Massive Work Stoppages Impose Workers’ Demands On Corporatist “Unions,” Employers Respond with Layoffs
Workers in the Maquiladoras
Battle Against Corporatism
Autoliv workers decide to lift the strike after ripping a 20 percent pay rise and a 32,000 pesos payout from the employers, despite the harassment they suffered by the state and the "union", in the service of the bourgeoisie
Break the Shackles of State Control and Build Genuine
Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!
Government – Enemy of the Workers
The following article is based on eyewitness reports from Matamoros by reporter-activists of the Grupo Internacionalista, Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International. It is translated from the GI’s newspaper, Revolución Permanente No. 9, March-April 2019
In recent weeks, Mexico has experienced an explosive wave of worker insurgency in the maquiladora factories of the northeast border as has not been seen in decades. (Maquiladoras or the maquila industry refer to free trade zone plants exempted from tariffs, which take imported components and raw material and turn them into products for export.) The epicenter of the workers’ mobilizations has been the city of Matamoros, in the state of Tamaulipas, at the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border, just across the Río Bravo (called the Rio Grande in the U.S.) from Brownsville, Texas. In January, more than 40,000 workers in 45 maquiladora plants in Matamoros staged walkouts (paros) and launched a strike (huelga) to demand – and win – a 20% wage increase and payment of an annual bonus of 32,000 pesos (US$1,600). In the great majority of these companies, workers were able to force employers to meet their demands. Their example has spread to local companies, including supermarkets, seafood plants and even the Coca Cola bottling plant, as well as to maquiladora factories in other border cities. Employers have responded with layoffs and in some cases threats to shut down production.
At his inauguration, the new president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known by his initials, AMLO), ostentatiously announced his intention to increase, starting January 1, the miserable minimum wage to 102 pesos – a paltry five dollars a day. In the 43 cities and towns along the U.S. border, where the cost of living is much higher, he raised it to 176 pesos, or US$9 a day, doubling the wage. This was ratified on December 17 in an agreement between the government, labor organizations and employers’ associations, with the approval of the Bank of Mexico. Coparmex, the main business association, boasted that with the increase, workers can “satisfy their basic food and non-food needs.” These capitalist gentlemen should try maintaining a family on such a ludicrous wage! But when the Matamoros maquila workers saw their pay stubs for the first week of January, there was almost no increase at all.
Nor was there the annual bonus that companies had paid for years as a substitute for genuine wage increases, but which they now refused to pay. As of that Friday, January 12, the black-and-red flags signifying a work stoppage were placed on a dozen plants where the workforce is affiliated to the Union of Laborers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry (SJOIIM). Workers protested at the SJOIIM headquarters, complaining that its leader, Juan Villafuerte Morales, had only asked for a 10% increase and a bonus of 5,000 pesos. When Villafuerte then sent a formal letter of demands, he didn’t even mention the bonus. The workers continued insisting on a wage hike of 20% and the payment of the bonus of 32,000 pesos, according to the contract in force, equal to half a year’s wages. Thus was born the “20/32 movement,” which continues to grow, stirring up workers’ rebellion around the country.
Even before January 12, calls circulated on social networks under the name of Obreros Unidos de Matamoros (United Workers of Matamoros), equally directed against the companies and the “union” that the workers did not recognize as a defender of their interests – quite the opposite. “We call all workers to walk out on Friday, January 11 for the wage increase and the annual bonus.... Union Get Out!” read one poster. Villafuerte, the charro1 leader of the SJOIIM, “exhorted the workers to return to work,” reported El Mañana (15 January). Two days later, this paper, which speaks for the maquiladora owners, published a worrisome headline, “Movement Radicalizes.” It reported on a rally in Matamoros’ Plaza Hidalgo with the presence of the lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, who “in previous days appeared on social networks supporting the workers of Matamoros and refusing to recognize the union” led by Villafuerte.
In fact, as we were able to confirm after talking with striking Matamoros workers, their rejection of the “union” reflects what they have learned from their own dismal experience with the pseudo-unions of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). These are corporatist labor organizations, integrated into the capitalist state apparatus, which serve the employers as labor police to prevent the emergence of genuine workers unions. Other corporatist confederations are the CROC and the CROM. This legacy of the 70-year government by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as a state party2 survived the end of PRI rule due to the need of the bosses and their government, as subjects of imperialism and rulers of the semi-colonial country, to keep tight control of the growing Mexican working class, particularly in the border area.
