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.
This is impressive and there
This is impressive and there are lessons to be learned here but how many workers were involved? Because if it is 24,000, the number given for the auto parts company, it's big but there have been much larger strikes quite recently in North America. CUPW earlier this winter was 52,000 for example. There have been others recently as well, like Verizon, that we're probably larger.
This is indeed very large for a wildcat strike.
EdmontonWobbly wrote: This is
well WSWS reported 70k on Feb 7, assuming this is correct I'd expect figure as of rn to be significantly higher. Only source I saw for 24k was VOA which I'm sure we can all agree is not reliable
Soapy wrote: Largest North
Do you mean a “blackout” in the Mexican press? Because that’s simply not true for the business media in the U.S. The story below (posted here in its entirety because it’s behind a paywall) appeared on the Wall Street Journal website on February 13, the day before your libcom post. The next day it was in the print edition, under the title “Strikes Signal Revival of Labor Demands in Mexico” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/strikes-at-low-wage-plants-signal-revival-of-labor-demands-in-mexico-11550087620?mod=djemlogistics_h).
Strikes at Low-Wage Plants Signal Revival of Labor Demands in Mexico
Workers want higher pay as country prepares to overhaul labor laws
Employees of Autoliv Mexico EAST participate in a strike in Matamoros, Mexico, in late January.
By Juan Montes
Feb. 13, 2019 2:53 p.m. ET
MEXICO CITY—A wave of strikes at low-wage plants in a border city threatens to spark increased labor strife as Mexico prepares to overhaul laws to empower workers following a new trade deal with the U.S. and Canada.
In the past month, as many as 30,000 workers at more than 70 of the 115 export-manufacturing companies operating in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, went on strike to demand a 20% wage increase and a one-time bonus of about $1,700.
Low wages were a big reason for Mexico’s rise as a global hub for manufacturing since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed 25 years ago. Most of the plants based in Matamoros form part of the thriving supply chain of the North American automotive industry, producing parts such as rearview mirrors and steering wheels.
Workers at the labor-intensive plants, commonly called “maquiladoras,” earn about $2 an hour on average, compared with the $21.50 an hour that U.S. factory workers make.
The lack of independent unions is partly to blame for the low wages, experts say. Stronger labor laws and better working conditions were included in the trade pact that Mexico signed in November with the U.S. and Canada to replace Nafta.
Many see the strikes as an early indication of a revival of labor demands in Mexico as the new administration of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promotes higher wages and new laws to make collective bargaining effective.
“With the arrival to the presidency of López Obrador, the political environment is favoring a labor spring in Mexico,” said Alfonso Bouzas, a labor expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
Some 40 maquiladoras in Matamoros accepted their workers’ demands in recent weeks, prompting others at a dozen firms including soft-drink bottlers and supermarkets to organize their own walkouts.
Labor conflicts are spreading to other maquiladoras in Reynosa and Ciudad Victoria, also in northeastern Tamaulipas state, where workers are negotiating higher compensation.
Strikes in Mexico have been rare in recent years. In 2017, there were just 17 strikes in the country, according to government figures. In Matamoros, these are the worst strikes in nearly 30 years.
“We are entering a period of uncertainty and that is already scaring off investment,” said Juan Carlo Hernández, head of employer group Coparmex in Matamoros.
Four firms have canceled plans to open maquiladoras in the city, he said.
The strikes in Matamoros come after Mr. López Obrador raised Mexico’s national minimum wage by 16% in December, while doubling it along the border with the U.S. to around $9.30 a day.
Planned labor legislation will also require unions to prove they represent a majority of workers before signing a collective-bargaining contract. Union leaders and company executives frequently signed contracts without worker consent—contracts known as protection agreements—and most workers weren’t allowed to elect union leaders through secret ballots.
The proposed new laws would mean protection agreements already in force will have to be ratified through secret ballots among workers, and union leaders will also have to be elected through secret ballots.
The legislation, which is expected to be passed before May, was demanded by President Trump’s administration as part of the deal to renegotiate Nafta. Mr. Trump sees Mexico’s low wages as unfair competition.
The legislative overhaul poses a challenge for the country’s docile labor movement, which was long dominated by the Confederation of Mexican Workers, Mexico’s largest labor umbrella group and a pillar of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for most of the 20th century.
In exchange for supporting the party, pro-company union bosses ran their organizations without interference. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012 after 12 years in opposition, but suffered a historic defeat in last year’s election at the hands of Mr. López Obrador.
