“Queremos Vivir”: The Workers Who Wouldn’t Die for the Pentagon
Maquiladora workers in the border city of Mexicali strike against working conditions.
Workers in the Mexican border city of Mexicali, many of them young migrant women, were fighting for their lives. It was the deadliest point of the pandemic in 2020 in one of the hardest-hit states in Mexico, Baja California.
By May 2020, a local news outlet reported that 432 of the 519 Covid-19 fatalities to date had been workers in maquiladoras—assembly plants on the border that mostly supply the United States.
On April 8, 2020, the Mexicali workers forced two maquiladoras of Gulfstream — a U.S. aerospace company with several active contracts with the Department of Defense— to shutter for nearly a month. Though it was temporary, workers saw the closure of a prime Pentagon supplier as a victory.
By May 4, under pressure from the Pentagon, Mexico allowed these factories to reopen as “essential businesses.”
Mexicali, a city with a population of 1 million just across the border from Calexico, Calif., is home to maquiladoras that employ a total of 70,000 workers making parts and products for U.S. medical, automotive, telecommunications and electronics industries, among others. Mexicali and Tijuana, both in Baja California, together host most of the aerospace maquiladoras in Mexico, at least four of which are current Pentagon contractors.
Hundreds of workers across 90 of Mexicali’s 124 maquiladoras staged work stoppages in April 2020.
“The fact is that workers managed to close the maquiladoras,” says Jesús Casillas, an organizer with the workers’ rights group Organización Política del Pueblo y los Trabajadores (“Political Organization of People and Workers,” or OPT). “Nobody can take that [win] away from them.”
That victory hinged on the use of social media. Facebook pages of various labor organizations, including OPT, were crucial to amplifying the workers’ concerns — by posting anonymous testimonials that workers sent in.
“We helped workers by giving them a platform,” says Liliana Plumeda, an OPT organizer. “Many of them were afraid of being fired. After seeing that there was solidarity, workers had the courage to organize.”
When Mexican President Manuel López Obrador issued a decree March 30, 2020, declaring the pandemic a health emergency and closing all businesses except essential economic activities such as agricultural work and medical manufacturing, many maquiladoras in Mexicali ignored it.
And Gulfstream, which employs 2,200 workers to produce electrical wire harnesses, sheet metal components, sub-assemblies and machined parts in its two Mexicali plants, remained open. By then, Gulfstream was working on a U.S. Department of Defense contract to build G280 and G550 aircraft (known by the U.S. Air Force as C-37B planes), components of which are assembled in its Mexicali factories. At least three other U.S. companies with maquiladoras in Mexicali had active contracts with the Pentagon in the spring of 2020: the engine and electrical manufacturer Honeywell, the sheet metal assemblies manufacturer Jonathan Engineered Solutions (JES), and the aircraft electronics manufacturer Collins Aerospace.
They all kept operating despite the mandated lockdowns.
None of these four companies provided a public explanation of why their factories’ work was essential. Spokespeople for Honeywell and Gulfstream told In These Times that their aerospace factories in Mexicali were deemed critical enterprises by the Baja California state government. The March 30 presidential decree, however, does not refer to the aerospace industry as essential, and in early April the Baja California secretaries of health and labor issued a public statement saying maquiladora workers should have been at home since April 1, but the factories had refused to close.
It is possible to trace the successful efforts of Mexicali workers to temporarily disrupt the supply chain of the U.S. war machine by reading dozens of April 2020 testimonies, documented separately by OPT, the local civil society organization Mexicali Resiste (“Mexicali Resists”), and the independent union Sindicato Bajacaliforniano de Trabajadores de Empresas Maquiladoras (“Baja California Union of Maquiladora Company Workers,” or Sibatrem) — and shared exclusively with In These Times. The workers’ testimonies showcase the spontaneous resistance to dangerous working conditions in a region where the coronavirus was spreading faster than anywhere else in Mexico.
“Workers have not been sent home regardless of the positive cases of Covid-19,” a Gulfstream worker’s wife wrote to Mexicali Resiste by Facebook message April 8, 2020. “Many workers like my husband are still locked up there,” she said. (Messages have been translated from their original Spanish.)
