Mexican workers get boost in fight for wage raise by strike victories

By Seth Galinsky
March 18, 2019

After 35,000 workers at 45 mostly foreign-owned parts factories in Matamoros, Mexico, went on strike and won a 20 percent wage increase and a $1,700 bonus Feb. 11, new strikes have erupted pressing bosses for raises and better conditions.

Workers at three steel fabrication plants, the Coca-Cola bottling plant and other maquiladoras in the area have since walked off the job with similar demands. One sign at the Coca-Cola picket line said, “Now is the time.”

The maquiladora strikes, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, began Jan. 25, a few weeks after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador raised the minimum wage by 15 percent and doubled it in areas along the U.S. border to about $9 a day.

When maquiladora workers insisted that the owners raise their wages by at least 20 percent because of the minimum wage increase — as required by their contracts with the Union of Day Laborers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry — the bosses refused and the workers walked out.

After the strikers won their demands, bosses retaliated, firing some 1,500 workers. But that hasn’t stopped new strikes from breaking out.

“Our wages have always been the highest in the region, an average of $12.75 a day,” Javier Zúñiga, an official of the National Mine Workers Union, which organizes the steel fabrication plants, told the Militant  by phone from Matamoros March 1. But the workers there demanded a pay raise too and went on strike Feb. 25. “Yesterday we had an offer from the companies,” Zúñiga said. “But the workers didn’t agree.”

José Juan Deobal Santos, a mechanic at Siderúrgica del Golfo, a plant on strike, said, “We have been in solidarity with the maquiladora workers. The firings there are unjust. Everyone has the right to demonstrate and to go on strike.”

The bosses don’t think so. The Employers’ Confederation of the Mexican Republic and the National Association of Self-Service and Department Stores called on the government to step in and ensure “labor peace.”

The Mexican president said Feb. 28 that wages should rise, “but we shouldn’t create an atmosphere of labor instability.”

“People should consider the companies’ situation, there should be balance,” he added. “We have to preserve jobs.”

Strikebreaking attempt fails

The bosses have tried to take advantage of divisions and competing unions among the maquiladora workers and widespread anger with union officials seen as corrupt, to hold workers back.

The Matamoros Index Association called on workers to drop out of the unions before the start of the strike. On Jan. 18 they offered a small wage increase and issued a statement saying, “Like thousands of workers we feel we have been deceived and betrayed by those who portray themselves as union leaders.” They urged workers to negotiate directly with the bosses.

But the bosses underestimated the anger brewing among the workers over conditions in the plants and abusive treatment by management. Many workers have carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries from speedup. Workers are docked pay for arriving 10 minutes late to work. Even before the strike, workers had been holding assemblies and putting pressure on union officials to stand up to the bosses.

The bosses’ attempts at union busting failed. Workers on strike at the few maquiladoras where the bosses have not yet agreed to the 20 percent wage raise and the bonus have surrounded the plants.

According to La Silla Rota news website, workers at Mecalux, joined by workers from other factories, formed a “human chain” Feb. 26, preventing bosses and government officials who claimed the strike was illegal from entering the plant.

“Coca-Cola tried to bring in trucks from other cities to fill their orders here,” mechanic Deobal said. “But the strikers blocked the trucks from making deliveries.”

The Coca-Cola workers have been winning support. Cars lined up for blocks for a car wash and tamale sale to raise funds for the strike.

The union at Walmart México, which represents 8,000 workers in 10 states, is also threatening to go on strike if they don’t get an adequate pay hike.