In 2015, class and social struggles intensified in different regions of Mexico. From small farmers to factory workers, and from teachers to farmworkers, different sectors of the population mobilized to demand fair living standards and dignified treatment.
While each struggle had its particularities, common threads bound the various movements. Scratching the surface, the connection of the struggles to Mexico’s subordinate position in the global capitalist economy was glaring. Class and social conflicts were shaped by international factors just as much-perhaps even more- so than domestic ones.
Early in 2015, the Baja California Peninsula of northern Mexico was rocked by the rebellion of tens of thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintin Valley.
Led by the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, the farm laborers, mainly indigenous migrants from southern Mexico, demanded living wages, protection from toxic pesticides, and an end to sexual harassment and other affronts by supervisors. The breadth and scope of the months-long protest was unprecedented for the San Quintin Valley. The striking farmworkers demanded an independent union.
“We wanted to make ourselves known, so they could see us and understand that we workers are men and women of flesh and blood and not just hands working the fields,” Fidel Sanchez, an indigenous Mixtec leader of the Alliance, was quoted at the time. “We have faces, names and families. We are tens of thousands, because with us are our children, who are also workers just like their parents have been.”
The international context of the San Quintin movement loomed large. A rich producer of strawberries, tomatoes and other crops, the produce of the San Quintin Valley is almost exclusively exported to the United States.
San Quintin functions as a sort of agricultural maquiladora, or farm export factory. Because of Baja and other agricultural export regions south of the border, U.S. store shelves are stocked with produce throughout the year. Wal-Mart, Costco and Trader’s Joe rank among the big outlets for the food commodities.
Very quickly, the San Quintin movement inspired a cross-border solidarity movement, especially from indigneous Mexican migrant communities in California that share family and community ties to Baja’s farmworkers. In Oxnard, California, for example, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations and the Mixtec Indigenous Community Organizing Project, picketed Driscoll’s, another sales outlet for Baja’s harvests.
In the big picture, the struggles of the San Quintin and other Mexican farmworkers are also the struggles of U.S. farmworkers, though this basic fact of globalization is not always recognized.
The 50th anniversary of the 1965 Delano grape strike that gave rise to Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union in California was widely commemorated this year, but the connection between yesteyear’s fights and contemporary ones in regions of the world where U.S. agriculture has been outsourced, such as San Quintin Valley, hardly came up in the celebrations.
By year’s end, the San Quintin movement had chalked up a mixed record. The Mexican Labor Ministry inspections that reportedly sanctioned some growers for labor law violations, and the federal government pledged to institute reforms in the fields. But reports of the mistreatment of workers and firings of activist workers came in throughout the course of 2015. The movement’s goal of a 200 peso per day minimum wage remained elusive, and two new rival unions emerged from the strikes.
According to Cimacnoticias, one of the new unions–the National Independent Union of Agricultural Workers, which was legally registered by the Labor Ministry in November, is associated with Lucila Hernandez Garcia, a woman farmworker leader who took part in the spring strike. Formed a few weeks later, the National Independent Democratic Union of Agricultural Workers is identified with Fidel Sanchez.
Campesinos Blockade Bridge, Railroads
Small farmers, meanwhile, launched a new movement in Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango and other states that was also framed by the dictates of the global economy. Chihuahua apple producers hurt by the large-scale importation of U.S.-grown apples, joined El Barzon and other small farm organizations in a protest that included the October 26 seizure and shut-down of an international bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.
When Mexican officials failed to show up for Nov. 4 negotiations in Mexico City the farmers returned to protest tactics, this time blockading railroads in the northern part of the country. The forceful action goaded officials of the Peña Nieto administration to the table, and they tentatively agreed to some of the farmers’ demands for lower fuel costs and marketing support.
Still, the underlying structural forces that gave rise to the 2015 farm protest, and similar movements during the past quarter-century, remain untouched. Battered by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico’s small growers stand to be further bludgeoned by the Trans-Pacific Partnership if that free trade agreement–called “NAFTA on steroids” by critics–is approved.
In the 2015 Mexico farm protest, climate change and global capitalism intersected. Victor Quintana, movement advisor and poltical analyst, pointed to high energy costs borne by producers forced to pump groundwater for irrigated crops in regions of Mexico beset by long-term drought, low international prices for basic grains, and high costs for fertilizer and other imported inputs rendered ever more expensive because of the falling value of the peso to the dollar.
According to Quintana, the sum result is bringing “thousands of producers of diverse systems and products to ruin,” and jeopardizing Mexico with a “giant loss of jobs and food sovereignty.”