Mexico’s labor landscape is set to change as a result. Napoléon Gómez Urrutia, a union boss who faced accusations of fraud in the past, is setting up a new trade union confederation headed by his 34,000-strong national mining and metal workers’ union.
The union he heads actively supported the strikes in Matamoros. Mr. Gómez Urrutia, who is a senator and a close ally of Mr. López Obrador, says that his new organization aims to become Mexico’s new dominant confederation as the old model of government-sponsored unions is dying.
“The doors are open for those workers who want to belong to our organization, if they decide so freely,” he said in an interview.
Opponents see Mr. Gómez Urrutia as part of an elite group of corrupt union leaders. For others, he is a hero whose hard-nosed efforts led to substantial wage increases for members of his union. The son of a mining-union leader and PRI politician, Mr. Gómez Urrutia has also developed strong ties with labor movements in the U.S. and Canada, where he lived for 12 years and continued to run his union while he fought fraud charges that were dismissed by a Mexican court in 2014.
The AFL-CIO and other U.S. labor unions last week sent a delegation to Matamoros to support the Mexican workers in their demands. The AFL-CIO called the settlements “a huge victory for the workers, most of whom make around $2 per hour.”
The risk is that a new system of government-sponsored unions, this time linked to Mr. López Obrador’s Morena party, might emerge in Mexico.
Mr. López Obrador has said he won’t have any preferred union leader, while Mr. Gómez Urrutia denies his union will become a satellite of the government.
“We only owe to workers, not to the president,” he said.
Woops, didn't see that.
Woops, didn't see that. Point still stands though, month of blackout.
Strikes continue, whole NA auto supply chain is outraged https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/02/22/mexi-f22.html
Part of WSWS’ regular
Part of WSWS’ regular advertising schtic is getting the scoop on their corporate competitors.
Why else would they write this?:
Should we be aghast that our enemies who churn out their vision of the bougeois spectacle don’t cover class struggle?
This is how these opportunistically orthodox Trotskyites try to build street cred to sell their own “revolutionary program” to overcome all the forces holding the workers back. Take such self-serving proclamations with a grain of salt.
Soapy wrote: Despite this
I'm sorry Soapy, this wasn't the largest strike in decades. That it's an incredibly important development in class struggle is irrefutable, but it's significance needs deeper analysis that cut-n-pasting from the Trotskyites in the ISO and WSWS (I've been part of radical actions where we expelled the latter due to their misrepresentations of what we -- as anti-authoritarians -- were doing).
I stand to be corrected, but the largest strike in North America -- ever -- was when as many at 8,000,000 Latinx had a one-day general strike on May Day 2006. That was just 13 years ago.
I participated in both the Oakland and San Francisco strike marches and rallies (with as many as 50,000 and 125,000 respectively).
The following cities and towns participated in the strike on May 1, 2006:
Accomack County, VA: several hundred
Alamosa, CO: 200
Albuquerque, NM: 2-5,000
Allentown, PA: 300
Anchorage, Alaska: hundreds
Athens, GA: 1200
Atlanta, GA: 1-5,000
Aurora, IL: 9,000
Austin, TX: 8,000
Bakersfield, CA: 15,000 march/ 4,000 students walk out
Beaufort County, SC: 80-90% of Latina/os boycott work
Berkeley: 1,000 college & high school students
Boise, ID: 75
Boulder, CO: 2,000+
Burlington, VT: 300
Carbondale, CO: 1,200
Camden, NJ: 1,000 join Philadelphia rally, most independent grocers in county closed
Caldwell, ID: several hundred for silent vigil
Cannon Beach, OR: 175
Ceres, CA (N. San Joaquin Valley): 2,000
Chapel Hill, NC: 40
Charlotte, NC: 10,000 rally, 684 students absent, Spanish-language radio goes ad-free to support boycott
Chattanooga, TN: 300
Chicago: 600,000 (fire department estimate), some school districts up to 80% absent
Cincinnati, OH: several thousand rally at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Cleveland OH: 200-400
Colorado Springs, CO: 3,000
Columbus, OH: 40 at Ohio State University
Concord, CA: 3,000
Dallas, TX: 1,500
The Dalles, OR: 700
Dayton, OH: 550
Denver CO: 75,000
Des Moines, Iowa: 40+ businesses close
Detroit, MI: many businesses in southwest closed
Dothan, AL: hundreds
Durango, CO: 100
Eugene, OR: 400
Kansas City, MO: 2,000
Knoxville, TN: 300
El Paso, TX
Eugene, OR 1,000-1,500
Eureka, CA: hundreds march to Arcata
Florida: state totals 30,000 in Pensacola, Homestead, Ft. Meyers, other cities
Forks, WA: 700
Fresno, CA: 15,000+ and earlier rally of 3-4,000 students at CSUF
Grand Island, NE: 3,000
Grand Junction, CO: 3,500
Hickory, NC: hundreds
Hood River, OR: 1,500
Houston, TX: 15,000
Huntsville, AL: several hundred
Ithaca, NY: 400
Jackson Heights (Queens), NYC: 1000+ make chain measuring 10 blocks
Joliet IL: 600
Laramie, WY: 200
Las Vegas, NV: 2,000
Laurel, MS: 200
Little Rock, AK: hundreds
Los Angeles: 500,000 (about 72,000 --27% of students absent)
Louisville, KY: 1,000
Lumberton, NC: 4,000*
Madras, OR: 250
McAllen, TX: thousands rally, 700 students absent
Medford, OR: 500
Merrifield, VA: some day labor crews reduced by over 90%
Miami: 10,000 (65,000 walk out)
Madison, WI 7-9,000
Minneapolis, MN: 3,000
Modesto, CA: 15,000 & student march of 250 from Modesto High
Morehead, KY: 60
Nashville, TN: many workers strike, immigrants shut off lights from 8-9 p.m.
