Mexican Unions Scent Victory in Border Company Battle

The saga shows what a Left government can do for workers

A mass strike at 48 manufacturing plants in Mexico’s border city of Matamoros is heading for victory for independent unions in Mexico.

The strike has been spurred on by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) who has doubled the minimum wage in Mexico’s border zones. The walkouts involve 25,000 workers.

Pay increases for workers who earn less than $1 an hour, or about 100 pesos a day, assembling auto parts and electrical goods for export to the USA has caused companies to get very nervous.

Many of the US and European owned companies claim they will go out of business. Independent unions say this is nonsense, making the point the ‘border plants’ still earn far less than their counterparts in the USA.

With only a few days on strike a majority of the export plants in Matamoros — 29 companies with a total of 34 factories — have agreed to union demands.

After taking office on December 1st, AMLO doubled the minimum wage in communities along the US border to 176.20 pesos a day, the equivalent of $9.28 cents.

With maquiladora pay averaging about 146 pesos ($7.70) a day, the Matamoras workers went on strike to demand the 20 percent raise be applied to everybody — even those making above the minimum — and a one-time bonus of about $1,685.

Javier Zuniga, an activist with the Los Meineros metal and miners’ union, who helped co-ordinate the strike, said:

“Perhaps he didn’t take into account what was in the labour contracts. The president acted in good faith, but he didn’t measure the impact that was going to have on union contracts, and the workers came out winners for once.”

Los Mineros is a member of the global union Workers Uniting consisting of Unite in UK and Ireland and the United Steelworkers in the USA and Canada.

All of this has been achieved against a background of the battle by independent unions against company imposed ‘yellow’ unions.

Pro-company unions have negotiated poor pay deals and sign agreements called ‘protection contracts’ with companies without any consultation with the workforce, often signed before factories are even built.

They have also been implicated in violence, assassinations of workers who wish to be represented an independent union rather than one chosen by the company.

Lopez Obrador had been wary of antagonizing Mexican business but he has opened the floodgates. The employer’s body representing ‘maquiladora’ companies said federal officials actively discouraged the Matamoros unions from seeking pay increases.

The Labour Department refused to confirm that, saying only that it sent mediators to Matamoros to try to defuse the dispute.

The employers have now gone into panic mode saying: “This will give rise to unemployment and cause at least 15 of these companies to flee”. They fear that wage demands will spread to other areas along the border “where the industry is present and will project a very bad image for foreign direct investment.”

They fear that workers in border cities with assembly plants, like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez are going to demand their raises to 176 pesos – the new minimum, and probably across the board.

Lopez Obrador has come under severe pressure from employers to rein in wage demands, but he is unlikely to do so.

He promised Mexico’s unions union freedom and to stay out of unions’ internal affairs – for Mexico’s hard pressed unions that is a big step forward against pro-company ‘yellow unions’ and ‘protection contracts’.

This saga shows that a left government can make positive change on employment rights.

Update: On Tuesday, after Tony wrote this, 44 of the 48 factories agreed to raise wages by 20%

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary of Unite

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