International commerce, or “free trade,” was at the core of another mass movement that erupted last June in the border state of Coahuila, where again the contradictions of Mexico’s submissive position in the global economy played out.
The massive importation of steel from China and other low-cost producers, unleashed by the Calderon administration’s elimination of steel tariffs in 2010, threatened to erode the Mexican political system’s corporatist pyramid of rule when the country’s remaining national steel producers announced lay-offs or idlings of thousands of workers in northeastern Mexico and the southwestern state of Michoacan.
Supported by business sectors and the pro-government Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM), more than 10,000 people marched in Monclova, Coahuila, demanding the curbing of steel imports and the preservation of Mexican jobs. Initially, the Mexican government held firm on its pro-free trade agenda, but public pressure mounted. Even business leaders expressed sharp criticism. Juan Antonio Rebouten, spokesman for the Mexican steel company De Acero, was quoted in the daily La Jornada blasting the Pena Nieto administration for neoliberal “dogmatism” on international trade.
Heading off a bigger social crisis-at least for now- the Pena Nieto administration announced quotas, administrative measures and a 15 percent tariff on steel imports from China, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. In December, reports circulated in the Mexican press that workers at a De Acero plant in Guanajuato were violently intimidated to prevent them from forming their own union separate from the CTM.
The Juarez Maquiladora Workers Movement
In Ciudad Juarez, yet another unprecedented movement emerged during 2015. Long promoted abroad by government officials as a city free of labor strife, Juarez became the scene of an overdue worker uprising this fall in the foreign-owned export factories, or maquiladoras.
At first separately and then together, hundreds of workers of Foxconn, ADC/Commscope, Eaton and Lexmark staged work stoppages, hunger strikes, vigils, and public demonstrations. They set up protest encampments outside the plants and marched in the streets.
To the south of Juarez, in the municipality of Delicias, Chihuahua, hundreds of employees of a Mead Johnson nutritional products plant protested employment conditions there in November.
While the specifics varied from company-to-company, the protesting voiced common grievances. The workers demanded better pay than the five or six dollars in base wages they earn every day, an end to shop-floor abuses like sexual harassment from supervisors, and shades of San Quintin, an independent union free from the clutches of the CTM and other government-backed labor organizations.
With more than 300,000 maquiladora workers laboring in about 300 foreign-owned factories in Juarez and the state of Chihuahua–according to Autonomous University of Chihuahua economist Benjamin Carrera–Juarez and Chihuahua are critical links in the global electronics, automotive and other industrial chains.
The laboratory of free trade, Juarez has attracted runaway plants from the United States, Japan, Europe and even Asia. Symbolically, bits and pieces of dismantled Detroit, Akron and the old Silicon Valley are found in the sprawling industrial parks of the border city.
Practically every product imaginable that is consummed in the United States is produced in Juarez. Donald Trump and many Republicans want to build a bigger wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but U.S. citizens already are intimately connected to their southern neighbor in a thousand ways, whether they know it or not. U.S. consumers eat Mexican-grown produce, drive Mexican-built cars, play with Mexican-assembled electronic gadgets, and even converse with Mexican call center reps.
Like San Quintin, the Juarez maquiladora workers movement has garnered support across borders. The recently organized Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, an umbrella-like grouping of human rights, feminist, environmental and left activists from Juarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas, has been key in getting out word about the workers’ demands. Messages of solidarity have hailed from as far away as the Czech Republic, where Foxconn workers maintain a movement of their own.
While previous protests crackled throughout the maquiladora industry’s 50-year presence in Juarez, earlier episodes were generally confined to one plant at a time. The new movement is different, involving different factories at the same time and lasting for months.
Elizabeth Flores, director of Pastoral Obrera, the Roman Catholic Church’s labor justice ministry in Ciudad Juarez, called the 2015 worker protests examples of a ticking social “time bomb” going off.
An intensified rate of exploitation, coupled with a window of organizing opportunity opened up by the industry’s inability to recruit enough local workers because of rock-bottom wages, explain in good part the timing of the labor protest.
Similar to San Quintin, women workers were at the center of the Juarez struggle, raising demands for safety from dangerous chemicals, an end to institutionalized sexual harassment from middle management, and an equal voice.
Mexican Workers in a Free Fall to the Bottom
Overall, Mexican workers are sliding down a seemingly bottomless wage scale. According to La Jornada’s Juan Antonio Zuniga, the cost of labor in Mexico decreased 6.6 percent during the first nine trimesters of the Pena Nieto administration, which took office in December 2012.
