By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – More than 6,000 General Motors workers in Mexico will elect a new union this week as an upstart group backed by international activists aims to beat one of Mexico’s largest labor organizations that has held the contract for 25 years.

The vote is one of the first in a labor reform that underpins a new trade deal with Canada and the United States and aims to help improve wages by breaking the stranglehold of unions which, according to critics, have signed agreements with companies behind the backs of workers.

Also under the law, workers at state oil company Pemex elect a new union leader in their first-ever direct vote on Monday.

GM’s vote, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at the pickup plant in the central city of Silao, comes after workers in August dissolved their contract with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The vote was watched by U.S. officials, who threatened to impose tariffs on GM exports under the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) if the automaker did not protect workers’ rights.

The US government is once again monitoring Silao.

The vote of nearly 6,300 workers could set the tone for GM’s other Mexican plants and the entire Mexican auto industry, which is largely dominated by unions that experts say have a reputation for protecting the interests business and drive down wages.

GM said it was “aware of the importance of this exercise for our workers” and will work with the winning group.

Many workers want to kick out CTM, which has held the Silao contract since the plant opened in 1995 and is aligned with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico for decades.

The CTM union disbanded last year has given way to a separate faction of the CTM that is calling on workers to be open-minded.

“They are satanizing CTM because the last union didn’t do things the way they should have,” said CTM member David Limon.

The rival independent union SINTTIA, which many workers want to replace the CTM, grew out of a movement that urged workers to reject their contract last year, gaining a large following that boosted its chances of victory.

Two other unions are also in competition.

Mexico’s labor reform plans contract ratification votes by May 2023 and opens the door to new unions.

Yet out of more than 3,000 votes so far, workers have rejected only 25 contracts, underscoring the difficulty of changing an entrenched system, experts say.

The Washington-based Solidarity Center, which is allied with the American labor federation AFL-CIO, and the Canadian union Unifor are supporting SINTTIA, which has visited workers’ neighborhoods, stuck flyers on telephone poles and circulated text messages.

“CTM only looks out for its personal interests,” SINTTIA told his followers via WhatsApp.

BATTLE OF THE UNION

This argument resonates with the 49-year-old German employee, who wants his retirement pension in ten years to reflect what will represent 36 years of service at GM.

“If we go back to the CTM, it will be the same, all this work will have been for nothing,” said the German who, like other employees, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Many workers who supported the previous CTM contract formed La Coalicion, or The Coalition, which critics say has ties to CTM. Last week, dozens of supporters gathered outside the factory, chanting “Bat it, SINTTIA!”

CTM and a final competitor, the Carrillo Puerto union, have also criticized SINTTIA, as rumors circulate that workers could lose their jobs if they support the rival group – a tactic often used in Mexico to discourage unionisation.

Each group pledges to push for increases in a country where wages have stagnated for years and inflation is now biting.

“We feel very cramped… our salary is not enough with these prices,” said 33-year-old Juan Ramon Gasca.

Manufacturing workers in Mexico earn a tenth of their American peers, noted Catherine Feingold, international director of the AFL-CIO.

“It creates poverty for workers in Mexico and unfair competition that hurts workers in the United States,” she said.

U.S. lawmakers echoed those concerns, urging GM and Mexican officials to ensure a fair vote.

Worker attitudes are changing.

Juan, 38, supports SINTTIA but will push back if the union does not keep its promises.

“We have the right to raise our hands and say, ‘You know what, this union didn’t work for us,'” he said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Bernard Orr)