Among those calling themselves socialists, the question of the integration of CTM labor bodies into the state has been obfuscated, in different ways. A few former leftists who have become propagandists in the service of the bourgeoisie (such as the dubious World Socialist Web Site, or more accurately, “Scab Website”) use it to rant against unions as such. More common are those who ignore corporatism and only speak of charro unions, or charrismo, thereby equating labor organizations embedded in the state apparatus (CTM-CROC-CROM) with unions with sellout leaders, on the presumption that one only has to fight for a militant leadership. But decades of workers’ rebellions underscore, as the Grupo Internacionalista has insisted, the urgency to break the corporatist shackles and forge a revolutionary leadership that is organizationally and politically independent of capital, its parties and its state.
Corporatism, Old and New
On the first day of the official strike, after two weeks of stoppages that the employer called "crazy." There are more than 2.5 millions of workers in the maquiladora industry, largely part workers, as you can see in this photo. The maquila industry is the concentration point of the most great female proletariat of the continent.
In the course of the workers’ struggle in the Matamoros maquiladoras, the issue of corporatism has been key. During the two weeks following January 12, work stoppages spread to cover all 45 factories in the border city under the SJOIIM contract. Many of the maquila plants manufacture parts for the U.S. auto industry. Workers at companies such as Autoliv (which produces airbags and safety belts), Toyoda Gosei Rubber (which produces rubber hoses for radiators) and Joyson Safety Systems (an auto parts plant that is threatening to close) had similar experiences during the first days of mobilization. As enforcers for the employers’ Human Resources managers, “union” leaders sought to convince the workers to drop their demands and go back to work. But in the face of tight-fisted bosses who refused to make any concessions, the rebellion continued to grow.
When the owners realized that the charros could not fulfill their task of maintaining “labor peace,” they switched gears. They told the SJOIIM and its general secretary, Villafuerte, to call an official strike in order to better control it. Under the pretext of “legalizing” the stoppages by invoking the relevant procedures before the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (JCyA), the SJOIIM stooges urged workers to “act responsibly” for the sake of the “economy of the city and the state.” But advised by attorney Susana Prieto, who played a key role in the work stoppages in Ciudad Juárez at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016,3 workers were not intimidated. The strike was called for January 25.
To understand what came next, we must refer to the history of the workers’ struggle in Matamoros.
The SJOIIM today is a traditional “corporatist” union, affiliated to the CTM, under the command of the bourgeois state apparatus. Its main function is that of a labor contractor, providing “disciplined” and cheap labor to U.S. investors and their Mexican junior partners. However, its origins go back to the SJOI of union leader Agapito González Cavazos, who led it from the late 1950s to 1992. An integral part of the PRI-government system (see footnote 2), González Cavazos completely dominated the city, but kept his distance from the CTM. In the heyday of corporatism, this set-up provided some crumbs for members, winning the 40-hour workweek with 56 hours’ pay, which was still pitifully low. But as the system declined under the ravages of U.S. free-trade policies, PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered that wages be squeezed, aided by the leader of the CTM, Fidel Velázquez. The leader of the SJOI slipped the leash, waging successful strikes in 1989.
In 1991, González Cavazos unleashed a huge strike, managing to raise wages in nine auto parts plants to US $1.74 per hour (equal to US$4.80 today), and won the contract clause that indexed the wages tabulator to the percentage of annual increase of the minimum wage.4 But the government, management and corporatist “union” leadership counterattacked, trying to undermine the SJOI for defying the regime. At the beginning of 1992, the companies announced thousands of layoffs, a competing “union” was founded in the maquiladora sector, and Salinas de Gortari had Agapito imprisoned for “tax evasion.” González Cavazos was released a few months later due to pressure from the ranks, but the SJOI became SJOIIM, now under CTM control. In 1994, Juan Villafuerte became general secretary – the same charro who heads it today, 25 years later – and the workweek was extended to 48 hours.
