Hundreds of Coca-Cola workers camp up to a raise in a large bottling plant. More than 8,000 Walmart employees were ready to finish the job until management met some of their demands. And 30,000 striking factory workers finally returned to work after a month-long strike.
The workers organize themselves at unprecedented prices along the border – in Mexico.
Since January, thousands of factory workers in Mexican border towns, where hundreds of factories run by US companies and subcontractors, are arguing for higher wages. Factory workers, who generally earn around $ 2.50 an hour, produce auto parts, washing machines, appliances, and even soda for American consumers on the border.
Workers are furious with their employers for paying them wages, but they are also upset about their unions, which are often controlled by corporations and government officials. So far, union officials have not been able to stop the strikes that began in January in Matamoros, an industrial border town located above Brownsville in the state of Rio Grande.
The strikes were so successful that they triggered what is now called the 20/32 Movement, based on the 20 percent wage increase and a 32,000 peso annual bonus (about $ 1
The movement is now spreading beyond factories in the border region, and even cashiers in US supermarkets and fast food chains are demanding increases. These include Sam's club stores and Walmart stores.
The week-long strikes have surprised business groups and employers. The Mexican government and the unions have long controlled the workforce with an iron grip and immediately quashed the labor unrest caused by the strike of detained workers. That's just one of the reasons why Mexico's wages are among the lowest in the developed world – an attitude US companies have encouraged.
But it all changes for two people: Mexico's new populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and US President Donald Trump. Despite their distinctly different attitudes toward politics both Presidents share the view that Mexican labor law requires a major overhaul in order to make free trade between the two nations work.
And ironically, it was López Obrador's decision to raise the minimum wage, which led to massive strikes.
Raising the minimum wage was unprecedented
In December, López Obrador fulfilled one of his election promises: he raised the national minimum wage. The 16 percent increase, which took effect in January, raised the lower wage limit to around 0.60 cents an hour. To be clear, that's still a pretty bad price. AMLO has only raised the minimum to keep up with the cost of feeding a family of four. The new minimum wage only ensures that people are not starving to death, and it's certainly not enough for families to pay rent or buy something else.
But it was still seen as a big win for the Mexican workers who do it. On average, they earn about $ 12.50 a day.
Under this new directive, the AMLO has created a separate minimum wage for workers in the border region where about 2 million people work in factories or maquilas belonging to multinational corporations. The new minimum wage in the border states is about $ 1.1 per hour – twice as much as before. To offset the costs for employers, AMLO introduced a tax cut for companies along the border.
But here's the point: factory workers in cities like Matamoros were already earning around $ 2.50 an hour, according to The Change did not bring them anything at all. They also insisted on raising salaries with the minimum wage earners and many of their contracts actually provided for salary increases and bonuses due to changes in the minimum wage. That meant their salaries would have doubled to about $ 5 an hour because the minimum wage had doubled.
But the maquiladora industry in Matamoros and the day laborers, industrial workers and the Maquila Industries Union, which represents most factory workers in the Union City, said such a salary increase was too much. Two weeks after the entry into force of the new wage laws, about 30,000 workers went on strike on 1 January. Their demand: an increase of 20 percent and a bonus of 32,000 pesos (about 1,600 USD).
The corporate groups were outraged. The Mexican employers' association called it "crisis". The local Chamber of Commerce said the city would lose 20,000 jobs. The factories threatened to close. Workers blocked access to their jobs and shut down essentially 45 factories for several weeks.
Something unexpected had happened on February 9: the managers in 45 factories agreed to the employees' demands, and their 30,000 employees received the amounts and bonuses collected. At least two factories, including a Chinese automaker, have decided to move to another location and have fired 1,500 people.
That did not discourage the workers. In fact, strikes spread to other Mexican border states, including Coahuila. Reynosa, Tamaulipas; Agua Prieta and Sonora.
Coca-Cola workers are still arguing. Walmart hardly avoided a break from work.
Hundreds of workers at one of Coca-Cola's largest bottling and distribution operations refused to work for nearly two months, claiming the same 20 percent with a $ 32,000 peso bonus. Many were camped in front of the factory in Matamoros to prevent strikebreakers from entering production and almost bring production to a standstill.
The Coca-Cola bottling plant Arca Continental is one of the few employers in the state of Tamaulipas who disagree with workers' demands. [Tuesday] Employees put on their uniforms on Tuesday and gathered outside the sprawling facility to continue the strike. Some slept on mattresses on the pavement, according to an online video by Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor lawyer who organizes the strikes.
"We will stay here as long as we need it," said one of the workers standing outside.
Their homemade signs accuse the company of exploiting them. "If they hit one of us, they'll beat us all," said one of the signs.
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola in Mexico told me that the company is in line with the way in which Arca Continental operates the bottling plant, is acting on the strike, but has not said whether Coca-Cola meets the demands of Worker supported or not.
"We are following the development of the situation carefully and trust that it will be resolved as soon as possible. "We are always looking for the well-being of our employees," wrote Lorena Villarreal Clausell, communications director of Coca-Cola Mexico, in a statement to Vox.
