A Labor Spring for Mexico’s Maquilas?

In Matamoros, wildcat strikes propelled by AMLO’s election and social media were victorious in improving conditions for 30,000 maquiladora workers. Will it mark a new era for union organizing in Mexico?

March 1, 2019

A 20/32 demonstration in Matamoros, Mexico, taken on January 24, 2019 (Obreros Unidos Matamoros/Facebook).

The streets of Matamoros’s Ciudad Industrial were alive with activity. The northeastern border city sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, directly across from Brownsville, Texas. Outside the gates of dozens of maquiladora factories arranged in grid-like fashion in this industrial zone, workers crowded in front of white banners with the numbers “20/32” scrawled in black marker, representing the strikers’ demands for a 20% pay hike and an annual $32,000 peso (about $1,578 USD) bonus. Their bodies blocked would-be strikebreakers from entering the factory. Nearby, workers took shelter from the cold, huddling over wood fires beneath tarps rigged to form temporary encampments. Many leaders I spoke with when I visited on February 14 said they hadn’t been home since the work stoppage began a week earlier. Often, they’d slept in their cars.

Since the 20/32 movement started in mid-January, tens of thousands of workers in Matamoros have walked off work, initially as part of wildcat strikes that lacked union support. Most of the workers are paid around a dollar an hour in a border region with the one of the highest costs of living in Mexico. They confront an entrenched system of unions allied with employers and the state, rather than the workers they are supposed to represent. Yet the movement, fueled by the election of new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and a viral social media campaign, and led by women, has already achieved remarkable success—and many are hopeful that it represents a new era for union organizing in Mexico.

Outside one such factory in Matamoros belonging to Adient, a company that claims to produce one of every three automotive seats in the world, workers told me that no one from the union or management has spoken with them since they stopped work. They also said that management has attempted to use cars as weapons to gain access. But while they are afraid, they will not be intimidated.

“Many of us here are single mothers,” said Julia Montoya, a 47-year-old mother and line worker who is part of the strike. “We’re the only ones who support our children, and that’s exactly the reason we’re out here. We’re fighting for what is rightfully ours: A 20 percent salary increase and a bonus of 32,000 pesos. That, and to get rid of the union.” Instead, strikers hope to form new, independent unions led by the workers themselves.

Four different unions forming part of the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos (Confederation of Mexican Workers, CTM) currently represent the maquiladora workers. For decades, this umbrella union has been government-dominated, negotiating so-called “protection contracts” that largely serve the interests of employers, often without any worker input or knowledge. Nevertheless, in January the leadership of the city’s largest and oldest union, the Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de la Industria Maquiladora (Day Laborers, Industrial Workers, and Maquila Industries Union, SJOIIM)—historically somewhat more independent than its CTM counterparts elsewhere in Mexico—succumbed to pressure from membership to enter negotiations. By February 5, 48 factories represented by the SJOIIM had met the 20/32 movement’s demands. Now, another 30 plants, including Adient, which are represented by other, smaller CTM-affiliated unions have launched a new round of strikes, hoping to build on the bigger union’s success. Workers in border cities from Reynosa to Tijuana are also contemplating similar action.

In Matamoros, workers and activists are hopeful that the 20/32 movement will not only be replicated elsewhere, but also help to democratize unions across Mexico. Their cause is abetted by a new presidential administration that has so far has refused to repeat the crackdowns of previous governments, which often declared strikes illegal and sanctioned, or at least ignored, violent campaigns to disperse demonstrators. Meanwhile, new labor laws negotiated as part of the revised NAFTA agreement are on the horizon, which require votes for union leadership and contracts to be conducted by secret ballot. “The political moment opens up the possibility for a labor spring in Mexico,” NAM economics professor Alfonso Bouzas told me in February.

Yet veteran labor observers caution that the success of the 20/32 movement is tentative and has already come at a price. In a potentially ominous sign for what lies ahead, more than 1,500 workers in Matamoros have been fired for participating in the strike, even though retaliation for striking is technically illegal in Mexico. Now that the 20/32 movement has won new contracts for more than 30,000 workers in Matamoros, the question remains: will its benefits reach the rest of the two million workers in Mexico’s vast maquiladora industry?

A Sleeping Giant Awakes

The immediate catalyst for the 20/32 movement was AMLO’s announcement in December 2018 that he would double the minimum wage along the border from 88 to 176 pesos a day—about $9 USD—in fulfillment of a campaign promise. In Matamoros, this increase held special significance because a unique, decades-old clause in the SJOIIM union contract stipulated that any percentage increase in the minimum wage be reflected in the salaries of all workers, including those who made above the minimum. In previous years, when the minimum wage increase lagged behind the rate of inflation, the provision had worked out in favor of employers. But the unprecedented increase this year represented an opportunity for workers to press for major concessions. Additionally, the SJOIIM contract provided for an annual bonus calculated by multiplying the daily increase in the minimum wage by 365, which worked out to the $32,000 pesos.