Since then, wages have plummeted as the pseudo-union created by the government and the CTM chiefs colluded with the bosses to not pay the wage increase stipulated in the contract. An end-of-the-year bonus was paid as a substitute for the minuscule minimum wage increase of from 4 to 6 percent.5 When the new AMLO government decreed a doubling of the minimum wage at the border, the announcement that the bonus would not be paid was made by the head of SJOIIM, Villafuerte, acting as unofficial spokesman of the employers’ association. Then, when due to the workers’ revolt he had to give in on the demand for the bonus, it was again the “union” that limited the wage demand to 20 percent, instead of the 100 percent stipulated by the contract. It is a system of “modern slavery,” as lawyer Susana Prieto put it in an interview with La Jornada (February 3).
As a “traditional” corporatist labor organization, SJOIIM was forced to seek minor concessions from the bosses to pacify the workers. During contract bargaining, it would usually deploy its lawyers to “negotiate” the clauses, not only converting wage increases into a one-time bonus but often accepting the elimination, for example, of maternity rights of women workers (see the article by Cirila Quintero, “El sindicalismo actual en la industria maquiladora” 4o. Congreso de la Asociación Mexicana de Estudios del Trabajo ). But, as elsewhere on the border, the CTM in Matamoros also offers the services of another corporatist “union,” the Industrial Union of Workers in Maquiladoras and Assembly Plants (SITPME), run by an flamboyant gangster named Jesús Mendoza Reyes. This is a straight-out company union offering employers “protection” contracts.
The affiliates of this pseudo-union in Matamoros were often not even aware of its existence. The “union representative” in a series of plants where the SITPME operates was the head of the company’s Human Resources Department. This “union” has fewer lawyers and more goons to beat up workers. Mendoza Reyes does not try to hide that he is an employee of the bosses. He declared that the demand of workers regimented by the SITPME to receive the same settlement as the SJOIIM “is an aberration.” He complained bitterly that “our workers have been contaminated” with the demands of the strikers. And he concluded: “the owners are right to fire them” (La Jornada, February 9). However, Mendoza as well finally had to call an official strike (which he tried to sabotage until the last moment) to avoid being driven out of his offices by a crowd of angry workers.
The Development of the Strike
Police harassment against strikers was constant. To start, patrols, then vans, later the army made presence and as the days passed they were already vehicles riot squads, those patrolling.
The wave of strikes in Matamoros was a product of the bosses’ arrogance and the inability of the charro labor outfits to prevent the mobilization of the workers. Dissatisfied workers once again came up against the connivance between the maquila businessmen and the corporatist “unions” that regiment the workers of the region. Their status as labor cops to prevent workers’ organization and mobilization was made explicit in the course of the struggle, even when the overwhelmed “union” chiefs tried to regain control of the situation by calling an official strike (with reduced demands) for January 25, while simultaneously calling off the work stoppages that were underway. Thus they offered up to the bosses on a silver platter the workers who refused to return to work, depriving them of any protection. As for those who went back to work obeying the “union”: Human Resources kicked those labeled as “ringleaders” out the back door, despite the promise that there would be no reprisals.
When January 25 arrived, police patrols cruised around Industrial City and Industrial Park, where the workers who had walked out days before were waiting for the official strike to start. When the deadline expired at 2 p.m., at the Autoliv plant, the corporatist “union” delegate strutted in with the red-and-black strike flag. In the factory on the other side of the road, Inteva Plant 1, a “union” delegate accompanied the spokesperson of Human Resources and the legal representative of the firm. The lawyer read a document in which the local Conciliation and Arbitration Board declared itself ineligible to rule on the strike and, therefore, ruled it “non-existent” (i.e., illegal). Then Human Resources ordered the workers to return to the production line. The “union” delegate said that everything would be resolved by legal means, and urged workers to go back to work; that is, to break the strike. Later in the evening, the delegate asked the strikers to remove the red and black strike flag; they refused.
