Liberation Road

Mexican Workers, the Devil, and the Deep Blue Sea

The weekly newsletter of the México Solidarity Project

June 2, 2021/ This week’s issue/ Meizhu Lui, for the editorial team

Sometimes you’re caught, as the saying goes, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Whichever way you turn, you know things aren’t going to end well. Maquila workers in México face that exact situation. As the sign declares in this photo of striking workers in Matamoros: “The union and the company are killing the working class.”

Unions, of course, aren’t supposed to be killing the working class. Unions stand classically as the worker voice and fist. They ensure that workers don’t have to put up or shut up. But most Mexican unions belong to the Confederation of Mexican Workers. These CTM unions work hand in glove with employers. They look the other way when managements violate labor laws. They sign pro-company contracts that workers never get to see, let alone ratify. They even use thuggery against anyone who objects to the cozy partnership between union and company bosses. They make “killing” much more than a metaphor.

The companies involved here have increasingly become foreign-owned operations. The NAFTA trade deal went into effect in the 1990s. Back then, México hosted only about 2,000 maquiladora factories. The count today: about 5,000. Foreign companies haven’t rushed into México to improve the lives of Mexican workers. They’ve rushed in to exploit Mexican workers, and they’ve succeeded at that. Wages are now running lower in México than in China, the reason why Chinese companies are also rushing to move production to México.

The maquiladoras, simply put, have the power to make their own rules. One example: The AMLO administration has substantially increased México’s minimum wage. The maquilas have just not bothered to comply. But in Matamoros — and beyond — workers have had enough. They had learned to distrust both companies and unions. But now they stand ready to put their lives on the line to create a new kind of union, one they themselves control.

And these workers also see themselves, in the national mid-term elections next week, no longer trapped between two anti-worker parties, the PRI and the PAN. As the fearless labor lawyer and independent union organizer Susana Prieto Terrazas puts it, only democracy — meaning real worker participation — can break workers free from the companies, unions, and political parties that have been “killing the working class.”

We have more this week on the struggle for labor rights in México — and next week’s contentious and critically important midterm Mexican elections.

The trade deal now in effect between México and the United States — the revised NAFTA, or USMCA as the new acronym goes — has two mechanisms that give Mexican workers, at least on paper, a better shot at breaking free of corrupt “protection” unions. Under the deal’s “rapid response” provision, individual companies can be charged with violating the treaty. The “state to state” process lets one signatory country ask another to investigate alleged labor rights violations. Activists, notes Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch founder and director Lori Wallach, are now putting both these mechanisms to the test. Wallach recently hosted a discussion on the revised NAFTA with leading activists in the fight for labor rights. We have highlights here.

To read the rest of this exciting bulletin click here!