Illusions in the unions sterilise workers' militancy

Printer-friendly version

The city of Matamoros is in the state of Tamaulipas which is considered one of the most dangerous regions of the country. There are constant confrontations between the mafia gangs over the control of these areas, sowing terror and death. Kidnappings, extortion and murders are common occurrences faced by the inhabitants of this area, but also for those using it as a crossing point, both Mexicans and those from Central America, in their quest to reach the US[1]. Matamoros, in spite of being marked by this terrible environment, is part of a broader industrial zone, formed at the end of the 1960s, but strengthened and expanded in the mid-1990s as a result of NAFTA[2]; nearly 200 maquiladora[3] factories been installed in this stretch of the frontier alone. These are no longer small and medium-sized units as in the 1970s; some of them are giant companies with different plants and with a workforce of up to two thousand workers.

The maquila factories are characterized by the intense rhythms of their working practices. Since 2002 their working week has been extended from 40 hours per week to 48, wages have stayed at almost the same level for the last 15 years, with minimal annual variations. In order to maintain these rates of productivity and high profits, it is necessary to maintain powerful technical and political vigilance and control within the factory by supervisors and foremen, but above all through the union structure. High productivity and low wages (competing with or equal to the measly wages of workers in China) are the combination that has allowed these investment projects to make big profits. Nevertheless the vigilant presence of trade unions is essential to ensure workers’ subjugation and the continuity of those conditions.

Given the environment that dominates on the border, the fierce political control imposed in the factories of Matamoros by the unions and management, it could be surprising that there has been a workers’ response in this area and one expressing a great combativeness and a broad capacity to build ties of solidarity.  But while this situation demonstrated the potential of the working class’s struggle, the workers involved were unable able to take control of their struggle due to the weight of confusion and lack of confidence in their own strength. The leftist apparatus of capital says that the recent event in Matamoros was a “workers’ rebellion”, others affirm that it was an offensive against Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) and his “fourth transformation”,[4] and there are even those who say that there was a “wildcat and mass strike”[5]. In addition to being false, these statements are deceptive and are a direct attack on the workers, because they pull a veil over the reality in order to prevent the workers from drawing the lessons of their struggles.

The proletariat’s strengths drowned in a sea of bourgeois labour laws

The slogan that unified and mobilised workers for a little more than a month was “20-32”, which simplified their demands: a wage increase of 20% and payment of a bonus of 32 thousand pesos (1,660 dollars). It was the degradation of workers’ lives that propelled the discontent and animated the struggle, but union control trapped this combativity. From the beginning of the mobilisations there were expressions of distrust towards the unions, though at no point did they lead to an understanding that the unions are no longer instruments that the workers can use to defend their interests; therefore they submitted to their practices. At the beginning whilst still showing indecision there was a certain ingenuity when the workers’ discontent began to spread, nevertheless workers believed that it is possible to “pressure” the “union leader” and force him to “defend” them. This indecision was transformed into a widespread confusion that it was enough to receive “honest legal advice” to assert their “rights”.

By focusing its hopes on the law and the lawyer Susana Prieto, the workers’ mobilisation was weakened and confusion spread. Feeling “protected” by the lawyer, they no longer looked for control of their struggle. This underlines a serious problem facing the working class today: loss of confidence in its own strength and the lack of class identity.

This difficulty led to a situation where, in spite of showing distrust towards the union structure, the struggle remained under the unions’ control and on its terrain, which is the framework of labour laws. It is these laws that give power to the union, as they are the signatories of the collective bargaining agreement. By remaining tied to the union framework, the workers handed over control of the struggle to the union itself, allowing it to contain workers’ discontent, shackling their militancy, forcing compliance with bourgeois laws, thus preventing them from achieving a true unification of the workers’ forces by organising themselves outside of the union.

By reducing the struggle to compliance with the laws, the workers, even when they were marching  in the streets and holding general assemblies, when they confronted the bosses, the State and the union, they did so separately, factory by factory and contract by contract, because this is how bourgeois legality stipulates it should be done. This divides and isolates the workers. After all, laws are made to subdue the exploited.