Thus the “union” called an official strike in order to put a stop to the unrest. At Trico, when the strike began, the employers threatened the newly hired workers, probationary employees, to continue working. As workers who had walked out beginning on January 12 called by cellphone or messaged their co-workers to join the strike, which was now “legal,” the “union” leaders on the production lines ordered them to turn off their phones. Our reporter-activists reported from the scene:
“It was at Trico that the state labor authorities, in collusion with the ‘union’ and the police, tried to break the strike hours after it began, on Friday night (January 25). The representative of the Secretary of Labor, escorted by the police, pulled up to the strikers, almost all of them young, and told them that the strike was illegal and that they had to open the door and clear the way, because it was private property. Neither slow nor lazy, the union delegate untied the strike flag to allow Human Resources to open the door bit by bit, while police took up positions in the entrance. Personnel from the next shift began showing up at the factory door. They said that Human Resources had called them to tell them that they should go to work, that the strike was illegal and that the doors were open; and that if they didn’t go to work, they would automatically be fired and lose all their rights. Young workers, some only 16 years old, explained to fellow workers that they should not be intimidated, and should not break the strike. In the end they convinced them, and the strikers threw aside the ‘union’ delegate and organized themselves.”
The night the strike broke out, in a matter of hours, most of the workers no longer paid attention to the “union” delegates; in case of any doubts, they consulted the lawyer Susana Prieto. Only a couple of minutes after the lawyer called a meeting on the picket lines to encourage the striking workers, on her heels a man would show up, introducing himself as a lawyer of the “union,” saying “don’t let anyone divide us. We need unity, listen to your delegate,” while warning, “Do not be motivated by what comes out on the Internet, on Facebook.” “We are united, unite around the delegate,” he insisted, and then hopped into a van whose driver accelerated to chase after the lawyer, who had gone on to hold a meeting with another strike picket line, broadcasting live on Facebook to alert the other pickets and urge them to resist, and not let themselves get screwed.
The role of the new López Obrador government was also seen during the strike. Several reformist writers and groups have argued that it was the election of this bourgeois populist that encouraged Matamoros workers to rebel. A characteristic example is the article by David Bacon, an American leftist who has written extensively about the struggles of agricultural laborers on both sides of the border. Bacon begins: “The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of Mexico has raised the hopes and expectations of millions of Mexican workers. There could be no better proof of this than the strike of tens of thousands of workers in Matamoros” (“With López Obrador In, Workers Have the Confidence to Walk Out,” The American Prospect, 6 February).
On the other hand, spokesmen for the employers blame AMLO for what they call “paros locos” (crazy walkouts, or wildcat strikes). Rolando González Barrón, president of the Maquiladora Association of Matamoros, commented: “We had not seen strikes for years, but now this federal government has come to empower people, but without the weapons to punish them if they do anything beyond what is allowed legally” (“Perfect Storm in Matamoros,” Excélsior, January 30). This statement is incorrect: sociologist Cirila Quintero, who has studied the maquiladora industry, points out that “labor peace, as such, has not existed,” that there have been “a multiplicity of conflicts and work stoppages in different sectors” in the border city, and that “strikes have broken out, but they have been declared non-existent” (“Las movilizaciones obreras en Matamoros, Tamaulipas,” El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 7 February).
The “20/32 movement” broke out precisely against the bosses’ attempt to eliminate an “acquired right,” the annual bonus, and their refusal to pay a wage increase as stipulated in their contract. But we can also see how the new government tried to undermine and reverse the workers’ action. The mayor of Matamoros, Mario Alberto López Hernández, an ex-PRI gasoline station owner, who was handpicked by AMLO as the candidate of his National Regeneration Movement (Morena), insisted that there would be no bonus this year and “lamented the outbreak of strikes in more than 40 maquiladoras in the city.” The mayor also sent police to intimidate the strikers. Meanwhile, Alfredo Domínguez Marrufo, the representative of the Labor Department dispatched by the federal government to negotiate the conflict, said that “we consider that the strike explosion does not benefit either of the two parties” (El Heraldo, 25 January).
Then, two days into the strike, the coordinator of the Morena majority in the Senate, Ricardo Monreal, made calls in the middle of the night on Sunday, January 27, to Juan Villafuerte to order the head of SJOIIM to get the workers to hand over the Swedish-American factory Autoliv. Our comrades reported:
“Solicitously, Juan Villafuerte, accompanied by a lawyer who was portrayed as a worker and part of the ‘union,’ along with a retinue of vans full of police, appeared at the strike picket in the early morning hours to warn the strikers that on the orders of Senator Ricardo Monreal they had to hand over the factory, with the promise that negotiations would continue in Mexico City. If they did not, he warned them, they would be beaten by the police. At this point in the strike, in the pre-dawn hours, the men and women workers who were maintaining the picket had already lost their fear of the police. On Saturday afternoon, the cops had served as an entourage of an official of the Ministry of Labor, who showed up with a document declaring the strike non-existent, and announced that they had to hand over the factory immediately. Far from being intimidated by the presence of 15 police vans and eight patrol cars, the workers pulled their ranks together and defended the picket line.”
