Mexico’s government estimates that prior to reforms, about 80 percent of union contracts were signed without workers’ knowledge, and helped suppress wages and give employers more control over workers.

At this one truck plant this week, workers were able to overcome corruption and threats of violence to vote out the sham union. Thousands of workers now have a chance at collective bargaining, raising wages and improving working conditions, but much work remains to ensure free and fair elections at thousands of workplaces for millions of Mexican workers.

Labor Leaders Stand Against Anti-Union Violence as Mexican Workers Vote for an Independent  Union

Labor Leaders Stand Against Anti-Union Violence as Mexican Workers Vote for an Independent Union

Unions in Mexico and throughout Latin America are speaking out against anti-union violence in the wake of threats made against two women leading efforts to win a historic union election. Voting began yesterday and continues today at a pickup truck plant in Silao, Mexico. Over 6,000 workers have the chance to elect an independent union and enjoy real collective bargaining for the first time ever. Labor leaders and activists from Mexico, Brazil, the United States and Canada demonstrated outside the plant in support of the democratic union. Other unions in the region sent solidarity messages and letters to the Mexican government denouncing the threats.

In August, workers at the Silao plant voted to throw out the contract held by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) for the last 25 years. The National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA), supported by the Solidarity Center, emerged from a popular movement urging workers to reject the CTM contract. In a three-year struggle, SINTTIA built a sizable following, leading efforts to throw out the sham contract and increasing its chances of winning today’s election.

However, independent labor activists face threats of violence. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened SINTTIA leader María Alejandra Morales Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.

“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.

Later, Claudia Juárez López, SINTTIA secretary, and her family received threats through Facebook and WhatsApp.

Argentina’s Women’s Council of Union Power issued a statement calling on the Mexican government to take measures to protect the safety of union activists and their families; conduct a “comprehensive, exhaustive and impartial investigation” into the threats and identify those responsible; and take steps to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent harassment, threats and intimidation of union workers voting in the election.

In Honduras, the Network Against Anti-Union Violence sent a letter to the Mexico Consulate in San Pedro Sula, requesting that the government guarantee the integrity of the election and the lives and safety of labor activists.

The Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala issued a statement that read in part, “We call on Mexican authorities to guarantee a favorable environment for workers to freely express their choice of union representative without fear.”

JASS Mesoamérica issued a statement in solidarity.

#SomosSINTTIA | All our solidarity with the @SINTTIA (Mexico) and the companions Alejandra and Claudia, leading women who together with their families have been death threats in the framework of a process for the choice of representation.

The Nicaragua Domestic Workers Federation posted a statement in support labor activists, saying, “We position ourselves against all kinds of violence suffered by the members of the Union, we request that the will of the workers of the plant be respected.”

Brazil’s Central Única Dos Trabalhadores (CUT) issued a statement demanding protective measures from the government, stating, “an independent union that obtains its power from workers is necessary to build a future for their families and all Mexican workers.”

Domestic workers around the globe demanded protection for women union activists under threat.

Clément Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, tweeted in response to reports of threats against union activists in Mexico.

This is the first high-stakes union election brought about after Mexican workers rejected a sham contract.  A 2019 Mexican labor law reform required by a trade deal with Canada and the United States aims to challenge the power of labor organizations that have long signed deals without workers’ knowledge or consent. The reform requires contract “legitimation” votes to occur before May 2023, creating an opening for representative unions.

For decades, Mexican workers have had little to no say in which unions represented them. “Protection unions” have drawn their power from alliances with politicians and employers, whom they placated by keeping wages low, while collecting dues and accumulating wealth and power. The CTM formed part of Mexico’s ruling party. Its leaders signed contracts with companies before plants were even opened, and kept workers in the dark about the union and its negotiations.

Mexican auto workers earn a fraction of what their American, Argentine, Brazilian or Canadian counterparts make. They earn much less than the few Mexican autoworkers who are members of independent unions. Low wages spurred an exodus of investment, auto plants and jobs from other countries in the Americas to Mexico. A victory for SINTTIA could mark the beginning of a fundamental shift, keeping wages from bottoming out for workers in many countries in the region.

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