The rising of the maquiladora workers

February 11, 2019

Justin Akers Chacón, author of Radicals in the Barrio and No One is Illegal, reports on a strike wave in Matamoros, Mexico — and how it shows that the election of a left-wing government is raising the confidence and combativeness of Mexican workers.

A MAJOR strike wave has broken out in the maquiladoras of Matamoros, an industrial city in the state of Tamaulipas, across the U.S. border from Brownsville, Texas.

The strikes, which have taken on both the bosses and fake charro union leaders, were prompted in part by the raised expectations in the new government led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador — often known as AMLO — and his MORENA party.

It was a minimum wage bill from the new administration that sparked workplace agitation in Matamoros, and AMLO’s refusal to aggressively crack down on the strikes has given workers more confidence — even as some MORENA officials have sought other means to end the unrest.

The maquiladora industry is the largest sector of Mexico’s manufacturing base, with 6,208 registered maquiladoras employing about 3 million workers. In the state of Tamaulipas, there are 411 registered maquiladoras that employ about 257,000 workers. There are about 152 in operation in Reynosa, 111 in Matamoros, 33 in Nuevo Laredo and 62 in other parts of the state.

Striking workers take to the streets of Matamoros, Mexico
Striking workers take to the streets of Matamoros, Mexico

The industry in Matamoros has been booming for three years, yet the benefits have only accrued to the expanding ranks of multinational investors, and not to workers. Nevertheless, strikes have not been common in the industry and have been falling precipitously across the whole country.

Strikes have been on a steep decline in Mexico over the last two decades under both Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN) administrations. For instance, there were only 22 total strikes in Mexico during the six-year presidency of AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, with only five of those involving more than 1,000 workers.

Several factors have been considered to explain the low rate of strikes. These include the precarity of labor in Mexico, where labor protections and guarantees enshrined in law often go unenforced. The North American Free Trade Agreement has facilitated easy access for foreign capitalist investors to move freely into the Mexican economy to exploit labor — and flee if and when markets become no longer profitable.

Through corruption, partnerships and shared class interests, the ruling class capitalist parties — especially the PRI and PAN, which have historically controlled the local and state governments in the maquiladora zones — have worked hand in glove with maquiladora owners and the fake charro unions to use various tactics to squash authentic labor movements to ensure a “friendly” environment for investors.

These time-tested practices have not been successful in Matamoros this time around.

In January, the Mexican government issued a decree raising the minimum wage by 16 percent (from 88 pesos to 103 pesos per day, or $5.40), while doubling the minimum wage for workers in the border region (from 88 to 177 pesos per day, or $9.30).

While this increase has benefitted the poorest workers by raising the wage floor threshold, it fell below what the majority of maquiladora workers in the border city of Matamoros already make.

The new wage law coincided with the annual renegotiation of 45 maquiladora contracts, an industry practice unique to the sector in Matamoros. Typically a formality in which representatives of the state and local government, the maquiladora owners and the unions make arrangements over the heads of the workers, things changed this year.

The outcome of the contract proposal for the 35,000 workers covered by the contracts proved less than satisfactory, especially as they believed their wages should increase in proportion to the minimum wage increase.

Instead of a pay increase, the president of the Centro Coordinador Empresarial (CCE, the big business alliance of Matamoros that includes the maquiladora industry) announced that owners would instead agree to an adjustment in the ratio of employer/worker pay into retirement plans.

Some owners resisted any adjustments at all, using the minimum wage increase as an excuse to cancel productivity bonuses altogether. Others rallied behind statements made by Rogelio García Treviño, president of the La Cámara Nacional de la Industria de Transformación (CANACINTRA; National Maquiladora Association).

Fearing the national implications of wage increases in the maquiladoras in Matamoros, García Treviño pressured his regional counterparts to hold firm against pay increases and instead lay off workers if necessary to avoid increasing their overall annual budgets.

Workers make their own demands

As the maquiladora owners rejected pay increases, workers at three plants took the initiative to walk out in a wildcat strike on January 10. They called for a 20 percent wage raise and an increase in the annual bonus paid to workers to 32,000 pesos ($1,680).

