Trade Unions and the Left Against the Mass Strike in Mexico

Lessons from the workers’ struggle in Matamoros

Introduction by ‘Nuevo Curso’

The development of “wild” and mass strikes in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, (1) is the most important class struggle in the Americas in years. We have followed it as closely as we could on our news channels, but only broadly in our journal. (2) Hereafter we publish a summary of the latest events, that was sent to us by a group of comrades from Matamoros, and that is born out of the need to draw lessons in the heat of the struggles. (‘Nuevo Curso’, April 9, 2019)

Banner against union sabotage

Through the slogan “The Unions and Companies kill the working Class” the workers of the different maquilas (3) in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (Mexico) began a period of continuous mass strikes, which in the course of 3 months have united in the movement called “20/32”, demanding a 32,000 pesos bonus as a one-time contribution inferred from the 100% increase of the minimum wage in the border area of the country, as well as the 20% increase in their respective pay scales, after a review of their Collective Labor Contracts. Now the proletarians in the main companies involved in the strike are at the most tense point of the entire movement, in the face of the massive mobilization of riot police of the Tamaulipas State Police.

Police contingent sent to break the strike picket in Mecalux on Sunday, April 7.

In spite of being more than 70,000 workers at the beginning, they have had to confront not only more than 45 companies of the Maquiladora Industry that were on strike, but from the start also their Unions. Whether they are linked to “union charrismo”, (4) as is the case with the Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de la Industria Maquiladora en Matamoros (SJOIIM), the UGTM, the SME, or the call for a “democratic-independent” trade unionism, [they found] that these organizations are only there to put a leash on them when they got the chance.

The massive meetings of workers began to take shape in the plaza of Matamoros where, due to lack of experience, they resorted to the legal assistance of [labor lawyer] Susana Prieto who, with the help of representatives of the UGTM and the Mexican Union of Electricians, tried to impose the latter’s agenda (of integrating the proletarians again in the trade union apparatus) on the workers of the maquilas, by telling them from their pulpit that their “second task” would be to elect new union representatives”. In a strange and lousy analogy she compared the trade unions with shoes, arguing that if a trade union does not serve, they should only change it like a pair of shoes, without telling them what the workers no longer only sense, but affirm on banners: that the trade union can only negotiate their misery with the employers, no matter how democratic or left-wing they may be. It is common for the trade union leaderships to tend to a negotiation that does not favor their members if they believe that this is how they can preserve the trade union. In this way, the bureaucracies regard themselves as an end in itself (and not their declared goals).

The autonomous organization of the proletariat poses a danger to the trade unions, first of all, because the strike gives rise to a new workers’ authority, whose existence is very eloquent with regard to the real relations between unions and leaders: the strike committee elected by the assembly of workers in the factory, whether unionized or not, stands between the trade union office and the employers, as if to say to the latter: “The role of the trade union is over, mine begins.” This is precisely what the employers and the trade unions are trying to avoid: the autonomous organization of the proletariat.

They can run in shoes that only lead to the path of precariousness and unemployment, or they can walk barefoot towards their own emancipation. It is preferable to lose a struggle [waged] by ourselves than [to obtain] a trade union or parliamentary “triumph” that sooner or later will be consumed by the inflationary process. Susana Prieto, the labor lawyer who has established herself as the leader of the 20/32 movement, functions as a para-syndicalist arm of MORENA (the ‘Movement for National Regeneration’) (5) and to unions backed by the U.S. American federation AFL-CIO, leading the proletarians to the cliff along the path of syndicalist “anti-charrismo” and parliamentarism, nullifying any possibility of proletarian autonomy.

Despite the explosive character of this series of massive strikes, the industrial proletariat of the peripheral regions is far from recognizing its own capacities. Workerism is a heavy burden that has been capitalized upon by trade unionism, and evidently by the enterprises, to the degree that the most forceful calls to overflow the strike and become a wildcat strike do not require so much the containment by Susana Prieto or the trade union leaders. It’s the proletarians themselves who establish legal formalism as an immovable basis for their actions, while still recognizing themselves in the time-space identity of Capital as workers-citizens. The shutdown by 70,000 workers and the series of tricks, the unjustified dismissals, the haggling over their immediate and legitimate demands within the legal state framework, and the enterprises’ request for support from the forces of order, demonstrates that the so-called labor peace is not only a mere illusion, but that it is impossible to mask the class antagonism. The reprisals against the strikers amount to 6,500 layoffs according to the Employers Confederation of the Mexican Republic (Coparmex) and aim at annihilating the concessions obtained and teaching a lesson of how to break strikes and put the proletariat at bay, threatening with up to 50,000 layoffs. The fired strikers are being “bulletined” or placed on black lists used by the maquiladoras throughout the border region.

