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!

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West Virginia Teachers and English University Workers

banners for the ACORN Brighton branch

Brighton    One of the undercurrents of my long slough across Europe and the United Kingdom has been the close attention and excitement roused by the West Virginia teachers and their dramatic, and ultimately successful, strike.  In Bulgaria, one of our number was from West Virginia and first called the plan to my attention as the first of a kind in his state where teachers without even a collective bargaining agreement had decided to take action after being offered an insulting one-percent raise for each of five consecutive years along with an increase in health insurance benefits that would decimate any of those proposed legislative increases.  Given that West Virginia teachers and school workers are always in the race for lowest paid in the country with states in the deep South, the fact that they were saying “enough is enough” was inspiration in and of itself.

Originally, we had heard the plan was for a two-day strike, then more days began to be added on, and I began to follow the whole affair more and more closely, as the teachers’ conviction seemed to be deepening.  When they rejected a negotiated deal between the governor and union leaders that would have given them more money – as well as all state employees – because both houses of the legislature had not agreed and the insurance mess was still not resolved, then I could tell we were watching some real freedom fighters that would change the state of West Virginia and perhaps more.  Finally, they won a 5% increase and the package they needed from the Governor and legislative leaders.  Mossbacks that threatened that they would balance the state budget for the wage increases by taking it out of Medicaid, essentially trying to punish the poor to upbraid their own workers, the Governor had to assure the teachers that this would never happen.

screening and meeting in Brighton Friends’ Meeting House

Part of the reason the strike was being followed so closely in recent days was because many university employees have started a rolling strike in England.  Several of our members in Sheffield had to leave as soon as the screening ended because they had picket line duty the next day.  In Brighton last night ACORN leaders were buzzing and running out to make calls and catch the news since several worked as administrative staff at Sussex and other area universities.  The issue here has been a proposal to change the pension from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme, which many have no doubt accurately calculated would cost them thousands of pounds now and even more in lost benefits in the future.  61 of more than 100 universities are participating, and the tactic thus far has been one day out the first week, two the second, three the third, and so on, and now preparation for a week-long strike in coming days.

people filing in

Will they win?  Hard to say, but they want to be West Virginians now, and many are hoping that these pushbacks by labor at the grassroots rank-and-file are a sign of change in the labor movement and a message to employers and politicians everywhere that working families are now drawing the line.

briefing after the Q&A on upcoming ACORN meetings and events
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