The workers determined that their pay should increase by 20 percent as a relative proportion to the doubling of the minimum wage. They also factored the pay increase into their annual performance bonus. For the first time, they called for the bonus to be universal for all workers under contract as a standard.

Facing the first instances of workers’ confidence to strike and with pending production contracts now threatened, the maquiladora owners buckled in their efforts to stonewall. While publicly denouncing the initial labor stoppages as “premature” and “unnecessary,” they frantically offered a 7 percent wage increase and a 3,373 peso bonus ($177) to head off further strikes.

The president of the the Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de La Industria Maquiladora (SJOIMM), Juan Villafuerte Morales, was put into the unprecedented position of having to represent workers taking independent strike action. He urged that the owners to increase the proposal to 10 percent, which they did, but the workers rejected it.

Corrupt union leaders like Juan Villafuerte Morales, known as “charro” leaders, have historically functioned as a booster for the industry, seeing their role as supporting increases in jobs and facilitation of labor peace to ensure profits and growth for the companies and big payoffs for themselves at the expense of the workers.

This is reflected in the fact that workers’ demands are also directed at the union leadership. In some cases, the workers have called for an end or reduction of extortive union cuotas, or “fees” deducted from worker pay that only go to line the pockets of the union bosses.

Villafuerte Morales had worked closely with the maquiladora owners and municipal and state politicians to make Matamoros an ideal place for foreign investment by keeping wages and benefits constrained.

Each year, the union “renegotiates” the pay and benefits for the workers, without their input, and typically carries over contracts with little change. Charros are rewarded for their service of maintaining wages and benefits low, while more notorious union bosses go even further in robbing pay and benefits from their workers in a systematic way.

In this case, Villafuerte Morales recognized the gravity of the moment, as the workers’ movement was now quickly moving beyond his control.

In fact, on January 12, 2,000 of the most militant workers from the struck plants marched on the offices of the union to demand Villafuerte Morales’ resignation for failing to adequately represent them and their demands. According to one account:

Amid booing, whistles, and cries of “Villafuerte out!, Sell-out! and Cacique!, the workers arrived at the union headquarters. The leader opened the doors of the building and asked the workers to come in, but they refused and told him to come out onto the street to face them all directly.

After Villafuerte Morales made a feeble attempt to blame others for his failed leadership, the workers shouted him down. They demanded that he immediately declare and organize a strike in the 45 plants that have refused to concede. Even though he asked for more time to negotiate their demands and urged strikers to return to their jobs in the meantime, the workers continued on.

The following day workers shut down 15 more plants, placing red and black strike flags (banderas rojinegras) across the gates of the struck companies.

The owner’s offensive

In response, the maquila bosses went on an offensive, using their various local, regional and national media platforms and political connections to move against the strikes.

The president of the Matamoros Maquiladora Association, Rolando González Barrón, declared the strikes illegal as they were the result of “outside agitators” and lacked support from workers. He falsely claimed the workers in some struck plants were already returning to work, and that order would be restored soon.

Rusvel Rocha Aguinaga, the president of yet another capitalist grouping, the Confederation of Employers of Mexico in Matamoros, entered the fray, chastising the workers for threatening to drive maquiladora investors from the city.

The national maquiladora association, CANACINTRA, backed up this claim with a more direct threat to the well-being of the workers. CANACINTRA’s President Rogelio García Treviño, warned:

At stake is whether or not many businesses will remain, as we lose our image as an investor-friendly city. Many of these younger people haven’t seen what massive capital flight looks like; to enter into an industrial park and find it deserted. All that has been built up in previous years will be lost.

This was followed by exhortations from other regional and capitalist groupings, including the Northeast Union of Merchants and Entrepreneurs (UCEN) and the Employer’s Confederation of Mexico (COPARMEX), which combined admonitions for provoking capital flight with urgent appeals to accept the lower offers from the owners for the well-being of the city and country.

The CEO of one company, Cepillos de Matamoros, declared it would leave the city rather than pay the bonus after its 700 workers walked out.