Having struck out with Villafuerte, the Morena senator then called Susana Prieto, who was at that very moment on the picket line with hundreds of workers. Complaining about the “clown” of a lawyer who along with Villafuerte had said that the president of the republic himself, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, demanded that they pull down the red-and-black flags and hand over the factory, the strikers’ legal adviser demanded, with her phone on loudspeaker, to know from Monreal’s mouth if this was true. He told Prieto:
“We won’t allow the workers to be deprived of their rights, but neither are we going to let the economy collapse in the state and in the city.”
Two days later, at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 29, the company yielded and granted the 20 percent increase and 32,000-peso bonus. By the first week of February, almost all the factories under the SJOIIM contract agreed to grant the “20/32” demand. Over the next few weeks, most of the companies represented by the SITPME also agreed to pay, despite the refusal of this “union” to ask for the bonus. Meanwhile, the strike movement in Matamoros spread to the Arca Continental (Coca-Cola) bottling plant, which has been occupied, as well as to supermarkets, the non-union Coppel department store, and a daycare center. The Gulf Steelworks is still struck, by the mining and metal workers union: the company offered a 20 percent pay hike and 32,000 peso bonus, but this was rejected as insufficient by the workers, who demanded 48,000 pesos.
The workers of Matamoros did not flinch: by standing their ground, they won 20/32 in almost every case (four companies are still holding out). However, the bosses have not remained idle. A report from the mayor’s office indicates that by mid-February about 2,500 workers have been dismissed; Coparmex talks of 4,000 layoffs, no doubt to discredit the strikes. Some companies have announced they are leaving the city, while others say they have stopped work on plans for expansion of their plants. The spectre of a flight of maquiladoras in search of cheaper, non-unionized labor in other parts of the border strip is bandied about, recalling what happened after the explosive strikes of 1991. However, a campaign to organize real labor unions free of state guardianship in the entire border area could shut down that leak. But this requires clarity about goals, methods and principles.
The Struggle for Independent Unions and a Revolutionary Leadership
The strikers of Matamoros achieved a resounding victory by firmly and repeatedly rejecting the orders of the corporatist labor bodies and not recognizing them as their representatives. Signs and banners in Plaza Hidalgo carried slogans such as “Corrupt Unions Get Out!” And “CTM Get Out!” The workers have seen with their own eyes how these pseudo-unions acted as an arm of the companies and government agencies, at the local and federal level. They perceived that the force of the workers in taking over the factories led the employers to fold and forced a retreat by the police, the armed enforcers for the employers. As our comrades in Matamoros observed, the insurgent workers received “a crash course in Marxism that some salon revolutionaries would benefit from taking from time to time.” However, distrust in the corporatist apparatus is only a starting point.
The history of struggles against the bureaucracy of the CTM and other corporatist labor confederations shows that it is essential to have a clear understanding of the class character of the corporatist “unions” in order to break the stranglehold of these organs of the capitalist state. This includes the charrazo (the government installation of charro “union” leaders) in 1946-49, when they threw out the “reds” and turned the semi-state unions into full-fledged agencies of the PRI-government; the struggle of the railroad workers in the 1950s, whose leaders were imprisoned for a decade and a half; that of the “democratic tendency” in the STERM electrical workrs union in the 1970s, also destroyed by repression; that of the independent electrical workers union, SME, until the state-owned utility they worked for was dissolved in 2009 in order to destroy the union; and the long struggle of the dissident teachers of the CNTE (National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers, from 1979 until today) against the corporatist SNTE (National Union of Education Workers).
Since the beginning of the work stoppages in Matamoros, several analysts have predicted that it represents the “end of charro unionism,” as a columnist wrote in La Verdad de Tamaulipas (17 January). The local CTM “unions” have clearly been overwhelmed by workers’ rebellion. Currently, the movement is following the lead of the lawyer Prieto, proclaiming their unconditional support for “Susana.” She herself remarked that, “They love me so much that they want to knock down the monument of Rigo Tovar [a singer from Matamoros] and put up one of me.” On Saturday, February 23, speaking to a workers assembly in Plaza Hidalgo, the defender of the strikers attacked the existing “unions” – SJOIIM, SITPME and others, among them the miners union – calling their leaders “rats” (El Mañana, 24 February). She advocated the formation of a new union, not affiliated to the CTM.
