Good News for Mexican Workers on the Other Side of the Wall

Striking workers

New Orleans    How about some good news for a change?  Yes, I’m with you.  I found some in a surprising place on the other side of the proposed wall between Mexico and the Untied States and in all places in Matamoros, right across the river from Brownsville, Texas.

If you’ve ever been to Matamoros, you already know that they are desperate for some good news down there on the other side of the Rio Grande Valley.  The city has a special place for me because a million years ago it offered my first experiences in that great country.  I was driving down there in one of my old junkers with a dog and a tent curious about the valley and came across the bridge from Brownsville for several hours into another world.  More recently in another century, we drove through the city after Katrina headed toward the central high plains of Mexico, but I’m still shocked to read that Brownsville reportedly has 500,000 residents now.

What doesn’t shock me is the fact that a key driver of the city’s economy is its proximity to the United States and the maquila plants that fabricate all manner of things for export back to the US.  It almost goes without saying, but I’ll be Mr. Obvious, that the attraction for foreign manufactures is cheap labor.  The good news though is that something is being done about all of this partly due to the election of the left leaning new president, universally called AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has created the climate for more worker justice and fair labor laws.  He has proposed raising the minimum wage national by 16% to around $5,30 a day and on the border to $9.20 a day.  Maquiladoras earn about $2.40 per hour compared to US manufacturing workers make more than $20 per hour by comparison.

Mostly though it has to do with a wave of strikes by over 55,000 maquiladoras in the 115 plants around Matamoras demanding 20/32:  a 20% wage increase and a one-time bonus of 32,000 pesos or $1655.   This has become a movement and according to many including Susana Prieto, a lawyer and one of the strike’s primary backers and organizers, 85 companies have settled while five are still on strike, including Coca-Cola.  Prieto, an advocate of an independent labor movement given the past record of the traditional, party-connected union federation, is hoping to push the movement to expand to other border cities, including Juarez where she has practiced labor law and led successful strikes in recent years.

According to the Wall Street Journal these strikes are spreading.   Walmart, the largest private sector employer and a determinedly anti-union force globally, recently “reached an agreement with a union representing some 6,500 workers to grant a 5.5% wage rise and a productivity bonus, the company said. Workers had recently demanded a 20% rise among other benefits.”

Let’s hope this movement comes north!


Border Wall Tactics and Negotiating Postures

tear gas at the border

New Orleans    I had a scheduled call yesterday with a young man, now in the Bay Area of California, who had read something I had written, sent me an email, and asked if I would be willing to talk to him about “tactics,” as he called it.  The call turned out to be wide ranging and focused more on how he could become more actively involved in community-based social change.  Nonetheless, it got me thinking about tactics, especially as I read the headline involving the president, the border wall, and the federal shutdown, all of which are something of a case study in tactics, perhaps with a strategy and possibly without one, since we are talking about President Trump and that must always remain a question.

The partial government shutdown was a Trump tactic in itself obviously.  His initial announced intention was to use the tactic of the shutdown to pressure Democrats into putting up $5 billion or more to build his “beautiful wall.”  He misjudged on that one, because he was trying to force negotiations, and there was no incentive on the part of the Democrats to negotiate when they were weaker than they would be when they gained majority control of the House of Representatives.

In actual meetings with the Democrats, his tactics are both obvious and confused.  Announcing the breakdown of another set of discussions, his people said there had been great progress, while the Democrats said he had threatened to keep the government closed for “months, maybe years.”  This is classic high-low bargaining.  He was clearly bluffing, and the Democrats knew that but were trying to tactically increase public pressure on the president by turning his bluff upside down, while he was trying to signal to his base that things were in hand.  Clearly this was a bullying backfire.

Another tactic he tried that didn’t work was having his departing chief of staff, former general Kelley, claim that the wall wasn’t a physical wall and hadn’t been for some time, but was something more on the order of a metaphorical barrier.  Trump has been quoted going back and forth on whether this is a “real” wall during this period as well.  None of which helped his bargaining position.  Using a lame duck to signal some movement in negotiations is ridiculous, and bouncing back and forth on your demands also undercuts your position.  The real signal he’s giving is that he doesn’t know what he wants and is bargaining in bad faith and hoping for a break from his base or the public.  He may think it is good tactics to confuse the opposition at the bargaining table, but those are never tactics that can produce an agreement.

His tactical threat to declare an emergency and autocratically try to impose the expenditure and wall construction is more interesting and more dangerous.  Federalizing troops and several incidents of tear gassing migrants at the border, I would argue are deliberate tactical provocations being engineered to lay the groundwork for a legal position that defines dictatorial actions from the White House as an emergency triggering the exceptional use of such power.  Migrants at the border are desperate, not disciplined, and making their point as a protest.  No one believes than any group of 100 or 1000 migrants are going to be able to successfully break through border security.  Tactically, Trump and his people are hoping to exploit their weakness in order to have a stronger threat at the table to force the Democrats to concede.  The price is high, but his tactics here are very, very smart and very, very scary.

All of this not only proves how dangerous Trump is, but also how dangerous it is to underestimate him and his people.  Anytime there is a situation where tactics are divorced from long term strategy and only targeted at short term objectives, like we have in this case, we are all in perilous times and unable to protect ourselves and the country from the calamities that lie ahead.