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Is Mexico on the Brink of a Labor Revolution?

The Trump administration's new NAFTA revisions and a labor-friendly Mexican president could turn unexpected strikes on the border into a movement that transforms both countries.

Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg/Getty

On a Wednesday afternoon in late March, dozens of striking metalworkers gathered outside the gates of a steel factory three miles south of the Texas border. “Get out corrupt unions!” a banner read. The event was broadcast on Facebook Live, receiving over 10,000 views within hours. Messages of support streamed in from across Mexico, and the Mexican diaspora as far away as Texas, Florida, France, and Dubai. It was a calm day—workers grilled chicken thighs and sausages over charcoal in the shade of palm trees; a reporter asked for interviews. Four days later, on March 31, state police in riot gear would show up outside the plant, beating workers and tearing apart their encampment. The metal workers, who earn roughly $2 an hour, had been on strike over their wages for 55 days without pay.

The strike is part of an ongoing struggle between workers and U.S. manufacturing suppliers in Matamoros, a Mexican border city of half a million, known to many in the U.S. only as a migrant checkpoint. Since January 12, around 50,000 workers have gone on strike in Matamoros—including those employed by or supplying to Walmart, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Ford, Telsa, and Auto Zone. Another 15,000 non-union workers have staged illegal work stoppages. It’s the largest strike the city has seen in 30 years in a country with a long history of endemic, and at times violent, worker suppression. The so-called maquiladora industry workers in Matamoros, some of them deported migrants from the U.S., have demanded a 20 percent raise and a onetime bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,655), calling themselves the “20/32 movement.” In recent weeks, 90 out of 95 factories in Matamoros have conceded to workers, leading labor analysts to predict, at long last, an upheaval of traditional labor relations in Mexico—what has been called “a labor spring.”

For decades, pro-government unions in Mexico have suppressed workers’ collective bargaining rights by colluding with factories to keep wages low—enticing U.S. industrialists to move their manufacturing operations south of the border. But now, the country has its first leftist, labor-friendly president in modern Mexican history. And the United States has offered another stimulus to union activity: Amidst the new protections for the pharmaceutical industry, provisions that require more car parts to be made in the United States, and the tightening of intellectual property laws, the Trump administration’s overhaul of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) in 2018 also included provisions that require Mexico to recognize independent unions, hold democratic union elections for contracts and leadership, and establish independent labor courts. “It’s been 30 years of union suppression. Thirty years without real raises for workers,” said Alfonso Bouzas, a labor expert at the Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México in Mexico City. “Now we’re going to have more and more labor movements in Mexico.”

The trigger for the strikes, odd though it may sound, was a wage increase. On January 1, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador doubled the minimum wage on the U.S.-Mexico border to $9.20 a day (the rest of Mexico received a 16 percent increase to $5.30 a day). Most manufacturing workers in Matamoros already earned this amount. They soon became aware of a provision in their union contracts—unique to Matamoros—that requires companies to match federal minimum wage increases.

Two weeks later, “wildcat” strikes, i.e. those not authorized by union leadership, broke out in 45 maquiladoras across Matamoros—mostly auto-parts manufacturers, including Adient, which claims to make one in every three automotive seats in the world. Soon, workers at grocery stores like Sam’s Club, Walmart, and even the city’s main milk distributor, Leche Vaquita, went on strike. Within 10 days, Matamoros’s maquiladora association estimates that companies lost $100 million. Employers across the city threatened to call in federal forces, shut down operations, and leave the city. This week, the Tamaulipas state police were called in to break up encampments at steelworks factories, and a human resources manager at a Coca-Cola bottling plant ordered non-union employees to attack striking workers, including a pregnant woman. But only two plants have shuttered to date, and the federal police have not been deployed.

The movement has also travelled over social media to the industrial cities of Reynosa, Agua Prieta and Ciudad Victoria in northern Mexico, where workers have staged their own wildcat strikes. “We consider this a battle definitively won by the workers,” said Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor lawyer who lives in El Paso, Texas and the unofficial leader of the 20/32 movement, who has amassed over 80,000 followers on Facebook. In recent weeks, she’s received phone calls from workers in the border cities of Reynosa, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juárez, asking her to replicate her movement in their cities.

“No one had ever doubled the minimum wage before. This was a totally unprecedented situation,” said Ben Davis, the director of international affairs for the United Steelworkers union, who has worked with the Mexican metalworkers union since the 1990s and recently travelled to Matamoros as part of an international delegation. “No one in Lopez Obrador’s government thought ‘hey something might happen on the northern border if we raise the minimum wage.’ It was a surprise to everybody.”

Over the past several decades, vast swaths of manufacturing areas in the United States have suffered the loss of unionized jobs to Mexico, where labor is one-tenth of the cost. Less discussed is that those jobs, once outsourced, do not support a middle-class lifestyle for Mexican workers, either. In 1992, before the passage of NAFTA, maquiladora workers earned the equivalent of nearly $19.50 a day. Today, they earn just half of that. Many peddle goods, like used clothing, sweet bread, or tamales to survive, as the price of basic goods in the Mexican borderlands is much higher than the rest of the country, sometimes even surpassing those in U.S. border cities: A pound of Serrano chilies in Matamoros costs $2.84, over half the daily minimum wage before the recent increase. A maquiladora worker I met in 2017 who worked for the German electronics company Bosch in Ciudad Juárez, another border city, told me it took him a month to save up enough money to take his family to the movie theater.

