Mexican Workers Are Engaging in Wildcat Strikes at the Border

Kent Paterson January 25, 2019

Ciudad Juárez has seen labor unrest against companies withholding bonus pay. (PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cat­alyzed by the Mex­i­can government’s min­i­mum wage hike in the north­ern bor­der zone, wild­cat protests in Mexico’s assem­bly-for-export indus­try, or maquilado­ras, greet­ed the first weeks of the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Work­ers tem­porar­i­ly halt­ed pro­duc­tion or walked off the job at main­ly for­eign-owned auto­mo­tive and elec­tron­ic fac­to­ries in Ciu­dad Juárez, Mata­moros, Agua Pri­eta and Cananea.

A com­mon link in the protests has been com­pa­ny non-pay­ment of pro­duc­tion and atten­dance bonus­es typ­i­cal­ly offered to work­ers along with a dai­ly wage.

The largest job actions occurred in Mata­moros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. Accord­ing to Mex­i­can labor lawyer Susana Pri­eto, about 35,000 work­ers at near­ly 50 plants under a union con­tract were primed for a strike as of Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 25.

Pri­eto, who rep­re­sent­ed work­ers dur­ing the his­toric maquilado­ra work­er protests of 2015 – 16 in Ciu­dad Juárez and is cur­rent­ly involved in the Mata­moros move­ment, con­tend­ed that work­ers’ earn­ings in Mata­moros have plum­met­ed 50 per­cent over the last 22 years. “(Work­ers) need the bonus­es,” she stressed.

The bonus take­aways hap­pened as López Obrador’s cam­paign promise of dou­bling the dai­ly min­i­mum wage in the country’s north­ern bor­der zone was set to go into effect on Jan­u­ary 1

Yet fed­er­al busi­ness income tax­es were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly slashed in the bor­der zone by AMLO’S admin­is­tra­tion, as com­pen­sa­tion for the min­i­mum wage hike. The high­er north­ern bor­der min­i­mum wage is part of the new government’s strat­e­gy of boost­ing the region­al econ­o­my through enhanced con­sumer spend­ing pow­er, har­mo­niz­ing prices with U.S. sis­ter cities, attract­ing invest­ment and erad­i­cat­ing poverty.

In a Jan­u­ary 4 speech in Reynosa, Tamauli­pas, AMLO laid out oth­er ratio­nales for the min­i­mum wage hike. He recalled meet­ing a woman maquilado­ra work­er in Reynosa who was earn­ing about six dol­lars a day and labor­ing 12-hour shifts, four days a week.

Imag­ine the moth­er of a fam­i­ly that has to work 12 hours? Who does she leave the kids with?” the pres­i­dent asked. The salary increase, then, is a mat­ter of jus­tice and humanism.”

Dr. Kathy Staudt, pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at El Paso has long fol­lowed labor issues in the bor­der­lands. The author and com­mu­ni­ty activist was­n’t sur­prised that des­per­ate­ly low-paid maquilado­ra work­ers” would engage in a strike espe­cial­ly after for­eign-owned fac­to­ry employ­ers got around AMLO’s min­i­mum wage increase by cut­ting work­ers’ for­mer incen­tive and bonus payments.” 

Added Staudt, The cost of liv­ing is high in the bor­der­lands. AMLO made the right move in dou­bling the legal min­i­mum to approx­i­mate­ly US$9 per day (a lit­tle more than an hourly min­i­mum wage in the Unit­ed States). Just as gaso­line and sales tax rates are now being pegged to U.S. costs, so also should Mex­i­co move soon to nar­row­ing the huge dis­par­i­ties in wages from one side of the bor­der to the other.” 

In Mata­moros, thou­sands skirt­ed their union lead­er­ship by con­duct­ing work stop­pages and reg­u­lar street march­es in the days lead­ing up to Jan­u­ary 25. Their demands includ­ed a wage hike of 20 per­cent and the pay­ment of bonus­es of approx­i­mate­ly 1,500 dollars. 

Protests erupt­ed at the com­pa­nies Tri­donex, Auto­liv and Starkey de Mex­i­co, among others.

Pri­eto said the new Mata­moros labor move­ment was immersed in a four-way strug­gle against com­pa­nies, the Tamauli­pas state gov­ern­ment, a bought-off” press that defames” the work­ers and the Sindi­ca­to de Jor­naleros y Obreros de la Indus­tria Maquilado­ra union lead­er­ship under Juan Vil­la­fuerte. His lead­er­ship was crit­i­cized by pro­test­ers for not rep­re­sent­ing work­ers’ inter­ests while ben­e­fit­ing from pay­check deductions.

(Work­ers) don’t want Vil­la­fuerte. They want a spe­cial meet­ing to name a new leader,” Pri­eto said.

Mata­moros maquilado­ra indus­try spokesper­sons and their allies assert­ed that labor unrest was scar­ing off investors, caus­ing eco­nom­ic loss­es and cre­at­ing a bad image of the city.

The inde­pen­dent La Izquier­da Diario (The Left Dai­ly) charged that its Mata­moros cor­re­spon­dents and oth­er inde­pen­dent media were intim­i­dat­ed by com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives and local police. 

The maquilado­ra protests emerged as an ear­ly test of AMLO’s left-lean­ing Fourth Trans­for­ma­tion pro­gram in which the rela­tion­ships of the state, cor­po­ra­tions, unions and their work­ers and the press could be rede­fined in a pro­gres­sive direc­tion. The alter­na­tive is for them to remain mired in unequal pow­er relationships.

Pri­eto called the cur­rent junc­ture a his­toric moment” herald­ing work­ers to rise up and demand their due and dignity. 

Per­haps it will take these coura­geous and risky wild­cat strikes to press both the gov­ern­ment and employ­ers who for too long have been grow­ing the econ­o­my on the backs of low-wage work­ers liv­ing from pay­check to pay­check,” Staudt said. 

Kent Pater­son has cov­ered Mex­i­co and the bor­der­lands for 35 years.
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