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 GM, 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.
Elizabeth Jaramillo said three weeks ago, while she was menstruating, she stained her pants after not being allowed to go to the bathroom to change her sanitary pad. Claudia Juárez López said she had suffered several urinary tract infections after managers repeatedly rejected her requests to go to the bathroom in her 17 years working at the company.
“How is it possible that this is a multinational company, and they have us working in these conditions?” said Ms. Juárez López, who joined the effort to create a new union because of the way she was treated.
David Barnas, a spokesman for General Motors, said that the allegations regarding the denial of bathroom breaks “are not true and are inconsistent with the plant’s positive employee satisfaction record” and that employees haven’t brought up the issue during independent labor inspections at the plant in recent years.
Workers remain at the plant in Silao “because of the positive and healthy environment that we have established as a corporate leader in Mexico,” Mr. Barnas said, adding that the company would work with whichever union won this week’s election.
The new union, called the Independent National Autoworkers Union, will compete against three other groups in the election. Two contenders have links to the old union; another is a relatively unknown newcomer.
María Alejandra Morales Reynoso, the leader of the independent union, said that three people showed up at her home to threaten her over the campaign.
“They’re trying to intimidate us,” Ms. Morales said. “But we are committed to our fight.”
Officials from the union that has represented the workers at the plant, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, did not respond to questions.
Back in 2011, when Mr. Ramírez started at the plant, he would have never considered joining any kind of worker uprising. He was proud to wear his General Motors shirt around town. His children used to tell all their schoolmates, “My papa makes trucks,” Mr. Ramírez said.
He spent five years climbing the pay scale until he hit the ceiling — around $23 per day, less than employees at General Motors in Detroit make in two hours.
Then, even as production increased, his salary barely budged. He began to wonder, he said, “Why are the raises so small if everything else is going up?”
It’s possible that Mr. Ramírez got into the Nafta economy at the wrong time. After the deal went into effect, in the mid-1990s, real wages for industrial workers in Mexico surged. But the gains for those employees began to slump after the global financial crisis of 2008, and have only recently started to pick up.
“Nafta made a positive contribution to labor conditions, but much less than its potential,” said Luis de la Calle, a former Nafta negotiator for Mexico who is now an economic consultant. The government, which did not significantly raise the minimum wage until recently, is partly responsible. So is lackluster productivity.
But Mr. de la Calle said part of the blame also lies with some large Mexican unions, which long enjoyed political protection, but did little to improve the lot of the people they represented.
“The question is, do union leaders in Mexico represent the best interests of workers?’’ said Mr. de la Calle. “Overall the answer is no, and that has an impact on wages.”
In 2016, Ms. Sadka studied more than 1,400 union contracts in Mexico, and found that three quarters of them were what she called in congressional testimony “sham agreements,” which often offered workers fewer benefits than what they were guaranteed under the law.
And today, though Mexico is among the richest countries in Latin America, its wages are comparable to those in El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to data compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank.
To get by, Mr. Ramírez turned part of his mother’s house into a living space for his family. He makes cars all day, but can’t afford to buy one — leading his children to ask, he says, “Why don’t you just make one for yourself?”
For now, Mr. Ramírez has to borrow a car to take his baby, who has suffered from seizures for months, to the hospital. His 13-year-old daughter, Nathaly, misses classes because the family has not been able to pay for her rides to school.
“My papa struggles,” Nathaly said. “He’s saving up to buy a car right now.”
When Mr. Ramírez asked the old union at the plant for financial help as the medical expenses mounted, he said the most they would offer was about $15.
“It was a joke,” he Mr. Ramírez. “I can’t buy a bag of diapers with that.”
As part of negotiations over the reworked trade agreement, Mexico made sweeping changes to its labor laws in 2019, making it easier for independent unions to challenge incumbents and requiring a review of hundreds of thousands of existing contracts.
The trade pact, which said Mexico had to enforce the new rules, won the support of American union leaders in part because they believed stronger protections might prevent the loss of U.S. jobs.
“If you’ve got a race to the bottom, you’ve got to raise the bottom, and then maybe the race will slow down a little bit,” said Jeff Hermanson, an official at the Solidarity Center, an arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
When workers at the General Motors plant voted on whether to throw out their contract in April, the government suspended the election after inspectors found destroyed ballots inside the offices of the existing union, part of the Confederation of Mexican Workers.
The irregularities prompted the Biden administration to, for the first time, take advantage of a channel for labor disputes established in the new trade accord, and formally ask Mexico to review the case. The Mexican government called for a new vote. In August, workers elected to throw out their contract — and they are now preparing to vote for the union that will negotiate a new one.
Mr. Ramírez said he planned to cast his ballot for the independent union.
Last week, he asked his boss for two days off because his wife had spent days alone with their baby at the hospital. The request was rejected.
“You are failing as a husband,” he said about himself, “because you can’t give her the reinforcement she needs.”
He doesn’t know how much his life will change if the independent union wins. But for once, he hopes, the workers will have a say.