In the wake of these mass strikes, approximately 600 workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the city, the second largest in Latin America, ended a period of real wildcat strike, initiated on January 30, which would later be declared “legally non-existent” by the State Conciliation and Arbitration Board on February 15 and would end on April 3, with 154 workers laid off. (6)

The Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de la Industria Maquiladora in Matamoros continued to show itself as the arm of State control over the workers. An example of this was the confrontation with the Coca-Cola workers, who were blocked from entrance in the union’s building as “outsiders”. Also, the scabs among trusted workers and another minority group of unionized workers called “Yo Sí Quiero” (“Yes I want”) renounced their right to strike and expressed their desire for the plant to open its doors even without any gains.

After the aggression against the workers of confidence and the break-in of workers at the gates around the enterprise, several workers were injured and diagnosed with multiple contusions. it was pointed out that a pregnant proletarian is at risk of miscarriage.

Workers defend a picket line at the Matamaros Coca-Cola plant against hit-men

The presence of the State Police (7) has been a constant at every step of the workers’ organization, not only against the enterprise, but evidently against the trade union as well. All of this in tune with the campaign waged by news outlets such as Televisa and TV Azteca (8) according to the classic adagio “The press aims, the police shoots”.

TV Azteca’s hit-and-run journalism, inventing a whole strategy around strikes, where the poor and well-intentioned bourgeoisie is coerced by “A Complex Network of Extortionists” causing them million-dollar losses, lays the foundation for large-scale repression, while the criminalization of the proletariat becomes a major part of bourgeois and mass culture. Thus, while in Matamoros they sack, beat and intimidate workers with one hand, they receive aid from the government’s social program for free labor under the slogan “Youth building the future” with the other one. (9) Under the neoliberal management of capitalism in its imperialist phase, AMLO’s populist left (10) is in control of the bureaucratic readjustment of the syndicalist and para-syndicalist forces and the bourgeois fractions whom the current administration is obliged to.

By continuing to lead the workers into dead ends, as is the case of parliamentarism based on workerist ideology, or to encapsulate them in democratic trade unionism, the class struggle – a necessary factor for all positive social action – is relegated to the background. The direct action of the workers falls asleep, their self-determination disappears, the impulse towards emancipation degenerates into accommodating within the framework of capitalism.

A group of comrades from Matamoros

Source: Sindicatos e izquierda contra la huelga de masas en México (‘Nuevo Curso’, April 9, 2019)

Translation: F.C, April 25, 2019. Proofreading & annotations: H.C., April 30, 2019

Featured image: Assembly at the Matamoros central square



1 Matamoros, officially known as Heroica Matamoros, is a city in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas, in the United States. It is the second largest city in the state of Tamaulipas. As of 2016, Matamoros had a population of 520,367. In addition, the Matamoros–Brownsville Metropolitan Area has a population of 1,387,985, making it the 4th largest metropolitan area on the Mexico–US border. (Source: Wikipedia)

2 ‘Nuevo Curso’, January 22, 2019: Mexico: Between Barbarism and Class Struggle (English translation by the CWO).

3 A maquiladora, or maquila, is a company that allows factories to be largely duty free and tariff free. These factories take raw materials and assemble, manufacture, or process them and export the finished product. These factories and systems are present throughout Latin America including Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Specific programs and laws have made Mexico’s maquila industry grow rapidly. (Source: Wikipedia)

4 Derived from the designation of a Mexican traditional cowboy, “charro” or “charro leader” is used as a mocking term for a government-appointed union boss. See Charro (Mexican politics) in Wikipedia.

5 Founded in 2011 as an unofficial movement by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in fact a platform for the latter’s presidential candidacy, ‘MORENA’ was transformed into a formal political party in 2014 under the latter’s leadership, after “AMLO” had left the social democratic PRD in dissent of the privatization of the country’s oil industry (Pemex). Since the 2018 general elections ‘MORENA’ disposes of a majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, whereas its leader López Obrador has become Mexico’s president by majority popular vote. See also note 10.

10 ‘Nuevo Curso’, July 2, 2018: AMLO or the “anti-imperialism” of the Mexican bourgeoisie (English translation by the CWO, July 7, 2019).