Letter from Mexico: Maquiladora workers strike in Matamoros

 From the March-April 2019 issue of News & Letters

by J.G.F. Héctor

On Jan. 25 more than 30,000 workers from 45 maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories on the border exempt from certain duties) in the northern city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, began a strike demanding a 20% salary increase and an annual bonus amounting to $1,700 USD. 

At the beginning of the year, President López Obrador had decreed doubling the minimum wage from $4.60 to $9.20 per day in the northern zone of Mexico, where there is a large concentration of maquiladoras that produce goods for export. It was part of his progressive-populist political program to further encourage economic activity in the region.

BOSSES DEFY MINIMUM WAGE LAW

However, businesses refused to put the measure into practice, arguing it was “impossible to afford.” The workers from the 45 maquiladoras, in one of the two major unions in the city, went on strike. They did so without the approval of their union, which at first sided with the owners. The workers’ resistance forced the union to side with them. 

Workers are demanding a yearly bonus equal to the sum of the minimum wage increase, that is, $4.60 multiplied by 365 = $1,700 USD, plus a 20% increase for 2019. Inspired by these strikers, other workers from different branches, some of them belonging to the other major union in the city, have gone on strike too. 

Little by little, the owners have had to accept the workers’ demands. As we go to press, at least 70 out of the 110 maquiladoras in Matamoros, among other businesses, had done so.

While Obrador’s decree was the catalyst for the uprising, it is not to him or his government that this first workers’ success should be attributed. Indeed, he did little to force the owners to raise the minimum wage. The success is due to the workers’ resistance together with the economic factors in play. 

Since around the mid-1960s, many maquiladoras began operating in the north of Mexico. Cheap labor makes them extremely profitable in international markets. Several foreign businesses are in Mexico because of that.

Even doubling the minimum wage does not stop their considerable profits. Furthermore, as capital has done historically, the increased wage will probably be met with automation and intensification of labor, so that the rate of profit “returns to balance” from capital’s perspective. Many workers will then be unemployed. Businesses have already retaliated by firing workers who took part in the strike. 

While owners have accepted the wage increase on paper, they have yet to put it in practice. In other cases, they have simply asked the police to repress the strikers. How will the workers respond to this? There is still a lot to be fought.

STRIKING OVER UNION OBJECTIONS

While this new moment of workers’ revolt has been focused on wages, it certainly contains the seeds for future developments. We have seen the workers going on strike despite the union’s initial opposition. Will they keep going deeper to question the very grounds of exploitation, that is, the capitalist mode of production itself? How could we assist them practically and philosophically? 

Can this new moment of workers’ revolt be one of the cornerstones—together with the Native peoples’ resistance against extractivism, people from the city rejecting urban development, teachers and students demanding new forms of education, women against gender violence, etc.—that put into jeopardy the very core of López Obrador’s progressive administration and thus opens the door to a truly new society?

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