But is it possible to fight outside the union and the law? The history of the working class has diverse experiences that confirm that it is possible to do so. For example, in August 1980 the workers in Poland carried out a mass strike really controlled by the workers themselves. Neither the outbreak of the strike, nor the construction of their unitary combat organs complied with legal guidelines and yet they were able to extend the struggle throughout the country and impose public negotiations with the government. The massiveness of the mobilisations and their capacity to organise allowed them to create a gigantic force capable of preventing repression[6].

The very mechanism that the Polish state used to divide the workers and weaken them was the same one that the bourgeoisie all over the world uses: the trade unions. With the creation of the trade union “Solidarity” (led by Lech Walesa), the state broke the organisation and unity of the workers, and only in this way could it carry out the repression. Sometime later, the trade union leader Lech Walesa was made the head of the Polish state...

The mass strike in Poland is the best example that the workers and especially those in Matamoros should draw on because it makes it clear that the union is a structure that operates against the workers and that it is not enough to distrust it, it is necessary to organise outside it.

Unions against the working class

The first main lesson of the struggle of the maquila workers is that unions are a weapon of the bourgeoisie[7]. The blatant attitude of the trade unions, tricking them into accepting a smaller increase and rejecting the bonus, makes it clear that they are no longer an instrument of the proletariat (as they were in the 19th century). The threats and direct aggression carried out by the unions of Day Labourers and Industrial Workers of the Maquiladora Industry (SJOIIM) and by the Industrial Workers in Maquiladoras and Assembly Plants (SITPME), openly confirmed that the interests they defend are not those of the workers. They are weapons of the bourgeoisie at work within the ranks of the proletariat... they are like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

During the course of the strikes the unions acted to defend the interests of the bosses: that is why the majority of the workers repudiated the union leaders Juan Villafuerte and Jesús Mendoza.  The shouts of “outside the union!” were also repeated in each factory and in each demonstration. They did not advance any further however, because the workers’ lack of confidence in their strength prevented them from taking control of the struggle, from organising themselves in a unifying structure that would have enabled them to break completely with the domination of the unions and the divisions they imposed. The workers appeared to have stopped passively following the “traitorous” union leadership, but instead fell into the same trap by passively follow the informal “new leadership”, personified by its legal advisor, who used her skill in litigation[8] to submit the class struggle to the framework of bourgeois legality and sow hope in the creation of an “independent” union that would dispute the collective contract with the old union structures.

The work of confusion, subjugation and control carried out by the unions does not take place only in some regions or some unions, all of them are weapons of the bourgeoisie. Is there is a difference between the SNTE and the CNTE?[9] One uses a traditional language, the other resorts to phrases and actions to appear radical, but its aim is the same: to subdue and control the workers.

There is nothing strange about the AMLO government, in a very silent way, encouraging the creation of union structures that allow it to use the discontent of the workers and direct it into confrontations with the old union structures, associated mainly with the old governing party, the PRI (as is the case of the CTM, CROM and CROC[10]). López Obrador has not only “rescued” the mafia boss of the miners’ union, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia (“Napito”) from the so-called exile where he lived luxuriously in Canada during the last two Presidencies, to turn him into a senator; but fundamentally this was done in order that he could form a “new union”. A few months after his return to Mexico, “Napito” created the International Confederation of Workers (ILC), integrating unions that have broken away from the CTM and CROC, but he has also secured alliances with unions in the U.S. and Canada, particularly the AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers.[11]

In his February 14 speech, AMLO stated that his government will not intervene in the life of the unions. However, he adds: “We cannot prevent workers or leaders from requesting to form unions, because this in accordance with the law...”. (La Jornada). On the same lines, “new” unions are emerging, that are seeking to take power from old unions that defend the interests of bourgeois factions different from those aligned with the new government. We have seen the formation of “alternative” union projects in the IMSS, PEMEX and UNAM.[12]

The trade unions in the 19th century were an important instrument for the unity and combat of the workers. This was a period when capitalism itself, by developing the productive forces, allowed the implementation of economic and social reforms that improved the lives of the workers. At present it is impossible for the capitalist system to ensure lasting improvements for the workers. This situation led to the union losing its proletarian nature and being assimilated into the state.

