translated from: Wildcat no. 104, winter 2019/2020

’20/32’ - Strike wave in Mexico

In early 2019 up to 80,000 factory workers went on strike in northern Mexico. The movement started in Heroica Matamoros, a town bordering Texas with 450,000 inhabitants. After the initial walkouts workers formed action committees to expand the strike to factories in other towns. The old trade unions, loyal to the system, tried to contain the strike movement and were supported by the threats of the company bosses: striking workers were beaten up by cops and union officials and close to 5,000 workers were fired. Despite this, bosses had to give in to the workers’ demands in 89 factories (or ‘Maquiladoras’, as they are often called locally).

This strike movement, which became known as ’20/32’ (20% wage increase and 32,000 Pesos annual bonus) has been the second biggest wave since 2015, when about 50,000 agricultural workers went on strike. The current strike movement caused a rupture between the old and the new ruling regime: within the CTM1 the old ‘gangster-unions’ close to the PRI are replaced by the new democratic forces of the MORENA2 governing party. In collaboration with the US-American democratic, anti-communist networks consisting of USAID3, AFL-CIO4 and Solidarity Centre, their supporters try to use the strikes to modernise the trade union landscape in Mexico. They speak about the formation of ‘independent unions’ in contrast to the yellow unions. This works in favour of a reform of the Mexican labour law, which is an important condition in the new North American trade agreement USMCA.5

From Nafta to USMCA

Although local car production shrank slightly in 2018, the automobile industry in Mexico has overtaken South Korea - while wages are as low as in poor Serbia.6 Mexico is the world’s fourth largest car exporter; items produced in the Maquiladoras are the second most important export commodities after oil. They are predominantly shipped to the US.

In 1994 NAFTA came into existence and proletarians in Mexico were promised that they would also profit from free trade. Purchasing power, though, is lower today than in the 1980s and more and more people migrate to the US. In the US, brown migrant people are used as scapegoats by the Trump government. During the election campaign Trump spoke about “too many car parts and too many migrants” coming from Mexico.

The new trade agreement USMCA prescribes that a higher ratio of car parts have to be assembled within the US at a wage level of at least 16 USD per hour - too high for Mexican and too low for US American conditions. In Mexico wages would have to increase eight times and even in the southern states of the US, where wages are significantly lower than the US average, workers wages start at 17.50 USD.7 The USMCA is supposed to relocate jobs from Mexico to the US and, contradicting the official propaganda, lower wages in the US at the same time.

‘Drug-war capitalism’

14 of the 50 cities with the world's highest murder rates are located in Mexico. In 2016 ‘El Chapo’ was done away with and the state-owned oil corporation PEMEX was privatised (“the real theft happens inside PEMEX”);8 USMCA doesn’t provide any form of protection of the Mexican oil industry anymore, thereby inscribing ‘done deeds’ into law. Both events created a power vacuum; this is the basis for a new wave of violence - since 2016 the number of people killed has increased every year. The ‘war on drugs’ is an important political and commercial project of the Mexican and US American governments; from real estate to the industries of repression and incarceration, everyone depends on it. Under the slogan ‘war on drugs’ the Mexican government and para-military units expropriate the rural population if the land promises rent income: oil, gas, infrastructure projects…

AMLO9 comes to power

Since the agricultural workers’ strike in 2015 proletarian protests have been able to gain ground. In early 2017 the ‘gasolinazo’ movement was able to fight back a hike in petrol prices; in 2018 masses of migrants have been able to cross the dangerous lands from the south to the north (to kidnap, rob and kill migrants is as profitable now as the drug trade).

At the end of 2018 AMLO came to power, primarily carried by the hope of the poorer sections of the population and the rejection of years of severe neoliberalism. It was easy for him to portray himself as different: after he took power he opened the presidential palace, he continues living in his private home, he sold the government's private jets and travels in normal passenger machines, he doesn’t use the presidential limousine and has stopped a few unwanted major infrastructure projects… it didn’t go unnoticed that behind these public stunts, the US finance capital was also happy, as US-investors bought Pesos after the budget plan announcement , which stabilised the national currency. AMLO’s budget dedicated less money to universities and more money for the military. On 1st of July 2019 he inaugurated the 70,000 soldier strong Guardia Nacional, which is supposed to fight the drug cartels, but 15,000 national guards are deployed against migrants at the borders.10 At the same time AMLO gives the go-ahead for infrastructure of major importance for capital.11 Referring to AMLO’s victory the Citigroup spoke about “good news” and the rating agencies didn’t downgrade Mexico when he came to power.