Four days later, another Gulfstream worker wrote to OPT: “They have us working without [protective] measures, last night they found a [Covid-19] case and they don’t want to send us home.”
“There have been cases of Covid patients and they do not even take the necessary measures or inform us so we can take care of ourselves,” a Gulfstream worker wrote on April 6, 2020, to Mexicali Resiste. On a post made public by OPT, another Gulfstream worker wrote: “The truth is, for fear of being fired, people do not do work stoppages because they have us very threatened.” The worker added: “In my area on Tuesday, a colleague tested positive for Covid-19 and, do you know what they did? They made us go back in.”
According to a worker’s message to OPT on April 8, 2020, Gulfstream managers said both their Mexican and American lawyers concluded the company was essential because it supported “U.S. Army manufacturing, in addition to doing logistics at airports.”
SHUTTING IT DOWN
Some of these anonymous workers granted the workers’ rights organizations permission to post the complaints on Facebook. The organizations also encouraged workers to defend their right to remain home if they were not doing essential labor and denounced companies that violated the presidential emergency decree. None of the groups, however, directly organized any labor action.
Yet workers staged strikes in about 90 Mexicali maquiladoras in April 2020, according to the news website La Izquierda Diario (“The Left Journal”), which noted the role of social media platforms in amplifying the workers’ struggle. Women were crucial to the resistance as they comprise most of the workers at the plants. They tend to be young, single and with some level of elementary education; many come from elsewhere in Mexico or are migrants from Central America. Their rallying cry during the pandemic was simple: “Queremos vivir,” or, “We want to live,” according to a July 2020 op-ed by maquiladora worker María Guadalupe in La Izquierda Diario.
The stoppages took place without a central organizing group and apart from the official Mexican unions. Most “unions” in Mexico are actually “company unions” — subservient to owners and employers.
On April 9, workers began to halt labor at the Honeywell maquiladora, a Mexicali producer of aircraft heat exchangers manufactured under military contract in April 2020. Soon after, workers at JES organized a work stoppage. Work at the two Gulfstream factories continued, but workers posted dozens of complaints on the Facebook pages of local organizations throughout the month.
Gulfstream forced its workers to keep showing up for work or go home without pay, according to the testimonies of two workers. When workers denounced Gulfstream on social media for putting their health at risk by refusing to close, the company pressured them to take vacation days, according to an internal company memo posted by Mexicali Resiste on April 7, 2020. Gulfstream also tried to deter workers from organizing, says Luciana Benítez, an attorney at Sibatrem, which gave legal advice to more than 100 Gulfstream employees. Managers told workers to leave earlier than usual so they would not have a chance to communicate and organize with the next shift as workers arrived, according to Benítez.
Also on April 7, 2020, Baja California Sen. Alejandra del Carmen León Gastélum denounced several maquiladoras for operating even though their activities were not essential. Among those named were Collins Aerospace and Gulfstream.
After the public pressure, Gulfstream temporarily suspended activities April 8, 2020, although managers told workers to return to work the following Monday. On April 10, however, Baja California Gov. Jaime Bonilla Valdez officially shut down 12 maquiladoras in Mexicali, including the Gulfstream and JES plants.
The closure notice was posted at the gates of Gulfstream, and the company issued a memo acknowledging the suspension until April 14, 2020.
The company stated workers would still receive full wages and benefits.
Workers took the memo as a victory: Their facebook posts read, “Sí se pudo” (“Yes we could”). “Justice was served,” one worker wrote.
The challenges workers had to overcome in order to stand together were significant. Labor organizing in the maquiladoras at the Mexican border is very difficult, says Margarita Ávalos, founder of Ollin Calli, a workers’ rights organization in Tijuana. Many workers are Indigenous women who arrive at the maquiladoras having already faced a history of violence and abuse and are afraid to lose their jobs, focused completely on sending money home.
All told, a number of maquiladoras, including Honeywell and Collins Aerospace, shut down for varying periods in April, under government orders or worker pressure.