In another struck plant, a multinational auto parts producer named INTEVA, the desperate owners tried to get office staff to take over production. Secretaries, human resource and payroll personnel and accountants were put on assembly lines in the hope that it would inspire other owners to follow suit to show the strikers that they were, in fact, not that essential and could be easily replaced. The gambit failed.

Political leaders follow the bosses’ lead

Facing an imminent explosion of strikes, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, the conservative PAN governor of Tamaulipas, moved into action by declaring the strikes illegal. Since Mexican labor law determines “illegal” strikes as illegitimate and affords workers no protections, this gave the green light for some companies to begin to fire their workers.

When this failed to quell the labor unrest, García Cabeza de Vaca then sent in his Secretary of Labor to institute a mandatory 10-day “cooling-off period” to move the process to arbitration through a state labor board. During this period, various national and state politicians and other political actors descended upon Matamoros in one capacity or another to lend their name to efforts to impede the strike.

Fernando Salgado, secretary general of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), arrived in Matamoros to advise its SJOIMM affiliate. The CTM is a notoriously corrupt national union aligned closely with the PRI. Salgado’s real aim was to help head off the strike, which he expressed as his desire to help “develop strategies to defend workers’ rights and the preservation of the maquiladora plants.”

The municipal president of Matamoros, Mario López Hernández, publicly lamented the negative impact that previous strike waves have had on the city’s economy, while the local Catholic bishop counseled workers to make “realistic, responsible and coherent decisions.”

When all of these efforts failed to demobilize the workers, the business groupings of Matamoros asked for federal intervention.

The president of the CCE, María del Carmen Cadena, petitioned for representatives from the offices of the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Labor to come to Matamoros to “explain to the working class that payment of 32,000 bonus is practically impossible, and that the increase in the minimum wage does not affect their pay.”

The head of the national business federation COPARMEX, Juan Carlo Hernández Flores, called on AMLO to make a pronouncement against the strike, blaming the labor actions on his minimum wage decree.

While the politicians, bosses and union leaders scrambled to prevent the further spread of the strike, a labor lawyer named Susana Prieto had been organizing meetings with workers gathered in front of the maquiladoras.

In successive videos live-streamed on Facebook, the tireless organizer and advocate documented quickly changing events, met and consulted with different groups of strikers daily and won the respect and leadership of the workers by explaining their rights, giving reports of other worksites and relaying other relevant information between centers. Working through this network, workers created their own delegated committee structures to represent their group and coordinate with others.

Daily mass meetings of representatives of the different plants were then moved to the front of the CTM building in the main plaza, where Villafuerte Morales and the SJOIMM union office is housed. The union leader was then compelled to give daily reports on negotiations and directly relay workers’ responses to proceedings, rather than work behind the scenes.

Rolando González Barrón, the Maquiladora Association of Matamoros head, fumed at the unfamiliar outbreak of democratic participation, grumbling in an interview: “It is truly frustrating that the [striking] workers and their delegates have come to agreements and do not authorize their union leader to really solve this problem.”

The maquiladora boss even sent his own team of lawyers to “advise” the workers as a ploy to isolate and discredit Susana Prieto, claiming she was an “outside agitator” who was “misleading the workers.” This also failed, as Prieto played an important role as adviser to the worker leaders at every stage in the process and had won their trust.

Building unity and common cause, the workers didn’t retreat or weaken their resolve through these various tactics to end their campaign. By January 24, it was reported that output from the maquiladora sector had declined by 35 percent — a loss of upwards of $100 million — sending shock waves through the industry.

Using the leverage of continued strike, the workers were able to wrest important concessions even as the owners had not conceded in the main demands. These concessions included the companies’ granting official recognition of the strikes, legally proscribing the use of strikebreakers (and reversing some of the previous firings) and providing guarantees to the delegates that there would be no further firings as negotiations continued.

Through these base-building successes, the groundwork was laid for large-scale coordination between the workers at all the different sites. The workers organized marches to each of the remaining open plants to call them out on strike and organize themselves around the now generalized demand of a 20 percent wage increase and 32,000 bonus, now referred to as “20/32.”

As negotiations dragged on over the next week, with the owners making offers below the established demand, the foundation was built for a complete and coordinated shutdown.