The increase of the minimum wage in the export zones bordering the US on the 1st of January 2019 was also more of publicity stunt - given that wages had been on that wage level beforehand. In those cases where wages would actually have been increased the employers wanted to get rid of the (voluntary) annual bonus payment.


During the recent strike workers had to fight on many fronts, in order to enforce their struggle against the old representatives, the trade unions and the governing party MORENA.12 A central figure is the lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas from Ciudad Juarez, who had turned the anger of the Maquiladora and agricultural workers into a business model for her law firm, supported by the AFL-CIO.

By the end of 2018 the CTM unions were in negotiations about higher wages, knowing that the minimum wage increase will have little impact in the north and that according to a still valid general collective agreement from the 80s workers would be entitled to a proportional wage increase above the minimum. Then the new MORENA mayor of Matamoros announced that wage increases would not be financially sustainable. At the same time employers tried to avoid paying the annual bonus payments - already on 28th of December 2018 workers of a factory in Ciudad Juarez had gone on strike against the attempt to halve their bonus payment.

The atmosphere in the factories stated to heat up. In preventive foresight Prieto Terrazas registered a demonstration ‘for the defence of our wages’ on the 19th of January 2019 - but workers were faster and started a undetermined wildcat strike in eight factories on the 12th of January, which quickly spread to the remaining 40 local factories and even to remote cities, such as Agua Prieta and Cananea. Workers organised mass demonstrations in Matamoros and organised committees, many people who were not employed in the factories themselves organised food and money donations and took part in the demonstrations.

After workers in 14 factories had managed to force the bosses to give a 20% wage increase and 32,000 Pesos bonus payment and the CTM unions supported the strike officially (which made it legal), workers in companies supported by smaller unions joined in the strike. Workers demanded to de-select the current unions, to abolish union fees and to call for a general strike for the main demand of ’20/32’. Many other factories in the country went on short strikes, so did workers at the university in Mexico City and teachers in the whole country. The last disputes of the strike wave involved a steel works in Matamoros at the end of February, where workers managed to enforce their demands quickly, and at various bottling plants and distribution centres of Coca Cola. At Walmart and in the retail sectors wages were increased by 5.5% in order to avoid the strike workers had threatened.

It won’t get easier…

Mid-February saw the first mass redundancies at the same time as MORENA founded a new trade union federation with the support of the AFL-CIO, competing with the CTM (similar to the situation after the strikes in 2015). In the meantime we hear about factory closures, allegedly because of too high running costs. The government has opened a ‘job exchange’ for migrants from central America, which is supposed to get them jobs in the Maquiladoras. They announce that there are 50,000 vacancies…

Is this the old game: to destroy the composition of the strikes and send new workers into the factories?

Compared to the US, wages in Mexico are still very low. It remains difficult to tell whether the new strikes in Mexico (and eastern Europe: VW, Audi, …) have an impact on the constellation of ‘high wage countries, such as Germany and the US and the neighbouring low wage countries, such as Mexico and eastern Europe - while the situation in Mexico raises further questions: Can the struggles solve the dilemma of brutal violence, US wage policies and Trump’s demagogic propaganda?

[German version]


[1] Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico, union federation

[2] Movimento Regeneracion Nacional, new social democratic party founded by AMLO. A splinter from the splinter: PRI - PRD - MORENA. AMLO was a long-time member of the PRI, which was the ruling party from 1929 to 2000. In 1989 he was a founding member of the PRD. MORENA does not only consist of ‘new democratic forces’, such as the student-based ‘yo soy 132’-movement, but to a certain degree old wine in new skins.

[3] USAID: United States Agency for International Development

[4] American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organisation, union federation

[5] United States Mexico Canada Agreement

[6] In Hungary wages are three times as high as in Mexico, in Romania double as high.

[7] Base wage at BMW San Luis Potosi in Mexico: 2 USD. BMW South Carolina in the US: 17.50 USD. While wages are nine times as high in the US, living costs are only double as high.

[8] Seth Harp: Blood and Oil - Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasolone Industry, 2018, www.rollingstone.com

[9] Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexican President

[10] Tjerk Bruehwiller: Leichen ueber Leichen, FAZ, 16th of September 2010, www.faz.net

[11] Caitlin Manning: AMLO in office: from megaprojects to militarization, 17th of June 2019, www.roarmg.org

[12] Sources: WSWS; Labornotes; Wall Street Journal; Vox.com

 [top] [home] [archive] [order] [contact]