Despite AMLO’s proclamation, the maquiladora industry group, known as INDEX, and union leaders in Matamoros initially declared the 20/32 increase impossible. On January 12, a group of about 2,000 workers marched to the SJOIIM union office, voicing their displeasure with chants of “¡Fuera, Sindicato!” (Get Out, Union!). Four days later, around the same number gathered in Matamoros’ central plaza, where they listened to a speech by charismatic labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, who had just arrived from Ciudad Juárez. Bowing to intense pressure from union members—thousands of whom had already joined wildcat strikes—SJOIIM leader Juan Villafuerte initiated the legal steps to declare a formal strike, which began on January 26.

Meanwhile, the AMLO administration adopted an official policy of neutrality around the strikes. While some point out that the AMLO administration’s failure to strongly stand with the strikers calls into question his Fourth Transformation’s reputation as a “leftist” movement, the fact that the government didn’t take the side of the companies, in fact, represents a significant change. “When the company management saw what the union was demanding, they went immediately to Mexico City for help,” Cirila Quintero, a labor analyst at the Colegio de Frontera Norte, a think tank focused on border issues, told me in mid-February. “This is how companies in Mexico have traditionally resolved labor disputes, by getting the federal government to declare the strike illegal. But this time, it didn’t happen.

Bouzas believes that AMLO’s anti-corruption and anti-poverty platform creates an opening for striking workers. “I don’t necessarily think AMLO even has a labor policy to this point,” he said. “But to the extent that he has advocated for social justice and equal protection, it creates a space for unions to push for better working conditions.”

Outside the Adient factory, Elisio Pérez, a 55-year-old former maquiladora worker whose wife Natalia works at the plant, echoed this sentiment. Pérez, who has a disability due to a workplace-related back injury, has spent the last month traveling from maquila to maquila, offering striking workers food, coffee, and moral support. “With AMLO, we finally have someone who is focused on the needs of the people,” he said. “For a long time, the workers of Matamoros have been a sleeping giant. But now that giant has awoken.”

Protestors hold up a banner featuring Susana Prieto Terrazas at a 20/32 demonstration in Matamoros, Mexico (Obreros Unidos Matamoros/Facebook).

The Revolution Will Be Streamed

Across town from the Ciudad Industrial, in a smaller industrial zone I visited earlier on February 14, workers gathered outside the gate of the Reinfro corporation. The atmosphere was tense. The workers, ostensibly represented by the smaller Sindicato Industrial de Plantas Maquiladoras y Ensambladoras (Industrial Union of Plants, Maquiladoras, and Assemblers, SITPME), had not seen a wage increase after AMLO’s announcement because they were already paid the new minimum wage rate. They said they lacked basic equipment like safety glasses, boots, and aprons, even though the plant’s metal plating process requires the use of powerful acids that easily burn through clothing.

Reinfro workers had gone on strike—which they referred to as a “paro” (stoppage) rather than a “huelga” (strike)—on February 5. They were quickly replaced by strikebreakers. Now, a week and a half later, I witnessed the arrival of state police who said they wanted to resolve the dispute between workers outside the gate and the strikebreakers trying to get in. Workers feared a return to the repressive tactics that had broken previous strike efforts in Matamoros, even though up until then the 20/32 movement had been largely peaceful.

Just as discussions started to become heated, though, a reporter from a local radio station appeared, microphone in hand. Rather than continuing to engage with the police, workers began performing for the mic, as well as the dozens of cell phones trained inward to capture the moment. They chanted slogans and sang corridos, with union leaders playing the role of villains.

As more workers joined in, the chants changed to “Su-sa-na, Su-sa-na, Su-sa-na,” referring to Susana Prieto Terrazas, the 52-year-old labor lawyer from Ciudad Juárez who has been the public face of the 20/32 movement since she arrived in mid-January. Only half in jest, one worker called her “Santa Susana.” Prieto Terrazas has become a ubiquitous figure in the city, driving from demonstration to demonstration, where she broadcasts her encounters with workers to over 75,000 followers via Facebook Live.

Prieto’s folk-hero status has grown in large part through social media. Her personal Facebook page functions as a sort of unfiltered chronicle of the strike. She often speaks to workers directly via Facebook Live. She also has a knack for creating viral moments, such as confronting SJOIIM leader Juan Villafuerte outside a factory gate at 1 a.m. after he had ordered a temporary halt to the strike, and joining workers in challenging a state police officer who carried a document ostensibly declaring the strike illegal, but that lacked the proper seals and signatures.

“As political theater, it’s fantastic,” Ben Davis, the Director of International Affairs for the United Steelworkers’ Union, who recently traveled to Matamoros as part of an international labor delegation, told me. Prieto’s willingness to challenge the status quo isn’t limited to multinational companies, but also extends to the unions she says are too closely aligned to their would-be adversaries. “The companies have continued tripling and quadrupling their annual earnings, raking in billions of dollars while the workers are in a more precarious position every year, to the point they can’t even cover their basic needs,” Prieto told me in a phone interview. “That’s where this feeling of unrest started. They began to say, ‘We want to get rid of the unions. What do the unions do for us?’