“Obreros unidos jamás serán vencidos”: A massive shutdown begins

With each side refusing to concede at the conclusion of arbitration, workers demonstrated their strength on the morning of January 25 by coordinating a massive strike shutdown by placing their banderas rojinegras across the gates of all 45 of the maquiladoras.

At least 35,000 workers were now out of the plants, bringing to a halt the manufacture of auto parts, electrical equipment, medical equipment, metal work, plastics and textiles across the industrial parks.

The walkouts coincided with a downpour of rain, yet workers gathered in throngs at the entrances of the factories, huddling under umbrellas and makeshift tarps to also maintain safety in numbers against any possible forms of repression — a specter raised when on the first day of the strike the military commander of the zone of Matamoros, Francisco Miguel Aranda Gutiérrez, sent in troops to occupy strategic areas across the city.

Not deterred, the strikers held their ground. Within two days, 11 of the companies conceded to the 20/32 demand.

Trying a different tactic, the owner of Autoliv, one of the struck auto parts plants, got a strike injunction issued by a sympathetic judge. When the Autoliv workers refused to return to work, Susana Prieto was contacted by Ricardo Monreal, a former PRIista who is now president of the Senate for the ruling MORENA party. Preito put the call on speakerphone in front of the workers, who heard him characterize the strike “illegal,” and that the workers should return to their jobs.

Monreal later denied any involvement, claiming that someone had impersonated him. The AMLO administration then dispatched several high-level functionaries from the office of the federal Secretary of Labor to Matamoros to participate in ongoing negotiations to end the strike.

Meanwhile, the state governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, through his secretary of economic development, tried other various legal maneuvers to block some of the strikes over technicalities associated with government jurisdiction, but failed.

He then sent in state police to break up the Autoliv strike, but they were unsuccessful as they were faced down by several hundred workers and community supporters who blocked the entrance gate and refused to move. With the help of Susana Prieto, they were then able to get the injunction overturned.

As one of the workers commented to La Jornada on the experience, “They want to scare us, but they are not going to succeed, this [strike] is for my children, and they will have to listen to the workers of Matamoros: We have raised our horns.”

By January 29, 19 of the companies conceded to the strike, and by February 6, 44 of the original 45 plant owners had capitulated and agreed to the 20/32 demands.

The strike spreads to other maquila sectors and industries

As the strike of SJOIMM-affiliated plants spread and began to chalk up victories, workers associated with a different maquiladora union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Plantas Maquiladoras y Ensambladoras (STPME), moved into action as well.

Like their counterparts in SJOIMM, workers in STPME had to organize against their own leadership. The secretary general of STPME, an even more corrupt charro boss named Jesús Mendoza Reyes, had taken a public position against the strike and even deployed his henchmen to harass and intimidate SJOIIM picketers in a show of loyalty to the owners.

On January 17, hundreds of rank and file maquiladora workers from STPME marched on the offices of Mendoza Reyes, demanding that they receive the same pay increases and bonuses as the SJOIIM workers. In a show of solidarity, some SJOIIM workers on strike had joined their march.

According to a report in El Bravo, the workers used the opportunity to criticize the corrupt union leaders, “denouncing their illicit innumerable public testimonies of lack of support when facing abuses, layoffs and humiliations in their workplaces. They also repudiated their union delegates, whom they called hypocrites and traitors.”

The events had also made some workers aware for the first time that the union had been stealing from them. According to one worker at the assembly, “We are just now just finding out that Jesus Mendoza had previously arranged bonus payments of 10,000 pesos for each worker affiliated to the union, but we have never seen any of it.”

Instead of facing the workers, Mendoza Reyes sent a representative, who was promptly booed and shouted down. The workers then demanded that Mendoza Reyes come out to face them himself, and that he provide the full text of their existing contracts — which were negotiated without their knowledge or input. Unable to produce either, the spokesperson scurried back into the building to angry shouts and denunciations from the crowd.

The union then closed its doors indefinitely. On February 1, three maquiladora plants affiliated with the STPME went out on strike for the 20/32 demands.