While the factory workers were at the head of the riot, frustration began to spread. In February, a union representing 8,000 employees of Walmart and Sam's Club stated that they would strike if the company does not agree to the 20/32 claims required by law. They also accused managers of discriminating against discriminatory pregnant women and not including some workers in their health and pensions programs, according to the Union of the Revolutionary Workers' Union (Farmervers Union), which has about 180 Walmart and Sam's club businesses in the country There are ten Mexican states represented
"We, the Walmart workers, have formed a movement to reclaim our rights," the union said in a video announcing the strike earlier this month. "We fight for better wages, a percentage of sales, for preventing layoffs, and for respecting human rights."
This includes janitors, cashiers, pharmacy employees and warehouse workers. Last year, workers at Walmart stores throughout Mexico earned between $ 4.81 and $ 8.83 a day, according to Reuters.
En la #CROC damos el respaldo trabajadores de las tiendas Walmart.
El apoyo a nuestros compañeros agremiados an realiza a nivel nacional. pic.twitter.com/EXNrlCoG4C
– CROC (@CROC_Nacional) March 2, 2019
The strike was to begin last week, but the company agreed to an agreement with the Union last minute. They would give employees an increase of 5.5 percent and a productivity bonus – far less than they wanted, but enough to avoid a strike.
The relative success of these strikes has a lot to do with politics.
The administration of López Obrador does not work against workers
Mexico's new president and other members of his populist party Morena are now in political control of Mexico, having occupied both chambers of the Mexican Congress for the first time this year. Employers worked in the past One could count on federal and state governments intervening in workers' strikes, often resulting in brutal actions against workers. Unions are rarely on the side of the workers they represent.
But López Obrador and his congressional allies attach importance to remaining neutral. They encourage negotiations, but have so far refused to take punitive action against workers.
"The class of business must also take direct responsibility for it, it must have social responsibility towards the workers, the communities in which they operate, and the environment," said Sen. Napoleón Gómez Urrutia during a press conference last week, according to El Milenio newspaper. "This is part of our national policy and the new trade union movement that we promote, there must be economic justice to create a peaceful working environment."
The government's labor policy will inadvertently help an unlikely ally: President Donald Trump.
Mexico Must Pass New Labor Laws to Enact the Trade Agreement
In November, President Donald Trump announced that he had fulfilled one of his election promises: He had signed a treaty with Canada and Mexico. Replace the North American Free Trade Agreement ( NAFTA).
Under the new agreement (USMCA), Mexico has promised to pass laws that guarantee workers the right to form unions and negotiate their own employment contracts.
Currently, workers in Mexico have the right to union work, but are often excluded from the bargaining process. US manufacturers – and most other companies – eventually negotiate the contract terms with the unions for their own benefit without being asked to do so by the staff. Workers also reported employer retaliation when they tried to form a union.
Trump still needs Congress to ratify the pact, which is likely to be resisted by the House's Democrats. Mexico and Canada must also bring their legislator on board.
Trump has repeatedly railed against NAFTA for decimating the US manufacturing industry
When the trade pact came into effect in 1994, the unions are worried that an uncontaminated crossing of the border would give too much incentive to US manufacturers to relocate factories and jobs to Mexico, where wages and environmental standards were very low, more relaxed.
NAFTA supporters rejected that idea, saying that increasing trade would increase the wages of low-skilled Mexican workers, lift millions out of poverty, and make it less attractive for companies to relocate factories to Mexico.
But that definitely did not happen. The competition from US farms was largely responsible for the fact that 19459,003 more than 1 million farm workers in Mexico were unemployed, and the unemployment rate in Mexico is now higher than at that time.
Added to this are the wages because the workers in Mexico have hardly done anything.
New treaty labor reforms are designed to raise wages for Mexican workers to give US companies less incentive to move manufacturing jobs south of the border.
In addition to giving the workers a voice in collective bargaining, the USMCA would also oblige Mexico to enact a law providing for occupational safety measures for migrant workers, many of whom are from Central America and vulnerable to exploitation.
For example, the "New NAFTA" would allow the United States to submit labor disputes through the regular dispute settlement system, but only when it comes to violations of work that are damaging US trade. You can lodge the complaint before a commission of Government Labor Ministers from each country, but only after exhausting all efforts to mediate the problem and the separate solution.
It seems to be a long, painful process that can take months. However, it is better than the non-existent process to deal with labor law violations under NAFTA. And it would require each country to adopt an aggressive, practice-oriented approach.
The hardest part will be enforcing a specific provision in USMCA that requires 40 to 45 percent of the parts of a car to be made by workers earning at least $ 16 an hour to avoid tariffs. This means that many Mexican factories producing parts for US automakers will have to pay eight times the current factory worker. Or automakers would simply have to buy more car parts made in the United States, where wages for factory workers are much higher.
The trade agreement does not mention how the US government would even know what companies are paying over the border labor force. It is also not clear what the Mexican government would know. But López Obrador makes some changes that are in line with the USMCA and the legislator is expected to submit the remainder of the necessary proposals this spring.
As a populist president whose political party now controls both chambers of the Mexican congress, it should not be hard for López Obrador to pass these reforms. Until then, the current labor turmoil in Mexico is likely to spread further.