Worker Strikes Spatialize Insurgent Planning Praxis in Matamoros, Mexico
By Eric Nava-Perez
In January 2019, a militant labor movement emerged in the maquilas, US-owned assembly plants, in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The initial wildcat strike undertaken by unionized workers without union authorization grew from approximately 2,000 workers in three maquilas on January 10 to more than 40,000 workers from 48 factories in a matter of days. By January 24 it was reported that the maquiladora sector output had declined by 35 percent, a loss estimated at more than $100 million USD. The strike wave spread into other industries so that in some cases the factory owners opted to negotiate before any work stoppages occurred.
The movement, which became known as the 20/32 movement, fought for a 20 percent wage increase and an annual bonus of $32,000 MXN, and won both demands. Instigated at first by the rank and file members of the Day Laborers, Industrial Workers, and Maquila Industries Union (or SJOIIM), the strike wave would eventually include workers from at least three other unions. Two key events, a federal wage resolution and the renegotiation of 45 collective bargaining contracts, that included several actors—the federal government, the state government, union leadership, factory owners, and of course, the workers themselves—triggered the formation of this independent working-class movement.
The strike wave came on the heels of a resolution, issued by the Mexican National Commission on Minimum Wages (or CONASAMI), to increase the daily general minimum wage by 16 percent beginning on January 1, 2019. The CONASAMI also established a new geographic category, the Free Zone of the Northern Border (or ZLFN), within which the 2018 minimum wage was to be doubled, resulting in a rate of $177 MXP per day for 2019. However, this wage increase had little to no effect on maquiladora workers in the Gulf Coast city of Matamoros since they were already earning between $155 and $176 MXP per day (Hargis, 2019). Moreover, CONASAMI’s new wage law coincided with SJOIIM’s annual renegotiation of 45 maquiladora collective bargaining contracts; the contracts contain a clause which stipulates that any percentage increase in the minimum wage be reflected in the salaries of all workers, including those who make above the minimum (Tyx, 2019).
To quell dissent before the strike wave spread, the maquiladora owners reached out to their local, regional, and national political connections. However, unlike previous Mexican Presidents, current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) did not lend his support to the companies and instead adopted an official policy of neutrality, effectively leaving it up to the conservative state Governor of Tamaulipas, Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, to declare the strike illegal (Tyx, 2019). The governor was joined by other representatives of capital, such as the heads of the Maquiladora Association of Matamoros, the National Chamber for Industrial Transformation (CANACITRA), the Northeast Union of Merchants and Entrepreneurs (UCEN), the Employer’s Confederation of Mexico (COPARMEX), and the Center for Entrepreneurial Coordination (CCE).
But the workers proved to be steadfast in their resolve and, while on strike and on the streets, they created their own delegated committee structures to represent their groups and coordinate with others. As the work stoppages grew, the workers hung the symbolic banderas rojinegras (red and black flags) outside the maquiladora gates to indicate they were on strike. At one point all 45 maquiladora plants had these flags hanging from their gates. In their chants, the workers also demanded the resignation of their corrupt union leaders and cheered for their champion, the 52-year-old labor lawyer from Ciudad Juárez, Susana Prieto Terrazas. Prieto added that, “our [ultimate] goal is to overthrow the CTM and the CROC [powerful national unions]. With the new labor laws coming into effect, we want unions that are run by the workers at each factory” (Tyx, 2019).
Miraftab (2009) considers three insurgent planning principles: transgressive (through place and time), counter-hegemonic (disrupting the status quo), and imaginative (promoting a different reality). By taking advantage of a confluence of events and new openings in the state structure, Matamoros maquiladora workers’ wildcat strikes exemplify insurgent planning principles. However, in centering working-class politics from below this case study also adds a critical spatial perspective to insurgent planning praxis. The spatiality of insurgent planning praxis is best illustrated when Matamoros workers carved out physical space by claiming the streets, decorating it with their banderas rojinegras, and forming their delegated committees.
Streets, gates, and factories (maquiladoras) can be understood as representations of spaces which, for Lefebvre, are “the spaces of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocrative subdividers and social engineers…the dominant space in any society” (1991, p. 38). However, the taking of the streets by workers effectively challenged hegemonic ‘representations of space.’ For workers, the streets are an important space to contest because it is “the natural place where the proletariat can assemble without a cost” (as cited by Jessop, 2005, p. 424). The streets were also important for workers because it is a space in which identity and historical memory are on full display.
Indeed, the banderas rojinegras are a gesture to the historical relationship between Mexico’s labor movement with the anarcho-syndicalist and the anarcho-communist political traditions. Prieto’s remarks in The Wall Street Journal (Montes, 2019), especially her idea of a ‘social revolution’ but also her self-identification as a ‘red,’ recover an idealism that harkens back to a time when the Mexican labor movement was inspired by socialist values. As evidenced by the many banderas rojinegras, this idealism is not limited to Prieto but is generalized throughout the 20/32 workers movement. Such a centering of working-class political agency suggests another avenue for research in insurgent planning, one that is not exclusively focused on informal workers but includes precarious formal workers too.