In some cases, workers didn’t even need to strike to win 20/32. Maquildoras owners contracted with a third maquiladora union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Química Petroquímica Carboquímica Gases Similares y Convexos de Matamoros, pre-empted the spread of a strike wave through their six plants by quickly implementing a 12 percent wage increase across the board on the eve of the mass shutdown on the 25th.

On February 4, it was announced that the owners of 12 plants affiliated with a fourth maquiladora union, el Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Maquiladora y Ensambladora (STIME), agreed to pay the 20/32 to also avoid the strike wave.

Nevertheless, the strike wave continued to spread to those recalcitrant companies that held back. On February 5, workers affiliated with the STPME and the STIME unions walked out of 17 more maquiladoras across other industrial parks indicating the continuation of the 20/32 strike wave. By February 9, this increased to over 30 additional work stoppages in maquiladoras, as well as strikes spreading to other sectors in the city.

Strikes spread beyond the maquiladoras

Strikes have also spread beyond the maquiladoras. Five hundred workers at the ARCA Continental Planta Noreste (Coca Cola) distribution center walked out on strike on January 31. While not a maquiladora, they are also part of the SJOIIM. They stopped all trucks from leaving the facility and are demanding the same 20 percent pay increase and 32,000 peso bonus across the board for all workers affiliated to the union.

The next day, on February 1, about 150 workers at the milk bottling plant Distribuidora de Lácteos Liderlac suspended their labor, leaving 200,000 liters of milk sitting idle, followed by another group at a different water bottling plant called Agua Purificada Blanquita.

Two days later, on February 3, workers affiliated with the Sindicato de Casas de Comercio (Retail Workers Union) based in Matamoros, began their own campaign for wage increases and restoration of bonuses that previously been eliminated.

Workers from Centro Comercial Smart and Centro Comercial Chedraui walked off the job to begin the strike. These were followed by a wave of shutdowns at the Soriana department stores across Matamoros. Twelve hundred workers walked out of six stores on a wildcat strike after their union failed to represent them in negotiations. In the absence of their union leadership, they were also in consultation with Susana Prieto.

In a remarkable statement of solidarity, the Soriana workers made a statement to a local newspaper, stating that “they know very well that they can be fired, but if they are able to increase the salary to those who are going to stay, this will fill satisfy those who have to leave.”

New period for Mexican labor under AMLO?

The presidential election of Andres Manuel López Obrador and the sweeping victory of the MORENA Party nationally has raised the expectations of Mexico’s vast working class population. Since coming into office, the left-populist government has implemented changes such as the raising of the minimum wage that have had a positive tangible impact on the standard of living for poor and working people.

The administration has also made a host of other promises that resonate with common people, including a pledge to expand free college, and to end to pervasive corruption that only enriches the elite.

In the northern border region, AMLO’s reforms have touched close to home. The administration recently made decrees to lower sales taxes and the personal income tax, and to reduce the cost of gasoline and electricity.

In Matamoros, MORENA won the top city position, with the election of Mario Alberto López Hernández as municipal president. One month before the strike, López Hernández did a publicity tour through the impoverished colonias in the city — where the maquiladora workers and their families are heavily concentrated — and announced to great fanfare that the federal government had pledged to invest $35 million into Matamoros to fight poverty.

He extolled the virtues of AMLO, declaring that “for the first time we have a president leading the federal government who will support the poor people, who will support these colonies with social services, drinking water, sewer systems, and with paved roads.”

As the maquiladora strike developed and the business sector and aligned state politicians appealed to the federal government to end the strikes, AMLO has refused to follow the strike-breaking practices of previous administrations. Since his election, he has reiterated that his administration would not be “a repressor of the people,” even as members of his party worked to end the strike by different means.

In the next two weeks, the office of the federal Secretary of Labor will make an official ruling on the legitimacy of the maquiladora strikes in accordance with Mexican law. This will reveal how AMLO’s government plans to approach the rising workers’ movement.

What is clear from the developments in Matamoros is that workers feel more confident to raise their heads and fight in their own interests in the space created by AMLO’s populist policies, whether or not this is the intention of his new ruling party.

Socialists in the U.S. should follow and show solidarity with these important developments. A revived workers’ movement in Mexico can be an important part of building stronger unions on both sides of the border.

Further Reading

From the archives