“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” - Porfirio Díaz
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. 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.”
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.
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.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, 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.
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.
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.
In the fight to bring Mexico’s old union system into the 21st century, Labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas 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.” 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.”
In the 21st century, 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.”
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.’”
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.
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.