MEXICAN maquiladora workers in 70 factories have won big wage increases and bonuses in a strike wave that began in January.
Maquiladoras are tariff and duty-free assembly/processing factories using cheap labour.
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 per cent wage increase and an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600) – a demand now popularised 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 per cent 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 Labourers 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.
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, they closed the gates at eight plants and hung up red and black banners, the Mexican labour 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 labour law requires at least six days’ notice of a strike.
Finally on January 25, due to escalating pressure from the members, the SJOIIM officially declared strikes in all 48 factories.
Unlike in the US, 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 centre-left party which now controls the presidency and Mexico’s Congress – calling on him to immediately end the strike.
With the help of independent labour 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 membership and official union leadership.
Finally, on February 10, Villafuerte announced the end of the strike, with favourable agreements secured for all 48 factories, including the 20 per cent 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.
Workers received support from several key actors outside the union.
Javier Zuñiga, a local leader of the Miners Union (los Mineros), has helped coordinate the strikes and public mobilisations.
Employees from another 35 factories have launched 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, not to be 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 per cent increase and 32,000 peso bonus to match other workers.
The López Obrador administration has promised to reform Mexican labour 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 labour movement.
Close ties between Mexican union leaders and the ruling party apparatus for decades meant the government exercised tight control over most labour conflicts.
This is something very different.