This week, the city of Matamoros, Mexico is again seeing wildcat strikes as expected annual wage increases have been traded away by corrupt unions.
Though the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) includes improved labor rights terms and Mexico enacted significant labor law reforms in 2019 – both of which could help workers in Mexico to organize and win real changes in their lives – little has changed on the ground.
That’s why workers in factories along the Texas border are on strike right now.
They are part of a growing independent labor movement seeking to oust corrupt “protection” unions and transform working conditions in Mexico, where real wages since NAFTA was enacted 25 years ago are 40% lower than manufacturing wages in China.
The 20/32 Movement
The story of the Tridonex plant, operated by a subsidiary of Philadelphia auto parts maker Cardone, spotlights the glaring enforcement failures for both Mexico’s new labor law and the revised NAFTA.
While Cardone still claims to be Philadelphia’s largest manufacturing employer in 2016, the company announced it was sending 1,500 of the city’s union jobs to Matamoros. It sent another 200 in the years since.
In 2019, workers in dozens of maquiladoras in Matamoros, including Tridonex, began organizing work stoppages demanding pay raises enacted by the new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Their demands – a 20% salary increase and a one-time bonus of 32,000 pesos – helped launch the 20/32 Movement.
After numerous wildcat strikes protesting not only factory bosses but also the corrupt unions that collaborate with them to lock in low wages and bad working conditions, the movement won.
After the 2019 victory, Tridonex workers petitioned to join the independent union that was born in the strikes: the National Independent Union of Industry and Service Workers, or SNITIS. The local labor board refused to allow an affiliation vote.
In the spring of 2020, the region was again at the center of labor controversy as workers launched wildcats strikes while factory management defied COVID-19 closure orders. Against this backdrop, Tridonex workers marched on the local labor board, which was still refusing to issue the decision to send the workers’ union dues to SNITIS.
Months later, a lawyer and labor advocate who represents workers at Tridonex and other factories during the strike, Susana Prieto Terrazas, became a target of reprisals by the local powers-that-be. Arrested and wrongfully charged with instigating a riot, Susana was held in jail for a month on trumped-up charges of “mutiny, threats and coercion.”
Amidst growing international pressure, including from the U.S. Congress, she was released under coercive conditions, including banishment from Matamoros, designed to stop her from representing independent unions.
After her release, the governor of Chihuahua, Matamoros’ neighboring state to which Prieto was banished, issued new arrest warrants for which she has a hearing on February 25. Since then, Susana has been subjected to repeated threats on her life and safety. In early January, she sent a desperate plea to Mexico’s president, who had promised her protection but failed to follow through.
It has been a year since Tridonex workers petitioned to change their union, and to this day, the company has not held a vote and the local labor board has not acted.
Not only are the actions of Tridonex a clear violation of Mexico's new labor law reforms and the protections provided under the revised NAFTA, the story provides a clear-cut case of what outsourcing incentivized by race-to-the-bottom trade deals looks like on the ground: decent union jobs are sent to countries where wages are far lower and where gross labor violations are routine. Good jobs are transformed into bad jobs, and union security is replaced by exploitation and violence.
Unless Mexico’s labor law reforms and the revised NAFTA are enforced, nothing will change.