In January half of the labor force in Matamoros, Mexico went out on a wildcat strike. Across the border from Brownsville, Texas, Matamoros has more than 110 maquila companies that employ 70,000 workers. This city has become the scene of the most important labor struggle in Mexico in many years. After several decades of “labor peace” due to a downturn in labor struggles in the wake of defeats of the seventies and eighties, a new generation of worker militants have taken center stage in Mexico.
Origins of the struggle. Low wages, conditions of super exploitation and repression at the hands of union leaders are not new in Mexico. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when maquila factory owners sought to compensate for changes in Mexico’s wage policy by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) after he decreed a 10 percent increase nationwide in the minimum wage. And at the border stipulated a 100 percent increase.
The maquila bosses agreed to comply but eliminated a package of worker benefits that resulted in only a slight increase in actual worker wages. Worker dissatisfaction erupted all along the border, but it was in Matamoros that it reached its fullest expression.
True intentions. Last year’s presidential election delivered victory to Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He received support from millions of Mexico’s poor who saw him as someone who would defend their rights.
The truth is that the demand for a 100 percent increase in the minimum wage along the border is not the product of AMLO’s charitable heart. Instead, it is the product of the re-negotiation of the terms of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) by the U.S., Mexico and Canada contained in the USMCA trade agreement. The new treaty requires that 40 percent of the value created in the automotive industry in Mexico come from workers who earn at least $16 per hour. Such an hourly salary corresponds to two days’ pay at Mexico’s current minimum wage!
The manufacturing industry along Mexico’s northern border is made up mostly of auto industry factories funded by U.S. capital. There are both large auto assembly plants and maquilas that produce auto parts. The governments of Canada and the United States demanded that Mexico increase its wages in response to pressure by the working classes in their own countries.
What prevented López Obrador from doubling the minimum wage throughout the country and not just at the border? Nothing, except the interests of both national and foreign capital whose large profits are dependent on the miserable salaries that Mexicans receive.
As the strike intensified, the AMLO government was forced to take sides. Was it going to support the strikers or the employers? The answer was clearly stated by Alfredo Dominguez, the Labor Undersecretary at a press conference. “The disruption of this strike does not benefit either of the two parties.” So, the strike must end.
Government labor authorities applied a common but surreal legal strategy and declared the strike “nonexistent.” In Mexico’s legal system if a strike does not lawfully “exist” then it is considered illegal and the state can use force to end it. But Matamoros workers stood firm and made it clear that their struggle not only existed but was deepening.
This is just the beginning. The main obstacle in this battle has been the state-controlled union bureaucracy. The ongoing struggle in the Mexican labor movement continues to be efforts by workers to regain control of their unions by removing corrupt leaders and instituting union democracy. This is what makes the strike in Matamoros so noteworthy. It remained strong despite the union leadership’s efforts to sell out the strikers.
Worker solidarity forced the bosses to agree to a single demand: a 20 percent wage increase and a yearly bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,664). Companies can easily afford this since Mexican wages remain very low. Most companies quickly agreed to satisfy the workers’ demands. At the beginning of February, only four of the 40 factories that initially went out on strike remained so.
Now, other workers have joined this strike movement. Seventeen additional factories are on strike, including a Coca-Cola plant. The movement is approaching a complete victory. Workers throughout Mexico are studying these strikes in preparation for future battles.
Yes, when the working class rises, capital takes note and begins to worry!
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