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A Rising Movement Is Challenging Mexico’s Corporatized Unions

The 20/32 Movement promises to end the decades-long reign of corrupt union bosses.

Steering wheel manufacturing at Delphi Delco Electronics de Mexico, a maquiladora plant across the U.S. border.

After lying dormant for decades, in January this year the Mexican labor movement erupted. A presidential decree in December raising the minimum wage to 102 pesos (US$5) per day and 176 pesos (US$9) in zones close to the US, was the spark that led to tens of thousands of workers undertaking the most important industrial action Mexico has witnessed in the entire 21st century.

It all began in early January in the town of Matamoros, in the border state of Tamaulipas, when tens of thousands of workers from the infamous maquiladora sector decided to strike in response to attempts by their employers to dodge raising their wages in accordance with the new law. Maquiladoras are large factories most commonly found in the northern parts of Mexico that produce and export goods into the United States, generally tariff-free. They are dominated by U.S. and other multinational corporations and over the last 40 years have become a central component of global supply chains. They are also known for rampant labor violations.

That Saturday morning, thousands of protesters marched from the central plaza of Matamoros to the offices of the main maquiladora union, the “Union of Laborers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry” (SJOIIM). Workers of the SJOIIM, which represents 45 factories in Matamoros and tens of thousands of laborers, were demanding their leader officially call a strike. After initially trying to calm the protesters and giving the excuse that for various legal reasons a strike could not be called, the SJOIIM leader, Juan Villafuerte Morales, signed a letter in support of the workers’ demands but did not go so far as to officially call a strike. Yet that same day workers blocked factory entrances and raised the iconic Mexican strike symbol, a red and black flag, in a number of factories. After nearly two weeks of technically “illegal” strikes, on January 25 Villafuerte gave into the workers’ demands and called a strike. It was from these events that the “20/32 Movement” was born.

The demands of the movement were simple: a 20 percent wage increase and a one-time payment of 32,000 pesos (US$1,674). A 40-hour work week was also a prominent demand. After suffering multimillion-dollar losses, the first set of 14 corporations gave in two weeks after the initial spark and met the demands. Over the following weeks, more corporations also gave in, not first without firing hundreds of workers. However, many chose to dig in their heels.

The corporations leaned heavily on two arguments: the strikes were illegal, and the wage increase did not apply to their workers because they already paid salaries above the minimum wage. The fact that the companies’ workers already received a wage slightly above the minimum was legally irrelevant due to a clause in the workers’ contract stipulating that their salaries must be proportionately increased with any rise in the minimum wage. However, with the average maquiladora salary being less than $1 an hour, workers had little patience for arguing the technical legalities — a spark was ignited and it was not going to be put out easily. Despite the union leadership’s insistence that workers negotiate on an individual company basis, the elected union delegates from various companies banded together and ensured that contracts were bargained collectively.

By mid-February, the movement had broken out of Matamoros to other key maquiladora cities on the border like Reynosa and Ciudad Juárez and included workers from other unions. Even Walmart employees had been inspired and threatened an 8,000-worker walkout if they too did not receive a 20 percent wage increase. In the end, a compromise of 5.5 percent was reached. By mid-March, more than 80 companies had given in to the demands. Meanwhile, repression was rampant, and around 5,000 employees were fired. By the end of April, after nearly four months of strikes, most of the remaining disputes came to an end. In Arca Continental, which runs the second largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in Latin America, the Federal Labor Board declared the strikes illegal. Workers went months without pay only for the plant to reopen without the 20 percent pay increase or the 32,000-peso bonus. Nonetheless, over the course of only a few months at least some 70,000 workers saw improvements to their salaries.

Labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas has played a prominent role in the 20/32 Movement, quickly becoming the most recognizable face and a respected and notable leader. Consequently, Prieto has been subject to a grotesque and misogynist smear campaign to discredit her and the movement and is a constant victim of death threats. When I interviewed her in October, she heavily criticized the entire Mexican union system. She says the main motivation of the 20/32 movement is to fight against “the corruption of the American companies largely allied with the unions … in order to rob workers.”

