“Not good,” was the answer I received from a contact in Matamoros when I called and asked how he was. 

The company he works for had been closed for nearly three weeks. The strike in Matamoros is becoming a major issue for that area, as most of the local maquiladora industry (approximately 48 plants) remained paralyzed because of it. 

This past Friday, Feb. 1, most of the maquilas agreed to the conditions set by the union. The first to concede, a week earlier, were 13 plants mostly from the automotive industry that felt the pressure to continue shipping. The laborers’ demands were at a 20 percent increase and a $32,000 Mexican pesos bonus, an increase of approximately 1,000 percent.

Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de la Industria Maquiladora union leader Juan Villafuerte and labor relations lawyer Susana Prieto. (Photo credit AquiMatamoros)

More than 30,000 employees on strike belong to the Sindicato de Jornaleros y Obreros Industriales y de la Industria Maquiladora (SJOIIM). The union’s reasoning behind the demands is Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new decree of a fiscal stimulus for the border region. 

As I explained in my previous article, maquiladoras are not eligible for the benefits but are bound to the higher wages that are included in the program, which is now double the minimum wage of $9.50 USD a day. Interestingly, most of these workers make more than this but are now demanding that their salary is updated to continue to reflect the expected gap between their salaries and most starting positions, which are now eligible for the previously stated $9.50 a day.

Several reports indicate that Susana Prieto Terrazas, whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as a lawyer for laborers from Ciudad. Juarez, came into Matamoros to assist the union in their demands. She arrived under a large security detail provided by the federal government. Her motivations are not entirely clear, but many assume they are political and that she is linked to the Morena party. 

Thus far, the SJOIIM union and its leader Juan Villafuerte have been an industry ally. Now, with the AMLO presidency, that appears to have changed. Some think that a nationwide change in the relationship between unions and the federal government is about to happen. 

It is important to point out Matamoros has a history with union conflicts. In 1993, because of a similar issue related to pay, 64 plants left the city and approximately 32,000 jobs evaporated. Also, important companies such as GE decided to leave. Some moved to Reynosa. Back then Matamoros had more maquiladoras. Now Reynosa, along with the upper Rio Grande Valley are economically more important and many feel that the Brownsville-Matamoros economy is stagnant. 

Certainly, this new problem doesn’t make anyone feel more optimistic. Some executives have said they do not expect any new plants in the next ten to 15 years. Investment plans are on hold and so far three plants have already announced their plans to leave. These include Albea Cepillos de Matamoros, a French maker of packaging for beauty products. What is also very concerning is the possibility that the conflict could extend to other cities along the border. It hasn’t happened before but there wasn’t a leftist federal government before either. Reynosa is barely an hour away from Matamoros and news flies fast. Anyone in the mood for a Susana Prieto visit to Reynosa?

It is unavoidable to not put oneself in the shoes of the laborers and also think about their perspective. With salaries around $1,500 Mexican pesos a week (approximately $80 dollars), it is tough to imagine how they can make a dignified living. With a strong U.S. economy that brought strong growth in 2018 and the first increases in salaries in years, should the Mexican laborers who assemble products for the U.S. market deserve a raise too? I would say yes, although the manner in which it is being sought carries a lot of risk. 

The biggest damage is the uncertainty in the years to come and angry customers whose shipments have been delayed. Trust is more valuable than money in many cases, so this new issue could prove devastating for Matamoros. However, what is a challenge for some, becomes an opportunity for others. I am sure other cities will welcome those leaving maquiladoras with open arms.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column comes from the Mexico publication, Polemón.