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!