Mexican maquiladora workers in 70 factories have won big wage increases and bonuses in a strike wave that began in January. 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, writes Paolo Marinaro and Dan DiMaggio from Labor Notes in Truthout. Workers were demanding a 20 percent wage increase and an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600)—a demand now popularized 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 percent 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 Laborers 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.
Most unions in Mexico’s maquiladoras oversee “protection contracts,” signed behind the backs of workers and aimed at keeping wages low. But the SJOIIM has a much better contract, built up over decades of struggle. That’s why these workers had the contract provision that they were demanding be enforced. It’s also why they had union delegates who could help mobilize for a strike.
The strikes spreaded beyond the 48 factories represented by the SJOIIM. Employees from another 35 factories have launched wildcat 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, 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 percent increase and 32,000 peso bonus to match other workers.
The federal government has remained neutral throughout the Matamoros dispute—which represents an important change in the relationship between the state and the Mexican labor movement. Close ties between Mexican union leaders and the ruling party apparatus for decades meant the government exercised tight control over most labor conflicts. This is something very different—workers pushing their demands independently. But with different actors vying for leadership, the future direction of the movement is still up in the air.