Prieto’s critics argue that she fails to appreciate the complexity of the situation in Matamoros. “[Prieto] showed up without knowing the full situation here in Matamoros,” said Quintero, the labor analyst at the Colegio de Frontera Norte. “She brought the false idea that the [SJOIIM] was a ghost union that didn’t engage in contract negotiations, when in fact Matamoros is the exception to the rule.” Quintero argues that the SJOIIM’s ultimate victory in the 20/32 contract negotiations demonstrates that the union, while not perfect, is better than most of its counterparts under the CTM umbrella.

Critics also fear that Prieto is setting the stage for mass firings by encouraging strikes at factories like Adient and Reinfro, where non-SJOIIM unions lack the same contract language that tie salaries to the minimum wage. They cite a previous wildcat strike that Prieto spearheaded in Ciudad Juárez in 2016. In response, printer company Lexmark laid off its entire workforce. Prieto negotiated a settlement for the fired workers, leading some to speculate that she had benefitted financially.

Prieto told me that she was just getting the best possible deal for workers trapped in a difficult situation. Moreover, she says, the end goal of the 20/32 movement isn’t just a single contract victory, but a revolution in the entire system of union representation. “Our ultimate goal is to overthrow the CTM and the CROC [another powerful national union]. With the new labor laws coming into effect, we want unions that are run by the workers at each factory,” she says.

The new laws Prieto refers to were negotiated as part of the replacement for NAFTA. They are expected to pass in Mexico’s Congress before May. The proposed changes would allow workers to choose their union leadership by secret ballot. They also require that workers ratify labor contracts. If implemented honestly, these changes would prevent “protection contracts” from being approved without union members’ input and allow workers like those at Adient and Reinfro to leave their current union if they feel that it’s not fighting aggressively enough for their interests.

Quintero agrees that the democratization of the labor movement in Mexico is both desirable and possible. “The most important thing is that workers should get to decide whether or not to change their unions,” she said. “This is the overriding question: What type of unions do we want? The kind of unions that we should be supporting are those that are respectful of democracy and the rights of workers, no matter their affiliation.

Just the Beginning

The 20/32 movement has already proved remarkably successful in reaching an agreement with SJOIIM, but it has also come at a high cost. Since the strike began, more than 1,500 maquiladora workers have been fired from their jobs in retaliation for their participation, an action that was expressly prohibited by the new 20/32 contracts. So far, these workers have received no severance pay. Many workers report having been blacklisted, unable to find work in spite of hundreds of job openings posted in the Matamoros vicinity. Labor Secretary Luisa Alcalde has confirmed that some 1,000 workers were fired, though other media sources and the workers themselves have cited figured as high as 3,000. Alcalde recently announced the creation of a working group to try and mediate disputes between employers and workers.

The firings illustrate a basic challenge confronting the movement for union democratization: what appears on paper does not always happen in practice. Their situation also poses an early test of the federal government’s resolve to adhere to the rule of law in union negotiations, said Davis. “[Companies] are basically saying, ‘We’ll pay the money, but we’re going to cut off the head [of the 20/32 movement],” Davis said. “This is not over. It’s not over in the plants that have been signed, and it’s not over for the group that’s still on strike.”

Prieto told me that she has received calls from border cities including Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Juárez, and Tijuana, asking her to replicate the success of the 20/32 movement there. However, both Davis and Quintero expressed skepticism that efforts elsewhere could match the success in Matamoros. Each told me that many CTM unions are truly ghost unions, and in some cases are also infiltrated by drug cartels.

Despite these challenges, the fired workers I spoke with in Matamoros voiced continued support for the 20/32 movement they helped create. At a Valentine’s Day march organized at Matamoros’ Olympic Park in support of fired workers, 49-year-old Sandra Alvarez Puente, who worked eight years making car accessories at the AFX maquiladora, showed up wearing a white polo shirt with the logo Obreros Unidos Matamoros (United Workers of Matamoros) emblazoned on the chest. “We won the 20/32,” she said proudly. “Now we just want to work. We’re working people. We’re working women. I say that because the movement is 80 percent women—and the leadership, too.”

Standing nearby, Elena Rodríguez, was one of 35 employees fired from her company, Parker Dynamics, which makes car valves. “I am one of the leaders, and we’re strong,” she said. “We’re going to continue forward because it isn’t just one, or two, or three workers that are counting on us. It’s thousands.”

Daniel Blue Tyx is a freelance writer based in McAllen, Texas. He is a contributing editor at the Texas Observer, and his essays and journalism have appeared in the Oxford American, the Washington Post, and Best American Travel Writing.

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