But the revamping of the free trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, at the urging of Donald Trump, could reverse some of the post-NAFTA trends, if its terms can be enforced. In part, that’s because Trump is more protectionist than prior Republican presidents. Trump’s U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, one of his more progressive appointees who grew up in a depressed blue-collar town in Ohio, fought tooth and nail for the new deal to include increased labor protections for workers both in Mexico and the United States, much to the ire of other Republican legislators. These provisions also helped induce Democrats and their union allies to back the NAFTA revision, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Such protections tend to appeal to U.S. unions for two reasons, somewhat in tension with one another: First, they would improve labor protections for Mexican workers. Second, the increased cost of labor in Mexico might keep manufacturing jobs from fleeing to Mexico in the first place, an outcome that would satisfy both unions and Trump. “Our unions have pointed out problems in Mexican labor law for many years,” said Finnegan, the global worker’s rights coordinator at the AFL-CIO. In theory, the new deal addresses some of those. “The big question remains enforcement. We have lots of doubts.” On Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi said that the House will not pass the USMCA unless Mexico implements labor reforms first. “We have to see that [Mexico passes] the legislation, that they have the factors in place that will make sure it’s implemented and they demonstrate some commitments in sincerity, because it’s a big issue how workers are treated in Mexico,” she said.

In recent years, under international pressure, the Mexican government has shown some willingness to enact reforms. The killed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) required Mexico do away with corrupt labor courts and give workers a vote in union elections. Last year, Mexican government ratified constitutional reforms, including Convention 98, of the International Labor Organization, to guarantee free and independent unions. These reforms now sit before the Mexican Congress, and are expected to pass in April.

Some experts argue that the ongoing strikes in Matamoros are unlikely to reshape Mexico in the short term: The city was uniquely ripe for strikes and work stoppages because of its history. Decades before NAFTA, in the 1970s, General Motors and Delco moved their electronics manufacturing from Michigan to Matamoros, where they could pay workers a fraction of U.S. wages. Matamoros became a GM company town; and in turn, GM was willing to let Mexican workers unionize and build a robust labor movement under one of Mexico’s largest umbrella unions, the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM). One worker named Agapito González gained notoriety among factory owners and folk hero status among workers when he fought and won a 43 percent salary increase in Matamoros factories, as well as the 40-hour workweek compensated at the rate of 53 hours of work. “Workers in Matamoros are some of the most militant in Mexico,” said Cirila Quintero, a labor expert at the Colegio Frontera Norte in Matamoros. “Their grandparents and parents were unionized, so they know their rights.”

But after NAFTA passed in 1994, even the CTM unions in Matamoros hemorrhaged control to Mexico’s ruling political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). A quiet pact to suppress wages evolved over the intervening decades between Mexican political elites and corporations; the unions were tightly controlled and foreign investment flowed in from the United States.

In most of Mexico, a robust union movement never developed. Ever since the first plants began trickling into the borderlands of Mexico in 1965, following a transnational border industrialization program, Mexican workers have been excluded from every aspect of the collective bargaining process, from negotiating contracts to electing leadership. Outside of Matamoros, many unionized workers do not know that their plant is unionized, and rarely think of striking. (Ninety percent of Mexican manufacturing workers are unionized.) “You might see something on your pay stub that says you paid union dues, but that’s it,” said Davis, the union official from United Steelworkers.

Whether a full-blown labor spring comes to Mexico hinges mostly on the enforcement of new democratic labor laws—specifically, whether Mexico really allows independent unions to form, which would mean coming down hard on powerful union bosses with ties to conservative political parties. Yet as with so many grassroots movements these days, social media has also become a factor, allowing workers to coordinate across Matamoros, and spreading awareness about unions throughout Mexico. As of early April, the 20/32 movement’s Facebook group had over 5,400 members, where workers from around Mexico post inspirational quotes from the Latin American revolutionaries like Jose Martí and Che Guevara and photos of children holding signs outside factories that read “Sí, se puede” and “For a better future, I support my dad.” Videos of thousands of workers dressed in red and black marching through the streets of downtown Matamoros and rallying by a monument to Benito Juarez in the plaza mayor in recent months have gone viral in Mexico, some reaching as many as 80,000 views on Facebook.

Pro-government unions still rule over workers in Mexico, but in coming months and years, President Lopez Obrador will likely be siding with Mexico’s working class on labor issues. This will certainly result in new struggles between big business and workers, with Matamoros as a model. If any lesson can be gleaned from the New Deal in the United States, it’s that improved labor rights often beget more strikes, more wage increases, and loftier demands from workers—as they have in this case in Matamoros. Eventually, fewer U.S. companies may move to Mexico. But with increased legal protections, more spending power, and the president on their side, Mexico’s middle class could also mushroom, transforming both the country’s economy and its politics. Already in Matamoros, 70,000 workers have won.