Activist lawyer Susana Prieto speaks in front of an assembly of workers in Matamoros on February 23, calling for independent trade unions.
As Susana Prieto seeks to found a union of the maquiladora workers that is not a protection and labor contractor for the companies, in a March 5 interview posted on her Facebook site she talks about “challenging the holders of the collective bargaining agreements by means of an independent union already established in the country.” In particular, she referred to a proposal from the New Workers Central (NCT), founded by the SME (Mexican Union of Electrical Workers) in 2014, whose affiliates include SITUAM (representing workers of the Autonomous Metropolitan University, on strike since a month ago) in Mexico City and STEUABJO (representing workers at the Benito Juárez University) in Oaxaca. The lawyer worked with the NCT in 2016 in the struggle of the Lexmark maquiladora workers. Prieto keeps a certain distance from López Obrador, for whom she voted, and Morena, but is far from opposing any bourgeois party and politician on class principle.
In other words, the courageous lawyer, over whom there hangs a constant threat of death, is not, nor does she claim to represent, a revolutionary opposition to semi-colonial Mexican capitalism, the root of the regime of “modern slavery” of the maquiladoras that she condemns. While denouncing corrupt leaders and their “unions,” she accepts the framework of Mexico’s corporatist labor legislation. This is a straitjacket imposed by the Federal Labor Law (LFT) in 1931, during the Maximato of Plutarco Calles – when the jefe máximo (supreme chief) governed the country through a puppet president – although it was prefigured in Article 123 of the Constitution of 1917. Calles was inspired by the Carta del Lavoro (labor charter) of Mussolini’s fascist Italy, which incorporated unions and companies into “corporations” controlled by the state. The LFT establishes a system of state control of the labor movement, from the tripartite “conciliation boards” to the compulsory arbitration of strikes.
There is, on the other hand, an initiative coming from the federal government, embodied in the person of the Morena senator Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, head of the semi-corporatist mining-metal workers union, which aims to form unions on the border as part of its new International Confederation of Workers (CIT). There is no doubt that the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador requires secure mechanisms of social control such as corporatism provides. The new labor confederation of Gómez Urrutia, subordinating the workers to the government, will end up turning any labor groups that it founds into a Morena neo-corporatist apparatus. Sooner rather than later, as he did as a mining leader, Gómez Urrutia and his henchmen will submit to the labor discipline dictated by the bosses’ state against the workers he now seeks to recruit with honeyed phrases.
What, then, is the policy on unionization of the maquiladoras of groups that claim to be socialist, communist or revolutionary? The main concern of some seems to be to stay in the good graces of the lawyer. Thus, Izquierda Socialista (I.S., Socialist Left, a wing of the former Militant current, linked to the International Marxist Tendency of Alan Woods), in an obsequious “Open Letter to the Workers of Matamoros and Susana Prieto” (February 19), vituperates against “pseudo-revolutionary groups” which “have gone to the city of Matamoros” and “caused great damage to the struggle” with their “methods of intrigues, insulting accusations and their ‘desire to lead’,” which has only succeeded in “causing division ... and discreditng all those who fight for socialism.” The I.S. is pursuing its policy of all-round tailism, chasing after any movement, including bourgeois parties like the PRD and now Morena.
It is not explicit as to whom its vituperation is directed against. Most likely, the target is the Movimiento de Trabajadores Socialistas (MTS, Socialist Workers Movement, which runs the online news site Izquierda Diario). After previously working with the attorney in Ciudad Juárez, it seems that there has been a falling out of late (“public discussions and political differences with Susana Prieto,” reported Izquierda Diario, February 23). But any criticism is very discreet and apparently consists of disappearing her from reports of meetings she led. In any case, the voluminous coverage of the struggle in Matamoros by Izquierda Diario consists mostly of articles extolling the great combativeness of the strikers, and proposals for solidarity from the independent unions (NCT, UNT, CNTE). About corporatism, not a word.
The Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM, section of the International Communist League) published an article (Espartaco, 2 February) that does mention, in passing, the existence of corporatist labor bodies (without specifying who they are), but only in order to equate them with the “independents.” The GEM claims that in both cases the task is simply to chuck out the class-collaborationist bureaucracy. It even pretends that “[t]he workers have also overpowered the leadership of their union,” when in fact they rebelled against the CTM pseudo-unions. To the tens of thousands of workers in the maquiladoras who have been emboldened by the strikes to finally remove the dead hand of the corporatist labor police that have impeded their struggles for decades, condemning them to poverty wages, the latter-day Spartacists have nothing to say.
Once upon a time, a quarter century ago, before they left the path of revolutionary Trotskyism, the GEM and the ICL recognized that the corporatist labor bodies are instruments of capitalist state control, and that one had to fight for independence of the unions from the state and the bourgeois parties. Today they quote the apt phrase of Leon Trotsky, who wrote that, “In the epoch of the imperialist decay, the unions can only be independent insofar as they are conscious of being, in practice, the organs of the proletarian revolution.” But these shamefaced revisionists forget the rest of Trotsky’s article (unfinished when he was murdered by a Stalinist assassin), which noted that, already at that time (1940), “In Mexico the trade unions have been transformed by law into semi-state institutions and have, in the nature of things, assumed a semi-totalitarian character.” And this was even before state takeover of labor in the charrazo of 1946-49.
Today we are in the early stages of what could be the biggest workers struggle to shatter the remains of the corporatist regime that has enslaved the Mexican proletariat for three quarters of a century. The Matamoros work stoppages threaten to spread throughout the border region. Already in Reynosa, the masters of the city are trembling in their boots in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the lawyer Susana. In Mexico there are more than 2.5 million workers in the maquiladoras. It is a key sector of the Mexican factory proletariat, one in which women workers predominate, and is deeply integrated into the U.S. economy. Along with the presence of 35 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States, 11 million of them born in Mexico, these workers constitute a human bridge to spread the workers struggle into the heart of the imperialist monster.
As in other strikes in the maquiladora zone, women workers have been at the forefront of the battles in Matamoros. This underscores the fundamental character of the struggle for the emancipation of women, which will only be achieved through socialist revolution. As we wrote in an earlier article about the struggle of women workers in the maquila industry, “Mexico: Women Workers Battle Gun Thugs” (The Internationalist No. 10, June 2001):
“In opposition to feminism, which envisages a separate struggle by women, we Trotskyists underline the need for a class struggle for the emancipation of women, as part of a struggle for the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed. In the face of massive unemployment, it is necessary to fight for a sliding scale of wages and work hours, demanding jobs for all. In response to attacks by CTM and CROC goons, a revolutionary leadership would sponsor the formation of workers self-defense groups to defend strike pickets against these strikebreaking thugs.”
As we emphasized at that time, to break the grip of corporatism, it is not enough to cheer on the strikers of Matamoros, nor to try to build new reformist unions. Reformism is doomed to fail in this imperialist epoch of capitalism in an advanced state of terminal decay, when the gains of workers’ struggles of the past are being destroyed everywhere, from free public education and the public health system to social security. In Matamoros, wages in the maquila industry are one-third of what workers earned 25 years ago; in Mexico as a whole, even with the new increase, the minimum wage is below the level of 1934 in purchasing power. Only with a revolutionary program to overthrow capitalism can the workers’ struggle be advanced today. As the great Russian revolutionary, exiled in Mexico, pointed out in his article quoted above:
“The trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. … They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”
–L.D. Trotsky, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (August 1940)
Today, the bourgeois populist government of López Obrador is fully aware of the explosive potential of a struggle against charrismo even when the leaders of this struggle, and the would-be “revolutionary” left, do not call for a fight against corporatism. Since the dinosaurs of the CTM, CROC, CROM and others are nearing the end of their days, the government is going all out to push through a reform of the Federal Labor Law, in order to maintain state control of the powerful Mexican proletariat. So as Susana Prieto threatens to sue the CTM – that is, she appeals to the capitalist state, the class enemy – we who call for class-struggle unionism insist that the fight against corporatism must be waged by labor unions and a workers party, completely independent of the bourgeois politicians and parties, and their state.
