Union Strikes Secure Wage Hikes in Matamoros

In the Mexican border town of Matamoros, manufacturing, or maquiladora, plant workers are on course to win raises after nearly half a month of mass strikes. According to the El Paso Times, strikes at 48 local manufacturing plants, most of which produce car parts destined for the U.S., by laborers earning less than $1 an hour led to the concessions. The wage increases were also prompted by a decree from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is commonly known as AMLO, doubling the wage rates in Mexico’s northern border region.

According to the People’s World, the maquiladora plants are the result of a 1964 development project of the Mexican government that authorized the construction of foreign-owned plants with the caveat that all products would be sold outside Mexico. During the industry boom, lasting from the 1950s to the 1980s, the minimum wage in Matamoros was above the national minimum wage, 198 pesos (equivalent to $15.84) a day rather than the national minimum wage of 140 pesos ($11.20) a day.

During the 1980s, as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari laid the groundwork to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he arrested members of the local Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) union to weaken labor opposition, allowing the plants to drastically lower wage rates.

In a mid-January decree, AMLO promised to double the minimum wage in Mexico’s border regions along with a reduction of gas prices and a decrease in the value-added tax in an effort to make the region more appealing to investment, according to CBS 4 Valley Central. However, Matamoros-based manufacturing plants sought to undercut the initiative because many union contracts are indexed to wage hikes, according to the El Paso Times.

According to Julia Quiñones, the director of the Border Committee of Women Workers in Ciudad Acuña, the maquiladora plants raised the base wage of laborers but slashed bonuses, thus “not raising the wages at all.” Coupled with the higher cost of living in the northern border region and a rapid increase in the prices of basic necessities in Matamoros, laborers were left little choice but to strike.

After a series of “wildcat walkouts,” over 2,000 workers occupied the offices of the Union for Workers in the Maquiladora Industry (SJIOM) on January 18, demanding the union declare an official strike after the maquiladora plants threatened mass firings and plant closures. A mass walkout strike on January 27 followed this demonstration, which was reported by the El Paso Times to include more than 25,000 laborers. According to Excélsior, the workers demanded a 20 percent wage increase for all workers—including those already making more than the minimum wage—and an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos ($168).

On February 2, less than a week after the strike, SJIOM leaders said that a majority of the plants had agreed to meet the union demands, in what Jose Zuniga, a miners’ union activist who helped organize the strike, called a “rare victory for workers” in an interview with the El Paso Times.

While the head of the association of maquiladora plants, Luis Aguirre, warned that the wage increase “will give rise to unemployment and cause… 15 of these companies to flee,” Quiñones holds a far more positive outlook, saying, “What we’re seeing in Matamoros is that rank-and-file workers are becoming more conscious and aware, and that makes me optimistic.”