Mexican maquiladora workers in 70 factories have won big wage increases and bonuses in a strike wave that began in January.
The strikes in the industrial city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the border with Brownsville, Texas, have primarily hit auto parts factories, where tens of thousands of workers make goods for General Motors and other car manufacturers.
The first of the strikes began on January 12 at eight factories. Workers were demanding a 20 percent wage increase and an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600)—a demand now popularized as “20/32.”
An initiative by Mexico’s new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sparked the rebellion. During his December inauguration he announced a 100 percent increase in the federal minimum wage in the northern border zone, from 88 pesos ($4.50) to 176 pesos ($9) per day.
But most maquiladora workers in Matamoros were already earning between 155 and 176 pesos ($8.60 and $9), so the raise would have had little impact—were it not for a provision in the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the biggest union in the sector.
That provision, aimed at preserving the purchasing power of workers, says that any increase in the federal minimum wage must be applied to the entire pay scale via a proportional daily wage increase and an annual bonus.
However, when the Union of Laborers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry (SJOIIM) started annual negotiations on its collective agreements at 48 factories in December, the maquiladora employers all refused to implement the increase.
Instead of bargaining individually with each factory, SJOIIM union delegates from the 48 factories agreed to join forces and push for direct negotiations with the local government and the association of maquiladora employers.
Strike From Below
Thousands of workers demonstrated in the city’s central square on January 12 to voice their demands. Matamoros Mayor Mario Lopez urged them to keep talking with the companies but asked them to keep working and to be reasonable in their demands, arguing that many corporations would not be able to afford the wage increase.
Led by the 48 delegates, the workers then assembled at the local chapter of the union to demand support from the secretary general of the SJOIIM, Juan Villafuerte.
Villafuerte agreed to write a letter formally supporting the workers’ demands, but suggested that delegates negotiate individually with each factory. Workers felt this approach would weaken their bargaining power by keeping them fragmented.
In response, workers closed the gates at eight plants and hung up red and black banners, the Mexican labor movement’s universal symbol of a strike.
Over the next two weeks, thousands of workers held massive rallies and launched strikes at all 48 factories.
These were wildcat strikes—Villafuerte refused to sanction them, arguing that since the workers had not gone through the proper legal channels, the strikes would expose them to replacement by scabs and repression by police. Mexican labor law requires at least six days’ notice of a strike.
Finally on January 25, due to escalating pressure from the grassroots movement, the SJOIIM officially declared strikes in all 48 factories. Unlike in the U.S., in Mexico, an official strike declaration means a workplace cannot be opened, and police cannot intervene. Still, there were several attempts by the companies and state police to illegally break the strike. And on the morning of January 28, Villafuerte himself showed up at one of the factories on strike, saying he had received a call from a senator from the MORENA party—the center-left party which now controls the presidency and Mexico’s Congress—calling on him to immediately end the strike. With the help of independent labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, workers were able to block Villafuerte’s effort to end the strike.
Villafuerte’s initial indecision, combined with his controversial attempt to break the strike, exacerbated tensions between the rank-and-file movement and official union leadership.
Finally, on February 10, Villafuerte announced the end of the strike, with favorable agreements secured for all 48 factories, including the 20 percent wage increase and 32,000 peso annual bonus. The union also won a commitment from companies to avoid reprisals and layoffs for six months, though a number of employers have already ignored it.
Unusual Fighting History
SJOIIM’s history is different from most unions that represent maquiladora workers on the northern border, emphasizes Cirila Quintero Ramírez, director of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte and an expert on unions in Matamoros.
Most unions in Mexico’s maquiladoras oversee “protection contracts,” signed behind the backs of workers and aimed at keeping wages low.
But the SJOIIM has a much better contract, built up over decades of struggle. That’s why these workers had the contract provision that they were demanding be enforced. It’s also why they had union delegates who could help mobilize for a strike.
SJOIIM was born in 1932 as a union of farmworkers. It began organizing maquiladora workers in 1965 as soon as the free-trade zone was created. Under the charismatic leadership of the union’s former secretary general Agapito Gonzalez, workers waged mass strikes in the city’s maquilas during the 1980s.
“As a result of these historical struggles, the SJOIIM provides the highest wages at the border and is the only union that guarantees a 40-hour week to its members,” said Quintero Ramírez.
Eager to attract foreign investment to Mexico and finish negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Canada, Mexican President Carlos Salinas had Gonzalez arrested in 1992 on tax-evasion charges, which quieted the union for most of the 1990s. Under Villafuerte’s leadership, the union has ceased using the strike weapon, as have most other Mexican unions. The country saw just 17 official strikes in 2017.
In this recent uprising, workers have received support from several key actors outside the union. Javier Zuñiga, a local leader of the Miners Union (los Mineros), has helped coordinate the wildcat strikes and public mobilizations. Prieto Terrazas, a fiery labor lawyer from Ciudad Juárez, has offered legal advice and led many of the walkouts and demonstrations in Matamoros’ city center. She is highly critical of the union, openly accusing Villafuerte of colluding with the companies and the government.
Prieto Terrazas has played a major role in spreading the strikes beyond the 48 factories represented by the SJOIIM. Employees from another 35 factories have launched wildcat strikes of their own to demand 20/32. Some of these factories are represented by other unions, while some do not even have a union. These workers don’t have provisions guaranteeing proportional raises and an annual bonus like the SJOIIM contracts, but that hasn’t stopped them.
In many of these factories, employers have given in to workers’ demands, pressured to keep production up-and-running to fulfill orders from clients in just-in-time supply chains. But as of February 23, there were still work stoppages in 15 maquiladoras, according to Mexican manufacturing industry association CANACINTRA.
The latest strike was launched on Monday, February 25 by 400 members of the Miners Union (Los Mineros) at the Siderúrgica del Golfo steel plant in Matamoros. Workers there make some of the highest wages in the city and receive a 16,000 peso annual bonus, but are also demanding a 20 percent increase and 32,000 peso bonus to match other workers.
On February 17, speaking in front of thousands of workers in the center of Matamoros at a demonstration she called, Prieto Terrazas claimed to be the leader of the movement and distributed an online form where workers could designate her as their legal representative. “Today the second phase of the 20/32 movement will start,” she announced. “We will get rid of the CTM,” referring to the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the largest Mexican labor federation, to which the SJOIIM and the city’s other biggest maquiladora unions are affiliated.
At another big demonstration on February 23, Prieto Terrazas proposed that workers form a new union or affiliate to an already existing independent union.
The López Obrador administration has promised to reform Mexican labor law to strengthen workers’ rights to choose their union representatives and vote on contracts.
The federal government has remained neutral throughout the Matamoros dispute—which represents an important change in the relationship between the state and the Mexican labor movement. Close ties between Mexican union leaders and the ruling party apparatus for decades meant the government exercised tight control over most labor conflicts. This is something very different—workers pushing their demands independently. But with different actors vying for leadership, the future direction of the movement is still up in the air.
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