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Factory workers in Matamoros had ample reason to be out on strike ahead of a huge victory that moved them somewhat closer to a living wage.

On a bitter cold day last week, I joined a delegation of Texas and other U.S. labor leaders in a visit to the Advanced Scientifics maquila in Matamoros to meet with workers organizing across the Matamoros community. Many of the workers are represented by The Industrial Workers and Laborers’ Union or the Mineros Union, two independent voices for factory workers.

The workers later declared victory after achieving 20 percent wage increases at all 48 maquiladoras in Matamoros and a one-time bonus of 32,000 pesos, or about $1,685. Strikes at non-union factories are continuing.

One worker told us she asked management for a raise that would amount to 50 cents a day, only to be told, “If you don’t like your pay, you can leave.” Others told stories of being denied access to clean bathrooms on the job, and being forced to work unpredictable weekend hours.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Our delegation learned that after the workers achieved better wages, as many as 2,000 strike leaders were fired and blacklisted, despite legal prohibitions and non-reprisal agreements signed by employers.

“We were told we were fired because we offended the company,” one worker said. Another worker told us, “We need to be firm. I have a family, too. My greatest wish is that justice is served. I don’t want just a salary, I want justice!”

The wage and non-reprisal agreements were hard-won and need to be honored under the law. When companies fail to keep their word, working people need to insist that they do so.

Adrian Gonzalez (“Gonzalez: Union Strike in Matamoros could be devastating,” Rio Grande Guardian, Feb. 5) concedes of the strikers, “It is tough to imagine how they can make a dignified living.” No, it’s impossible to imagine. When working people use the one proven tactic that might help them escape abject poverty – a unified voice and the leverage of withholding labor — it is inspiring, not “devastating.”

Sometimes workers have to raise a little hell when their employer refuses to respect them or pay what they are owed. A strike is not unreasonable when the legal apparatus fails to operate in the interests of working families.

On a larger level, we need to get away from the notion that a race to the bottom is an acceptable foundation for international trade. Since NAFTA, Texas alone has seen a net loss of 108,000 manufacturing jobs and in recent years some maquiladora wages have fallen below even the government-controlled level in China, the Texas Fair Trade Coalition reports. The Matamoros strikes are just the latest symptom of how bad the NAFTA style of competition has been for Mexican workers.

It is true some companies have decided to move maquiladoras to other venues that pay even lower sub-poverty wages, set virtually no workplace standards or benefits, feature repressive governments that stifle independent labor rights, bend to the demands of multinational corporations, and impose little or no environmental regulation.

The problem isn’t that working people in Mexico are standing up to such behavior. The problem is that workers in too many nations cannot. The international trade system, as it stands, creates haves and have-nothings.

We can take a small step in the right direction, however, if both Mexico and the U.S. demand that maquiladoras stop firing and blacklisting courageous workers who seek no more than the wages they are owed and the chance for their families to live better lives.

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