Workers Vanguard No. 1160
6 September 2019
Mexico: Lessons of the Maquiladora Strike Wave
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
The following article is an edited translation of a presentation by a comrade of the Grupo Espartaquista de México at Spartacist League/U.S. forums in Los Angeles and Oakland in June. It was delivered in Spanish and translated into English at the events.
The 20/32 strike movement in Matamoros from January to April was the most important working-class rebellion in decades in Mexico. Its name comes from its demands for a 20 percent wage increase and a bonus of 32,000 pesos [about $1,600]. Matamoros is a municipality of Tamaulipas, a state that shares a 230-mile border with the United States, one of the most important borders in Latin America for trade with the U.S.
In Matamoros, which is across from Brownsville, Texas, the maquiladoras represent 70 percent of the city’s economy. There are around 110 maquiladora plants, grouped in four gigantic industrial parks. Outrageously, more than 70 percent of its residents live in poverty.
Before the 20/32 Movement, Mexican president Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had issued a decree doubling the daily minimum wage in the border zone, to about 180 pesos. The decree did not benefit these workers, since many already earned that amount. But the bosses used it as a way to avoid paying a bonus and negotiating an annual wage raise. This dirty maneuver by the bosses had the support of Juan Villafuerte, the leader of the Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales de la Industria Maquiladora (SJOIIM), part of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM).
On January 12, the workers began wildcat strikes in 45 maquiladoras organized by the SJOIIM as well as three other unions, all part of the CTM. These strikes were in defiance of bourgeois legality and the union leaderships.
The victorious 20/32 strike wave brought the bosses to their knees. It spread to around 70 plants, to the workers of Coca-Cola, to retail stores, to garbage collectors and even to three steel mills whose workers are part of the miners and metal workers union. Demonstrating their social power by stopping production, the workers not only brought to a standstill a section of the Mexican economy but also threatened the profits of U.S. imperialist titans. They forced the owners of the maquiladoras to accept their demands in the majority of the factories, despite the mobilization of scabs by the bosses. In the case of the miners and metal workers union, its members won a bonus of 40,000 pesos in addition to a wage increase.
Nevertheless, the bourgeois parasites have not let this proletarian victory pass without consequences: the state government under the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) unleashed repression against four ongoing strikes. In addition, close to 5,000 workers have been fired and blacklisted. We say: Rehire all those fired now! We stand for union control of hiring and training, for a sliding scale of wages proportional to prices and for a sliding scale of work hours to distribute the available work. Similarly, we call for an extensive program of public works to combat massive chronic unemployment.
The GEM sent a team to intervene in the strikes in Matamoros with the revolutionary program of the International Communist League, insisting on the need for the political independence of the working class from the capitalist state and all capitalist parties—the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), PAN, Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena). This perspective is counterposed to that of our reformist opponents, the union bureaucracy and Susana Prieto Terrazas, a lawyer from Ciudad Juárez who emerged as an alternative to the reviled CTM leadership. We seek to dispel any illusions among workers and the oppressed that the bourgeois regime of López Obrador will serve their interests.
Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Populism
The illusions in AMLO and the capitalist state headed by him are linked to the ideology of nationalism and are obstacles to raising the consciousness of the working class. The workers of Matamoros see AMLO as an ally in the fight against the bosses, but he is a bourgeois politician and his Morena party is a capitalist party like the PRI, PAN and PRD. Some even thought that AMLO had decreed the 20 percent wage increase won by the strikers. They told us, “It is a presidential order that has to be fulfilled.” Others argued that AMLO was combating “corruption,” helping the workers or at least “would not repress the strikes.” But AMLO upholds and defends private property and the bourgeois order. He is an enemy of the working class: as mayor of Mexico City, he went after the public workers union and the metro workers.
Another example of illusions in the state is to conceive of it as a neutral arbiter between social classes. In fact, the bourgeois state is the machinery of repression to defend capitalist rule and private property. The cops, the courts, the military and prisons are at its core. The state cannot be reformed; it must be smashed through socialist revolution. Whose interests are served by the state was demonstrated not only by the repression suffered by the strikers but also by the fact that various strikes were declared illegal by the state’s arbitration board.
The reformists, the union bureaucrats and Susana Prieto feed those illusions. Prieto, who has begged AMLO to become the president she always dreamed of, announced she will sue the CTM and demands government audits of the unions—a grotesque call for the state to intervene in working-class organizations. When the state intervenes in the unions, it does not do so in order to make them more “transparent” or “democratic” but rather to tighten its control, or to destroy them outright. Workers must oppose any and every interference by the courts into the unions. We are opposed to binding arbitration, to the toma de nota by which the government validates new union officials and to state control of union dues collection. Similarly, we oppose AMLO’s new “labor reform,” which seeks to tighten the state’s grip on the unions, their leadership and their finances.
López Obrador’s establishment of a Guardia Nacional, a national police force under military command, reinforces the state and the militarization of the country. AMLO also continues the infamous “war on drugs,” a repressive assault pushed by the U.S. to increase control of its “backyard.” AMLO’s actions have further undermined the rights of the population and are a threat in particular against social activists and union militants.