New York City: 50-500,000
New Orleans: 2-10,000
Oak Cliff TX: 500
Oakland, CA: 40-50,000
Odessa, TX: rally
Ogden, UT: 1,000
Olympia, WA: 400
Ottumwa, MI: hundreds rally, 440 students absent
Oxnard, CA: 4,000
Omaha, NE: 3-6,000
Ontario, CA: 1,000
Orlando, FL: 20-30,000
Paso Robles, CA: 200 rally, 24% students absent
Philadelphia: 7,000 (incl. 1,000 coming from Camden)
Pittsburgh, PA: 150+
Port Chester, NY: 2,000 march, blocks of stores closed
Porterville, CA (Tulare County): 4,000
Portland, OR- 10,000
Poughkeepsie, NY: 800-2,000
Pueblo, CO: 500
Raleigh NC: 3,000
Rapid City, SD: several hudred
Russelville, AL (town with large KKK presence): more than 20% of Latino/a students absent (30% county-wide)
Salem, OR: 8-10,000
Salinas, CA: 13-20,000 (biggest at least since 70s)
San Antonio, TX: thousands
San Bernadino, CA: 1,000
San Diego: 10,000+ at multiple events
San Francisco, CA: 75-125,000
San Juan, TX
San Rafael, CA: 5-7,000
Santa Ana, CA: 2-5,000 (police start confrontation with protestors)
Santa Cruz, CA: 4-6,000 when two marches merge
Santa Maria, CA: 5-30,000
Santa Rosa, CA: 8-10,000
Santa Barbara, CA: 15,000
Sacramento, CA: 18-40,000
Salt Lake City, UT: 7,500 (10,000 statewide participate in events)
San Jose, CA: 50,000 at least—up to 100,000
San Ysidro, CA: 1-2,500 march to border
Seaside, CA: 1-2,000
Seattle, WA: 30,000
Siler City, NC: effectively shut down through boycott
Sioux Falls, SD: hundreds
Somerville, MA: hundreds
Sussex County, DE: poultry plants shut down who refused to close Feb. 14th for the regional Day Without an Immigrant
Tennessee: 10,000+ strike/boycott
Tiffin, OH: 200, organized by Toledo’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee
Tulare, CA: 3,000
Tuscaloosa, AL: silent march on Univ. of Alabama campus, 200+
Union City, CA: 1,000
Ventura, CA: 200+ march, some school districts almost 40% absent
Virginia Beach, VA: hundreds
Vista, CA: 8-12,000
Washington D.C.: Malcolm X Park, 2-3,000 and Capitol: 5,000
Wendover, UT: 500
White Plains, NY: 500 highschoolers walk out, march to courthouse
Worcester, MA: 2,500 rally (largest since Vietnam War), 67+ businesses close, 800-900 students absent. Feeder marches organized for: students, Africans, Colombians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Latinos, Pleasant St Neighbors, and Christians
Yakima, WA: 8-15,000
Additionally, the struggle crossed the border. Effects of the general strike hit well beyond the visible numbers of protestors in the street and absent from school. Thousands of stores, companies, offices, small businesses, service agencies, and branches of corporate industries closed down either in solidarity or were forced into closure by loss of workers. Port truckers in Los Angeles shut down 90% of transport at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach (the busiest container port complex in the western hemisphere). In many of central California's agricultural counties: Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito, San Joaquin-- tens of thousands of workers were absent. Gallo wines suspended their production. In the South and elsewhere, industries including construction, domestic work, and meatpacking suffered huge absences and many plants closed—including a dozen Tyson factories, the world’s largest meat producer. Tyson, Swift, Perdue and Cargill closed plants in the Midwest and the west employing more than 20,000 people. Chain restaurants including McDonalds’ and Chipotle shut stores and slashed shifts. Human chains blocked Wal-Marts and Home Depots in Arizona, as student protestors blocked Wal-Mart in Mexico City.