The 20/32 Movement has attempted to capitalize on its success since the disputes came to an end. On June 4, fired maquiladora workers ran in local elections in Tamaulipas as independents, under the 20/32 Movement banner. One candidate came in second and others third, beating out some of the major traditional parties. Gloria Isela Juárez Núñez, a young single mother who was fired for participating in the strikes and was one of the four that ran in the elections, said in an interview with Pie de Pagina, “The people are coming together because it is a lot that they took from us. Very little reaches our homes.” A few weeks later, the movement officially became a registered union with over 2,500 members registered on its first day.

As a union lawyer with decades of experience, Prieto understands perfectly well that workers have the entire system stacked against them. “In Mexico, the government works to guarantee that the gringos don’t have unions,” she says, referring to how the workers of U.S. companies in Mexico are represented by extremely corporatized unions that do not effectively stand up for workers. Mexico’s labor system has for decades been corrupted by collusion between transnational corporations, the government and the unions themselves to guarantee labor peace. With its newly formed union, the 20/32 Movement seeks to challenge this system while also fighting for independence and democratization within unions.

Many in the movement sense that the new administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador provides the best opportunity in decades to push labor advancements. The president, who came to power in December 2018, has shown an openness to labor reform and has generally remained neutral during disputes.

In the fight to bring Mexico’s old union system into the 21st century, Prieto has made it a priority that the role of the companies also be part of the debate. The companies, she says, “know that if there are independent unions, they are going to have to improve salaries, they are going to have to comply with the collective contracts, and they are going to have to truly improve workers’ conditions.”

“More Than 80 Years of Robbing Workers”

Mexico has for a long time been an international investor’s dream. It boasts a huge work force, extremely low wages, little regulation, and a largely tariff-free 2,000-mile border with the world’s largest consumer market. On top of this, its institutions are highly corrupt and its extremely weak rule of law means that corporations enjoy high degrees of impunity. To make it even more attractive, Mexico has an extremely corporatized and controlled union system that works to ensure corporations enjoy an anesthetized and immobilized labor force.

Mexico’s modern labour system finds its roots in the aftermath of the 1910 revolution. After a decade of bloody civil war that left over a million dead, Mexico’s ruling elite came out on top with the pre-revolutionary economic and social system left largely still intact — where violent state repression of workers’ struggles, even including the massacre of striking workers was not uncommon. Even the 1917 constitution, championed as one of the world’s most progressive at the time for provisions like the 8-hour workday and public ownership of national resources, was not enough to change the dominant structures of the country. The government became the broker in the relationship between capital and labor. In 1936, President Lázaro Cardenas created the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) as an umbrella labor organization that included the country’s largest and most important unions and was run by leaders who were loyal and obedient to him. Over the course of the next seven decades, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico as a one-party state, the CTM would be a key instrument of the regime.

In the 21st century, much of this corporatized and highly controlled union system lives on. The CTM still remains the largest union organization in the country, although its membership has greatly decreased from nearly a million in 1997 to current estimates of around 400,000. It was only in 2017, that for the first time the CTM officially changed its policy obliging its members to only be affiliated with the PRI. Julio César Cervantes of the Cardenista Peasant’s Central, a group of left-wing organizations that supports President López Obrador, gives the example of sugarcane farmers and the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC), another large PRI-controlled labor organization similar to the CTM. César argues that “even though (sugarcane farmers) do not agree with the position of the PRI, they have to be affiliated to the CNC, because if not, the following year they have all their support cut. It is a mafia that co-opts campesinos through the unfortunate economic position they have.” The CNC leader Ismael Hernández, who also happens to be a federal senator for the PRI, stated in 2018 that “we (the CNC) will give the party the necessary votes to gain victory.” He went on to call the CNC the “most noble and productive sector of the PRI.”

Today, many maquiladora workers are forced to join what are known as “Sindicatos Fantasmas” or “Ghost Unions.” Such unions, despite being officially and legally registered, in many cases exist only on paper. Workers pay their union fees, which are often collected by the company, but receive virtually no representation. There have even been cases where the union leader is the boss of the factory. The legal hinge on which this scandalous door swings is the type of contract that the unions have with the companies, known as “contratos de protección” or “protection contracts.” Employers enter into a contract with a union, sometimes before even hiring their first employee, and the union protects the employer instead of the worker. Corruption is rampant under these contracts.

Protection contracts have existed for decades in Mexico. Experts say they cover 90 percent of all unions. According to Cirila Quintero Ramírez, an expert on Mexican labor and an academic at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, “When the workers want to organize themselves, all of a sudden [employers] say to them, ‘Well, you already have a union.’” The Federal Labor Boards that administer labor relations in Mexico have always favored protection contracts, allowing them to become a central element of how corrupt union leaders, the government, and corporations have masterminded such a devious industrial relations system.