By the end of the month, the Pentagon had retaliated forcefully. That intervention ended what Juan Carlos Vargas, an OPT organizer, calls “the rebellion in the maquiladoras.”
The Pentagon made clear its intentions to reopen its supply chain. In an April 20, 2020, press briefing, Ellen Lord, then-undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said that companies in Mexico were “impacting many of our major primes,” referring to the military’s primary contractors, which include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. General Dynamics, which wholly owns Gulfstream as a subsidiary, amassed military contracts in 2020 worth $21.8 billion, making it the Pentagon’s third-largest contractor.
Lord said she had spoken with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and the Mexican foreign minister “to ask for help to reopen international suppliers,” who were “especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” Pentagon officials were also calling industry associations, she said. “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us,” Lord added.
Vargas, from OPT, said the Pentagon’s statement meant “a very drastic change” in how the Mexican government was managing the 2020 lockdowns and reopenings. Vargas said the Baja Californian secretaries of health and labor had regularly appeared in the media to advise workers to file complaints against employers that violated the health emergency decree, for example — but after the Pentagon’s statement, there were no news clips of state officials advocating for workers’ rights. The administration of new Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Ávila Olmeda, who took office in November 2021, had no comment on the actions of its predecessor.
Demands from U.S. officials piled up. Christopher Landau, then-U.S. ambassador to Mexico, wrote on Twitter on April 21, 2020: “I’m doing all I can to save supply chains between Mexico, the United States and Canada.” A day later, the National Association of Manufacturers, with 14,000 company members, sent a letter to President López Obrador stating its concerns about the health emergency decrees, which threatened “our companies’ essential manufacturing facilities.”
Chus, an organizer from Mexicali Resiste who asked to be identified by his first name only in order to keep attention on the workers, says, “At first, there was at least an attempt by the [Mexican] federal government to stop the flow of people to the work centers.” However, he added, when pressure mounted from the United States, “the federal and the state governments folded.”
Just three days after the Pentagon’s statement, President López Obrador said he expected an agreement “in due course” to allow factories on the border to begin operating normally again.
On May 4, 2020, the state government allowed 100 maquiladoras in Baja California — Gulfstream among them — to resume activities. Company managers communicated that the facilities would reopen that same day, despite the Covid-19 spike.
The price paid for those aircraft parts, in lives, is huge. By the end of 2020, Baja California was tied for the highest rate of Covid-19 deaths in Mexico. In Mexico City, the main cause of death for women in 2020 was heart failure; in Baja California, the main cause for women (and men) was Covid-19, reflected in the toll the pandemic took on female maquiladora workers.
An internal memo from Gulfstream, dated May 20, 2020, said the company would lay off workers and suspend bonuses for productivity, among other benefits, to preserve its “long- term health” following the pandemic disruptions. Workers estimated that 50 individuals were laid off. Benítez, of Sibatrem, claims the company “took advantage of the Covid-19 situation to get rid of people with seniority and those with chronic illnesses,” though in many cases the workers received severance, as required by Mexican labor law. Gulfstream spokesperson Christian Flathman says the layoffs were part of “company-wide cost-cutting measures … to address challenges caused” by Covid-19.
The struggle in the maquiladoras marked a sequel to another massive demonstration in Mexicali; in 2017, the U.S. company Constellation Brands (producer of Corona and Modelo beer for the U.S. market) planned to acquire exclusive rights to water in the drought-stricken Mexicali Valley. Tens of thousands of people successfully prevented the company from installing a facility in the region.
The experience of that resistance seemingly bore more fruit in 2020, inspiring “the rebellion in the maquiladoras” — which also provided lessons for Mexicali’s civil society, says OPT’s Vargas. Ultimately, labor organizing in Mexicali — fueled in good measure by migrant women — offered some protection for workers in dangerous conditions, at least temporarily, and despite disrupting the supply chain for prime Pentagon contractors.
Like the defense of water in 2017, the rebellion in the maquiladoras, Vargas says, is helping people imagine how to organize and face future challenges.
This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. Jocelyn Martinez and Zoe Pharo contributed fact-checking.
Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.