Largest North American strike wave in decades grows. Rebellion exposes union betrayal, is met with repression from “left-wing” government and a near total media blackout.
On January 10th, workers at 3 auto parts plants in the Mexican border town of Matamoros entered a wildcat strike. Despite doing hard, dangerous labor, 12 hours a day, 6 days week, workers at the plants were making just 75 cents an hour. While factory workers toiled for dismal pay, company executives made millions:
Aurora, Ontario-based Magna is the world’s fifth largest auto parts manufacturer, with $39 billion in sales in 2017 and pre-tax income of $3 billion. It recently opened a plant in Querétaro, Mexico to manufacture molded and exterior parts. It employs some 24,000 workers in Mexico at 30 different facilities, including in Matamoros.
Don Walker, Magna CEO, is one of the most heavily compensated executives in Canada, with $20.4 million in salary. In addition, he has $25.4 million in stock options that he has not exercised and $10.2 million in stock-based awards that have vested but have not been paid out.
Despite this history of exploitation, in the lead up to the strike, workers had hope that their wages would increase this year. A new law increasing the minimum wage was passed at the start of the year under the direction of the left-wing administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Although the increase did not directly apply to Matamoros workers, many hoped that as the law came into effect at the same time as the annual renegotiation of their contracts they would see some increase in their wages to keep pace with the countrywide wage increases. In this context, they pushed for their union representatives to negotiate a 20 percent wage increase and $1700 bonus. However, as the Socialist Worker reports:
Instead of a pay increase, the president of the Centro Coordinador Empresarial (CCE, the big business alliance of Matamoros that includes the maquiladora industry) announced that owners would instead agree to an adjustment in the ratio of employer/worker pay into retirement plans.
Some owners resisted any adjustments at all, using the minimum wage increase as an excuse to cancel productivity bonuses altogether. Others rallied behind statements made by Rogelio García Treviño, president of the La Cámara Nacional de la Industria de Transformación (CANACINTRA; National Maquiladora Association). Fearing the national implications of wage increases in the maquiladoras in Matamoros, García Treviño pressured his regional counterparts to hold firm against pay increases and instead lay off workers if necessary to avoid increasing their overall annual budgets.
When workers learned that their union representatives were planning on agreeing to these sell-out deals, they decided to take matters in to their own hands. As the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reports:
An auto parts worker at Autoliv, which was the first plant to go on the wildcat strike in Matamoros, told the WSWS that on January 12, as soon as workers realized that the union and management were conspiring to rob them of mandated bonuses and a raise, they elected five workers as a committee independent of the trade union to organize a strike and ‘fight for our rights and what belongs to us.’
Angered at the corruption of their union leaders, two days into the strike, 2,000 workers marched to the home of union leader Villafuerte Morales crying out, “Villafuerte out! Sell out! Cacique!”. The following day, workers at 15 more plants went on strike, hanging red and black strike flags across the gates of the struck companies.
In their panic to contain the initial uprising, the supposedly left-wing administration of AMLO reacted by siding with the bosses. WSWS writes:
At 1 PM on Friday, the sub-secretary of labor, Alfredo Domínguez Marrufo, and the federal representative for the state of Tamaulipas, José Ramón Gómez Leal, who was sent personally by President Andres Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), held a press conference to request that workers accept a “postponement of ten days or more” for further negotiations “to avoid a strike that could lead to unexpected consequences.”
Defying calls to return to reenter negotiations, since the week of January 10th, tens of thousands of workers throughout Mexico have joined the strike. The bulk of the workers are auto parts workers, but workers from other sectors have also joined, including workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a Wal-Mart. Due to a dearth of English language reports, it is difficult to know the strike’s extent, however according to the WSWS:
Last Thursday, 680 workers at a General-Mills plant in the city of Irapuato of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato launched a four-day wildcat strike against two unjustified firings and called for the establishment of a new contract with paid vacations and improved conditions. Negotiations are ongoing.
Hundreds of teachers in the southern state of Michoacán continue to strike and block crucial railways to demand a total of $311 million in owed bonuses. As unsuccessful negotiations extend with the government, the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) union has publicly “dissociated” itself from workers that continue the blockades, which threaten critical auto exports to Asia.
Meanwhile, workers at the five national campuses of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UAM) are entering their tenth day of a strike to demand a 20 percent wage increase, while opposition is reportedly growing against the union leadership.
As of January 31st, the strikes were costing manufacturers upwards of $50 million per day. In response, employers have tried a mixture of acquiescence and retaliation, with some plants agreeing to worker’s demands, and others announcing mass layoffs. “The local maquiladora association, Index, announced last week that companies have fired more than 1,500 workers who participated in the strikes and that they plan to layoff 25,000 more within three years.” Workers have also been met with increased repression from the AMLO administration, with the government deploying army and navy units to Matamoros to harass strikers, and with the AP reporting that AMLO is urging union leaders not to seek a pay increase.
Despite this being by far the largest North American strike in decades, workers have faced a near total media blackout of events, even from supposedly left wing websites. The left’s silence on the strike wave has been broken only by the WSWS and Socialist Worker. A google search of English language news sources finds a paltry few articles that appear in small Southern news outlets that came after nearly a full month of striking. This silence persists despite the fact that this momentous event has raised serious relevant questions about the relationship between electoralism, unions, and strikes. With this being arguably the most important development in the North American labor movement in a generation, the lack of more coverage calls in to question the usefulness and legitimacy of what remains of the North American English speaking left.