In early January, over 45,000 workers from 48 maquiladora manufacturing factories in Matamoros, Mexico, began a month-long strike, culminating on February 9 with a 20% raise and a significant bonus payment. The enthusiasm over the victory was contagious. Dozens more maquiladoras have since gone out on wildcat strikes, as well as a handful of department stores and Coca-Cola bottling plants, a university workers’ strike in Mexico City, and several other stoppages in different sectors across the country.
Heroica de Matamoros, located on the US border, is a key city for the maquiladora export industry which assembles and processes parts for big multinational companies in the auto, textile, chemical, and electronics sectors. As such, its economy is highly dependent on US multinationals, which rely on the cheaper cost of labor and can avoid taxes, environmental and trade restrictions through the maquiladora system.
Workers in Matamoros earn 30% less than the national average, and at most maquiladoras they make just above the minimum wage, surviving on only US$300 a month. Their 10-hour workdays are strictly regimented, and many are forced to work overtime due to the low wages, sometimes over 17 hours a day. The Mexican working class has seen a terrible deterioration in its conditions over the last 30 years, including an 80% decrease in the real minimum wage, attacks on pensions, increasing job precarity, and an unprecedented crisis of corruption and violence.
Within this context, the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) proposed an overall 16% increase in the minimum wage for 2019 and a 100% increase for those working on the northern border. While this is still not enough for minimum-wage workers to live a dignified life, it is the most substantial minimum wage increase in the last 23 years, providing meaningful relief from the exacerbated misery of the recent past. More importantly, these measures have reinvigorated the workers, the majority of whom voted for AMLO in the elections last year. AMLO and his administration certainly didn’t intend for the proposal to spark a strike. However, the workers took AMLO’s words and proposals at face value, made them their own, and spontaneously moved to improve their lives.
For their part, the maquiladora union leaders negotiated a meager 5% wage increase—far below the workers’ expectations. As a result, thousands of workers poured spontaneously into the streets to demand that the contract negotiations be made public. They formed public assemblies demanding a 20% wage increase and an increase in their yearly bonus from 4,000 pesos to 32,000 Mexican pesos.
These events reveal the nature of the current trade union leaders, who held closed-door negotiations to make a backroom deal with the employers. These corrupt bureaucrats, called “charros” by the rank and file, do as the bosses tell them, and put a brake on the struggle through maneuvers and intimidation—sometimes even receiving money directly from the companies to undermine and confuse the workers they are supposed to represent. Under pressure from below, the “charros” agreed to call a strike on January 25—but only after the workers threatened to burn down the union hall.
In the course of the struggle, the working class showed its strength, creativity, and willingness to fight. In one particularly inspiring event on the night of January 17, thousands of workers marched from factory to factory in the industrial complex to encourage every plant to come out and join the strike. In the week before the union-ratified strike, there were major stoppages in many of the 48 factories involved. Mass assemblies took place in the city’s main square, in the factories, and in union halls.
From the beginning, the bosses used direct retaliation through layoffs, locking employees in the factories, and even fabricating government documents stating that the strike was illegal. Some strikers were physically assaulted, as was the case of one particularly militant worker who was abducted and beaten while leaving a rally at night. Large numbers of armed police were also sent in to intimidate the workers. Several companies also offered “carrots” in the form of free food, raffle prizes for every shift, and bonuses, in exchange for returning to work. However, any doubts or fears from individual workers were cut across by the working-class unity that spontaneously emerges during such struggles. In the end, a vast majority of workers participated in the strike.
The bosses claimed losses of $23,000 per minute for every idle production line. If these claims are true, then the workers in a single assembly line produce the equivalent of 2,700 times a worker’s daily wage every single minute. And yet, the bosses insist that they can’t afford the demands for modest wage increases and bonuses—such is the hypocrisy of the ruling class.
The power of the working class resides in the fact that they create all wealth in society. It is precisely by withholding their labor during strike action that the workers become conscious of their strength, proving that they can hurt profits and paralyze entire sectors of the economy. The organic crisis of capitalism is now pushing the working class to its limits, and new battles are on the horizon. The successful, militant strike in Matamoros provides an inspiring example, marking the beginning of a new period for the class struggle in Mexico—and beyond.