At the same time, and despite his nationalist pretensions, AMLO meekly accepts a new free-trade agreement, the T-MEC, an instrument of imperialist domination that, like its predecessor, NAFTA, harms Mexican, Canadian and U.S. workers. The Mexican state under López Obrador is serving as border guards for the anti-Mexican xenophobic U.S. president Donald Trump, in even more shameless fashion than the governments of the PRI (Peña Nieto) and the PAN (Calderón, Fox). He sends Mexican immigration police to prevent members of the Central American caravans, fleeing from the hell of violence and hunger unleashed by the Yankee imperialism, from crossing the international bridges. The League for the Fourth International, in contrast, opposes NAFTA/T-MEC and calls for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, on both sides of the border.
Among the strikers of Matamoros we found that the hostility of many workers towards the pseudo-unions for their betrayals was sometimes generalized into a rejection of unions in general, because those were the only ones they knew. The more advanced workers showed interest in the Grupo Internacionalista’s program of fighting for genuine workers unions independent of the bosses and their state, and for forging a class-struggle, revolutionary and internationalist leadership. All the attempts of “union democratization” that have taken place in Mexico have failed because they were waged within the corporatist framework. It is necessary to understand that in Mexico, corporatism is an essential mechanism of social control, guarantor of “peace” between exploited and exploiters, both for the Mexican bourgeoisie and the U.S. bourgeoisie.
The fundamental question, then, is to forge, in the heat of the class struggle, a revolutionary leadership of the working class. In order to break the charro shackles and forge genuine unions, we need a program, like that of the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky, to fight for international socialist revolution. On the border, this perspective acquires particular relevance, opening the possibility for workers’ struggles to spread to the other side, into the heartland of imperialism. Today, the struggle to throw off the yoke of imperialist domination requires an international struggle to put an end to capitalist exploitation. There is a real potential for joint workers’ struggle on both sides of the Río Bravo, and the maquiladoras are at the focal point. To make it concrete, we need a workers party that fights for permanent revolution in Mexico, for socialist revolution extending to the imperialist center.
The Grupo Internacionalista in Mexico and the Internationalist Group in the United States, sections of the League for the Fourth International, seek to form the nucleus of cadres of this Leninist and Trotskyist workers party of world socialist revolution. ■
- 1.Literally “cowboys.” Following the bitter defeat of the 1948 railroad workers’ struggle, the government imposed a flunky labor leader who was known for dressing up in Mexican cowboy outfits. Since that time, government-controlled “unions” are popularly known as charros.
- 2.During the seven decades of unbroken single-party rule by the PRI (1929-2000), all social organizations – from workers “unions” to peasant associations, youth and sports groups, housewives’ and women’s leagues, musicians’ and architects’ guilds – were formally part of the ruling party and integrated into the state apparatus. “Union” presidents were appointed by the government, and often directly by the president himself, while labor bodies were financed by the state. Leaders moved seamlessly from one position in the PRI-government bureaucracy to another. A “union” leader could often become the head of the state-owned company, and then go on to be a local mayor. After that, possibly a PRI deputy or senator in the state or federal legislature, or moving on to a position in the party nomenklatura. If he or she fell afoul of the PRI apparatus, however, they could be busted back to union leader, or head of the Tae Kwon Do association, or sometimes thrown in prison for a few years as a lesson to others who might stray. Suitably chastised, they might then return to their old position. This corporatist system decayed as the heavily state-owned economy was increasingly privatized from the mid-1980s on, depriving the state party of the resources siphoned off to finance its huge apparatus. When the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, this system largely fell apart (although holding on in PRI-governed states in northeastern Mexico). But it persisted in labor, as the corporatist “union” leaders switched their allegiance to the new governments of the clerical-rightist National Action Party.
- 3.See the article published by our comrades of the Grupo Internacionalista: “ Rebelión obrera en Cd. Juárez: ¡urge acción solidaria internacional!” Revolución Permanente No. 6, March 2016.
- 4.Thus if the government ordered an increase of, say, 4% in the legal minimum wage at the start of the new year, maquiladora workers’ wages (which were well above the minimum, but typically one-tenth of those in equivalent U.S. plants) would increase by the same percentage.
- 5.Today a woman worker in an auto parts plant in Matamoros with a dozen years’ seniority would make about $9 a day, whereas a woman worker in a corresponding General Motors plant in the U.S. might be paid $25 an hour.