“Cheaper than ever, the unitary cost of labor is currently at a rate 16 percent less than in 2008, 7 years ago, according to a calculation from Bank of Mexico specialists done with figures from the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics,” Zuniga wrote in a piece earlier this year.
In December, the official National Commission of Minimum Salaries decreed a 4.2 percent increase in the minimum wage from 70.10 pesos to 73.04 pesos for 2016. The “pay hike” won’t even purchase a small packet of gum these days.
Based on the current dollar-peso differential, the new minimum wage is less than five dollars a day, approximately the same as in 2006, when the 47.05 peso minimum wage was worth just above than four bucks based on the dollar value of the time.
Factoring in inflation, especially in the basic basket of goods like food, it’s clear Mexican maquiladora and other workers have watched the value of their labor shrivel and shrink during the last 10 years.
What’s more, U.S. university professors Kathy Staudt and Oscar Martinez, founders of El Paso’s Social Justice Education Forum, calculate that Mexican assembly line workers earn about half the pay they did in 1975, prior to Mexico’s entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, NAFTA and other trade pacts.
Staudt and Martinez helped organize a December 5 forum in El Paso featuring presentations by Pastoral Obrera’s Elizabeth Flores and two former maquiladora workers from Juarez who said they were fired for complaining about working conditions. The two women told the forum their pay averaged between $38-$45 during a typical week before they were fired.
“Few El Pasoans know about the paltry wages and substandard working conditions of their neighbors, despite buying products produced there by major global corporations with distant CEO annual earnings in the multi-million range and U.S.-based managers in the six-digit range,” Staudt and Martinez later wrote in an El Paso Times op-ed.
The two border researchers contended that improving wages for Juarez’s workers, who shop for cheaper products in El Paso, would also economically benefit the U.S. city, which on its own terms tends to the bottom of U.S. wage and wealth indexes.
In an analysis of the Juarez worker movement, economist Carrera noted that the 50-year-old maquiladora industry, whose birth itself was linked to the end of the cross-border Bracero Program of Mexican guest farmworkers and the Mexican government’s plan to turn thousands of former U.S. farmhands into factory workers, has brought jobs but not integral economic development, exemplified by the 200,000 people living in extreme poverty in poor neighborhoods.
“The great majority of the inhabitants of these sectors survive on their work in the maquiladora industry, where they earn between one and two mini-salaries,” Carrera wrote.
In a historical footnote, many surviving braceros or their family members are still demanding compensation for money never paid to them that was deducted from their paychecks for a return home fund that disappeared in the Mexican banking system.
Despite public sympathy for their cause, the Juarez maquiladora workers’ movement has provoked a panicked reaction on the part of some government officials and companies. Anxious to reposition the city of about 1.3 million people in the international investment courting game after the bloody “narco war” of 2008-2012, Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte and Juarez Mayor Enrique Serrano (a possible 2016 Chihuahua gubernatorial candidate), both members of President Pena Nieto’s PRI party, seek to maintain a facade of labor stability.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, allegations of outside agitators stirring up the workers have been floated by some government officials in the local press. Reports of activist workers dismissed and surveilled by company operatives abound, and some lawyers for the workers have been subjected to intimidation.
As in Coahuila, worker protest threatens to disturb a status quo constructed to the benefit capital with the PRI managing the show and directing pliant labor organizations that provide mass votes during elections and keep the wheel of fortune for the few spinning merrily away.
As 2015 drew to a close the Juarez workers’ movement was at a critical juncture. Protesting workers and their family members face a cold winter in financial stress. After 700 Lexmark workers conducted a December 8 work stoppage, activists, accused the company of firing 120 of the participants. In a gesture of solidarity with the workers, supporters are soliciting financial donations and material contributions.
According to pro-labor activist Miguel Juarez, who is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at El Paso, cross-border solidarity is on the rise but there is still “concern how little has been reported by the press both in El Paso and outside the region.”
One unpredictable element that could be injected into the labor-capital struggle will occur next February when Pope Francisco, who has emerged as a prominent critic of unrestrained capitalism, visits Ciudad Juarez. Labor-management relations are already on the agenda of the Pontiff’s visit to the big border city, where he is expected to speak with both maquiladora employers and employees.
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.americas.org
Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly (Spanish):
Staudt and Martinez op-ed on Juarez maquiladora workers (English)
Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (Spanish)
Bravo. Every U.S. worker ought to read this and wake up. U.S. wages in some industries are falling just as they are in Mexico; in others they are stagnant, thanks to corporate globalization. May our Mexican brothers and sisters fighting for independent unions inspire their revival in the U.S. Unions are the main, maybe the only, instrument that can wrest living wages for the 99% from the 1%.
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