We are for the decriminalization of drugs, which will eliminate the enormous profits derived from the illegal and clandestine nature of drug trafficking. It would reduce crime and other social pathologies associated with the drug trade. We are also opposed to gun control, which assures the state and criminals a monopoly on arms. Down with the militarization of Mexico!
In underdeveloped capitalist countries, such as Mexico, the weak national bourgeoisie is subordinated to imperialism and is unable to break free. Occasionally, the bourgeoisie leans on the proletariat when it seeks to renegotiate the terms of its subordination. However, they fear the proletariat most of all, because it is the only force that can end bourgeois rule and throw off the imperialist yoke. Thus, AMLO supports deepening the pillage of Mexico by the NAFTA/USMCA “free trade” agreement, and at the same time offers crumbs to keep the workers in line. Populists of his ilk alternate between the carrot and the stick. Bourgeois nationalism, whose rhetoric AMLO utilizes, is the notion that all citizens of a nation share common interests. However, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have counterposed interests.
The only real allies of the Mexican proletariat are the workers of the rest of the world, in particular the multiracial U.S. working class. The Matamoros strikes demonstrated the need for joint struggle on both sides of the border. It would have given a powerful impetus to the labor movement in both countries if American workers in factories that belong to the same integrated production chains had struck in solidarity with the Mexican workers.
In countries of combined and uneven development like Mexico, we base ourselves on Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution, which was confirmed by the 1917 Russian Revolution. To achieve the democratic aspirations of the masses—like national emancipation and agrarian modernization—requires workers revolution that shatters the bourgeois state and establishes a workers and peasants government based on the collectivization of the means of production. A victorious revolution would have to extend internationally, specifically to economically advanced countries such as the U.S., to once and for all end the imperialist threat and open the road to socialism.
In Matamoros and along the entire Mexican border, NAFTA ushered in a paradise of superexploitation for the U.S. imperialists and their Canadian junior partners. It ensured cheap labor, corporate tax breaks and draconian work rules established by so-called “protection contracts” signed by the corrupt CTM leadership with the bosses behind the backs of the workers.
NAFTA was signed by the Democrat Bill Clinton. The Democratic Party is a party of U.S. imperialism just like the Republican Party. This agreement was part of a capitalist offensive on a world scale detonated by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92, a gigantic defeat for the workers of the world. As Lenin taught us, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, characterized by the formation of monopolies, the export of finance capital and the division and re-division of the world among a handful of powers with armies and navies to enforce their interests.
Some 98 million Mexicans (some three-quarters of Mexico’s population) live in poverty, including millions of peasants who lost their land and left their homes due to the devastation of the countryside. This immiseration is a direct result of NAFTA and decades of privatization and “structural reforms” like the privatization of oil extraction, electricity and railroads; the deregulation of gas prices; and the anti-union “education reform.” Such “reforms” implemented by the Mexican bourgeoisie were designed to hand over the country’s economy to the imperialists, primarily in the U.S., and to weaken and destroy the unions.
Together with our comrades of the SL/U.S. and the Ligue trotskyste/Trotskyist League in Quebec and Canada, the GEM has opposed NAFTA from the beginning, and we also oppose the USMCA, which Trump wants to use to increase imperialist plunder. Down with NAFTA/USMCA!
The working conditions of the workers of Matamoros are dirty and dangerous. One of the most dramatic stories that we heard was of a smelter where temperatures reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit in areas far from the furnace! Workers regularly become dehydrated and faint. During aluminum casting, red-hot drops of molten metal fall on their bodies, burning them. In addition, they handle toxic substances, and the hated bosses only give them dust masks. We say: For union control of safety!
The workers are conscious of the super-profits that the bosses make. It was a slap in the face when those bloodsuckers told the workers that there was no money to pay them the 20 percent wage increase and 32,000 pesos annual bonus.
For a Class-Struggle
In Matamoros, we ran into many anti-union prejudices among the workers, which were engendered and reinforced by the gangsterism and betrayals of the venal CTM leaders. Some workers told us that these bureaucrats advised the employers not to grant wages and benefits above the average.
In addition, while the union bureaucrats were “negotiating,” they tried to persuade the workers to abandon the strike. In fact, they outright threatened the workers. However, the strikers, without hesitation, forced the false union leaders to present their demands to the bosses, and in some cases, even appointed committees to ensure they did so.
For decades, the major unions, especially those grouped in the CTM—together with associations of peasants and other “sectors” of society, or “corporations”—were integrated into the PRI. That party had governed Mexico for 71 years; thus, the unions have been tied directly to the bourgeois state. This setup is referred to as corporatism. For some time, though, it has been in decline, as the state has been less interested in co-opting unions and more interested in destroying them. Under corporatism, the government decides whether or not a given union is legal, imposing or removing union leaders at will. In exchange, these charros controlled the unions for the state, purging and frequently assassinating dissident workers while benefiting generously from corruption.