The Invisible Hand of the United States

Porfirio Díaz, the ruthless general who ruled Mexico for more than 30 years during the turn of the 20th century, once said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” His dominion was so pervasive that the period in Mexican history is even named after him, El Porfiriato. More than a century after his overthrow, for the workers of Matamoros and other maquiladora cities, most of which lie just south of the border, the invisible hand of the United States is felt firmly. As Susana Prieto Terrazas put it, “The punishment for workers who fought for their rights during the Porfiriato was death, they hanged them. Now, it’s firing and the black list. Because if you know your rights, the gringos burn you in every company and they don’t give you a job.”

Mexico has been defined by corruption and corporatism for centuries. But over the last 40 years since neoliberalism became the dominant ideology within the government and ruling class, the country’s managers have continually placed their bets for economic growth on low wages. A corrupt union system has been a crucial element in keeping these wages low, while financial incentives for foreign companies have helped to attract international investment. Some have optimistically cast their hopes for dismantling union corruption with President López Obrador. Yet, despite being revered by many as the first leftist president of Mexico since the 1930s, he has made continual concessions to foreign capital. The wage increase in December also came with a corporate tax cut from 30 percent to 20 percent and other financial incentives for business. Signing the decree, the president stated, “it is a very important project for winning investment, creating jobs and taking advantage of the economic strength of the United States.”

Similarly, his on-again-off-again alliance with one of the world’s richest men, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, undermines López Obrador’s image as a true representative of the working class. For the moment, it seems as if the billionaire and the president are on good terms. Slim played a crucial part in ending a dispute between President López Obrador and a number of companies over multibillion-dollar pipeline contracts signed with the previous administration. The day after the deal, López Obrador and Slim appeared together in the president’s morning press conference shaking hands and smiling together. A few weeks later, Slim announced he plans to invest US$5 billion in Mexico over the course of the current administration.

Because of this dubious history, labor activists had their eye on the president and his party, National Regeneration Movement (Morena), during the strikes. The president and executive remained relatively neutral, essentially calling for the independence of unions to be respected but far from offering strong shows of support to workers. However, senior congressional Morena members appeared not to stay neutral. In January, Prieto received a call that was allegedly from Morena Senate Leader Ricardo Monreal. The voice on the line pleaded with Prieto to follow the correct legal process, saying “we are not going to let the economy of the state and municipality fall.” Monreal claimed it was not actually him and that he was impersonated. However, whether or not the call was real, many members of the 20/32 Movement saw it as just another reason not to trust authorities and to keep taking matters into their own hands.

In this matter, the role of the highly corporatized media became very clear: It largely sided with Monreal, who represents the more conservative wing of the governing party. Even on an international level, for the workers of the 20/32 Movement, media coverage has been a disappointment. The Matamoros strikes never received high levels of international attention. There were tens of thousands of workers participating in the largest strikes in 21st century Mexico and there were very few major English language features. Of the few major publications that did report on the story, many were aimed at attacking the movement, especially Prieto herself. During our interview, she spoke of how the local media has targeted her. She has consistently been degraded and referred to as the “chihuahua” or the “chihuahua bitch,” in reference to her home state of Chihuahua. This constant persecution from the media has intensified the threats against her. “I’m afraid they will kill me,” she says.

Prieto adds that the media “has been the fundamental weapon to attack the movement,” and that the left, both national and international, has largely abandoned her and the workers she represents. “In Mexico, journalists are in extinction. I also believe there has not been sufficient international coverage.”

For the 20/32 Movement the bar has been set high. According to Prieto, “If (we) don’t manage to democratize, reform, make independent, and lead the workers … nothing is going to be achieved.” It is clear that the fight for change within the union system must begin with the unions themselves. The simple fact that this movement recognizes that makes it a threat to the system, and it is exactly why so many attempts have been made to tear it down.

As of today, the movement remains standing. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve anything that remotely resembles serious structural change within the Mexican union system. The 20/32 Movement should be applauded for what it has already achieved, and supported in what it aims to achieve. International support is desperately needed to put pressure on both the Mexican government and transnational companies that have for decades abused and exploited workers south of the border. That support begins with telling their story.

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