In conjunction with Mexico-wide demonstrations for a “Day Without Gringos,” border crossings were blocked by 400 protestors at the Tijuana-San Ysidro crossing (northbound shut down intermittently for 3 hours); Hidalgo International Bridge (into McAllen, Texas) blocked for 14 hours by hundreds of protestors with their bodies and rope in Reynosa, on the Mexican side of the border; the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo bridge was blocked for hours.
(source: Infoshop News)
Sorry, haven't read this
Sorry, haven't read this particular piece or the comments in detail. I skimmed down and see there are questions regarding the actual number of strikers. The numbers Ive seen have been (Unied Steelworkers,AFL-CIO, mainstream press numbers) at about 28,000, I forget elsewhere at like 54,000, and the WSWS numbers at approx. 70,000.
My read is that the lower number is based on the factories covered directly by the yellow unions contracts (which I heard between 28-34,00). The higher numbers are prolly based on total number of maquiladora workers who struck as an aggregate body. My understanding that workers employed in other factories such as a dairy, supermarkets and delivery drivers also struck. Regardless, it appears to have been a really huge local strike with many thousand workers engaged.
There is no doubt this is a
There is no doubt this is a massive strike wave. Actually right now, across North America, we're seeing strikes of a magnitude not seen since the late 1980s (there's much debate, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics says this is the most since 1987). Right now over 3,000 teachers and educational support staff in Oakland, California are into the second day of an indefinite strike with near-universal support. West Virginia education workers went out for a second time in a year to force the state legislature to back down on a privatization scheme that would open up the state to charters and vouchers. 34,000 Los Angeles teachers and support staff struck for 6 days and won most of their demands. Denver teachers did the same for 3 days. Before that, there were strikes in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Except for the business press, no one attributes this to a continental labor shortage. The Rio Grande Guardian (November 2, 2018) reports that all maquiladoras along the border are short 65,000 workers and for Matamoros it is 6,000. In 2017, the auto suppliers in Matamoros alone added 5,000 jobs, with 117 maquiladoras employing 75,000 workers. Since the metro conurbation includes Brownsville across the Rio Grande River, the manufacturing base on the U.S. side is of almost equal size. By the way, the Port of Brownsville is accessed by a deep-water ship channel that connects it to global trade.
So for those of us who find utility in Beverly Silver's (and Erik Olin Wright's) concept of workers power, this is an example of "marketplace bargaining power." Which means that when workers go out on these wildcat strikes, the bosses are at a total disadvantage because not only can't they hire scabs, they already were unable to fulfill all the job vacancies they had. The same can be said for the teacher/education worker strikes, from West Virginia to Oakland. Labor shortages have affected almost all of them. For manufacturing alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the overall shortage of manufacturing workers in the U.S. at 500,000. The shortages are equally massive in so-called service industries too.
Lastly, Matamoros is an integral part of Texas "Auto Alley," with parts producers and assembly plants all across the state they service not only their own needs, but also export these "intermediate goods" (partially completed manufactured products) to the auto clusters across the maquiladoras and throughout northern Mexico, as well as the newer auto clusters in the Southeast right-to-work states of the U.S. So for these strikes in Mexico to spread down the production chain, they would have to spread throughout northern Mexico and across the border to the U.S.
Teachers in Mexico have already been blockading train routes in Michoacan, paralyzing the movement of goods to the ports of Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas. Similar actions on northbound Kansas City Southern/Kansas City Southern de México, S.A. de C.V. trains, including solidarity actions by other supply chain and transportation workers in both countries, could help spread this wildcat strike wave across the border -- and throughout the North American auto production cluster and hopefully to other sectors as well. Strikes in almost any sector would make capitalists hard pressed to easily recruit scabs, given the current continental labor shortage in many industries.