We oppose corporatism as one of the most open forms of subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. Mexican corporatist state control applies to all unions, not only those within the CTM and others backed by the PRI. The laws of the Mexican capitalist state affect both the corporatist unions and the so-called “independent” unions, that is, those tied to the PRD or Morena.
Some workers equate the company with the union, so they prefer not to be members. But trade unions are the defense organizations of the working class. They must not be thrown out because they have a sellout leadership. What is necessary is a political fight to forge class-struggle union leaderships that understand that the interests of the proletariat and of the bourgeoisie cannot be reconciled. The workers must clean their own house! Organize the unorganized!
The main crimes of the union bureaucrats—whether corporatist or “independent,” whether tied to the PRI, the PRD or Morena—are abject class collaboration and subordination of the working class to the capitalists. In order to break the corporatist shackles, it is necessary to fight against all measures that subordinate the unions to the bourgeois state.
The struggle for internal democracy in the unions and for their independence from the state and the bourgeois parties cannot be separated from the struggle for revolutionary leadership. As Trotsky himself explained: “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.”
Pseudo-Trotskyist Union Busters
During the GEM’s intervention in Matamoros, we sought to raise the consciousness of workers. In contrast, the Internationalist Group (IG) stands on the side of the bosses, dismissing powerful unions because of the violent methods and party affiliation of their false leaderships. Sharing the union-busting line that is widespread among the pseudo-left, the IG considers corporatist unions to be state institutions and labor police agencies and has criminally refused to defend them when under state attack. Such was the case with the miners and metal workers union and its leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, in 2006.
According to these opportunists, the PRI’s corporatist unions, such as the SJOIIM, are not workers organizations but the “class enemy.” The IG capitulates to nationalist populism through the “independent” union bureaucracies, as can clearly be seen in its years-long tailing of the CNTE teachers union leadership.
Denigrating the struggle of the Matamoros workers, the IG says that the owners “told the SJOIIM and its general secretary, Villafuerte, to call an official strike in order to better control it” (Internationalist, Winter 2019). It was the union members who imposed their will on the leadership, forcing it to declare a strike. If the union were a police agency, this turn of events would be unthinkable.
To justify its despicable union-busting line, this pseudo-Trotskyist outfit abuses the authority of Trotsky, quoting him: “In Mexico the trade unions have been transformed by law into semistate institutions and have, in the nature of things, assumed a semitotalitarian character.”
But it does not follow from the above that the unions have changed their class nature. On the contrary, the same article, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940), states:
“From the foregoing it seems, at first sight, easy to draw the conclusion that the trade unions cease to be trade unions in the imperialist epoch. They leave almost no room at all for workers’ democracy.…
“In the absence of workers’ democracy there cannot be any free struggle for influence over the trade union membership. And because of this, the chief arena of work for revolutionists within the trade unions disappears. Such a position, however, would be false to the core.…
“The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organization, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.”
Women and Maquiladoras
In many maquiladoras in Matamoros, courageous women workers were the vanguard of the leadership and defense of the strikes. Like all other proletarian women, they suffer double oppression, because of their class and their sex. After exhausting shifts in the factory, they have to take care of their kids and complete domestic chores. Women’s wages are 30 percent lower than men’s, which are already meager.
To get hired, women are asked for pregnancy tests; and to keep the job, they have to undergo humiliating checkups. If they become pregnant, doctors lie about the due date in order to make them work as long as possible. As a result, some women end up giving birth in the factories. Harassment and sexual abuse by the bosses and their minions are the rule.
We Spartacists fight for full equality for women, for their total integration into the workforce and for equal pay for equal work. Also, for free abortion on demand for those who request it and for quality medical services for all. We oppose the threats made by AMLO to hold a referendum on the right to an abortion. In deeply male chauvinist and Catholic Mexico, such a referendum would result in a ban on this medical procedure.
As Marxists, we understand that the special oppression of women developed with class-divided society and the patriarchal monogamous family as a means of ensuring the inheritance of private property. Under capitalism, the family functions as the economic unit of society and is the basis for women’s oppression, along with the bourgeois state and religion. The fight for women’s emancipation is strategic to proletarian revolution. The family cannot be abolished, it must be replaced under socialism.
A society of material abundance, with an internationally planned and collectivized economy, would make possible the socialization of childcare and domestic tasks, including by providing childcare centers, public kitchens and collective laundries. Women would be able to participate fully in social and political life.
The liberation of women and of all the exploited and oppressed requires a socialist revolution and its international extension. To this end, the proletariat must cease to be a class in itself—one defined simply by its relation to the means of production—and instead become a class for itself, conscious that it must take power and begin to create a socialist society. The indispensable instrument to instill this consciousness within the working class is a Leninist-Trotskyist party. The objective of the GEM, the SL/U.S. and the rest of the ICL, is to build revolutionary parties, the national sections of a reforged Fourth International, that are capable of leading the working class to power.