That is why every struggle the workers carry out finds the union trying to contain and sabotage the struggle, submitting discontent to the guidelines of bourgeois laws, creating confusions and fears in order to weaken confidence and impeding the unity and extension of the struggle.

What lessons can we draw from the “20-32 Movement”?

The mobilisation led by the workers of the maquilas was undoubtedly a very combative one. However, it could not avoid the domination of illusions in the law and of confused hopes that the unions, if run “honestly”, can change their anti-proletarian nature. The references to López Obrador’s decree (“Decreto de Estímulos Fiscales de la Región Frontera Norte”[13]) in order to justify the “legality” of the wage increase in the maquilas, demonstrates that the confusion goes even deeper, because it nurtures the hope that the new government can improve the living conditions of the workers. But, in addition, AMLO’s own government took advantage of the workers’ mobilisation to show its North American partner its willingness to comply with the wage increases in the factories of the automotive and electronics sector, installed in Mexico, as demanded by the Trump government in the NAFTA 2.0 (or USMCA) tables.

In order to make a balance sheet of this struggle it is not enough to count up the number of factories which have accepted the demands. That aspect is important, but it is not definitive. In order to have a broader perspective it is necessary to evaluate the massive forces that were unified, but above all it is necessary to consider the level of consciousness reached and its expression in the forms of organisation adopted. For example, the lack of control of struggle by the workers themselves and the dispersion at the end of the movement broke the bonds of solidarity and allowed reprisals to be taken against workers. According to official figures, 5,000 workers were dismissed for having taken part in the strike.

To summarise, the strikes showed a real workers’ combativity generated by the degradation of their standards of living, but the bourgeoisie soon undermined the courage of the workers, feeding illusions in “democratic respect” for the laws and impeding the development of consciousness.

More serious though is the danger that the problems that developed during the mobilisation could spread and deepen. Enthusiasm for the strikes and lack of reflection has created a very propitious environment for renewing illusions in the law and in new union structures. The same legal advisor has argued that the “second phase” of the “20-32 movement” will be orientated towards the formation of an “independent” union that will compete with the old union structures; in addition she will establish in Matamoros a law firm of “honest” lawyers to “defend” the workers. More illusions and more confusion will be propagated, and the workers only way to counter this offensive is the struggle, ensuring that they take control and reflect deeply about the way in which the unions operate.

Tatlin, from Revolución Mundial, ICC publication in Mexico, April 2019


[1]. In 2010, there was the macabre discovery of 79 bodies of Central American migrants, and then in 2011, a grave containing about two hundred bodies was found again, although some sources reported that there were about 500 corpses. Concerning the recent caravan of emigrants from Central America see

[2]. NAFTA: The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the USA, Canada and Mexico, came into force in 1994.

[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.” Wikipedia.

[4]. Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected President last year and leads a coalition government of his party Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional”, which describes itself as being nationalist, the left wing Labour Party and right wing Social Encounter Party, and has been presented as a “ray of hope” after years of corruption. He also made all sorts of promises to the poor and workers, which he is selling as the “fourth transformation”, a completion of the ‘Mexican Revolution’ of 1910.

[5]. These affirmations are put forward by: “Socialist Left” (, the MTS ( and “New Course” ( There are other leftist groups that repeat those same arguments with certain variations, but we take these as a sample to illustrate the way in which they use exaggeration, lies and deceit, helping the ruling class to feed the confusion among the workers.

[6]. On the experience of Poland 1980 see ‘Mass Strikes in Poland: the proletariat opens a new breach’, and ‘One Year of Workers’ Struggles in Poland’

[7]. See our pamphlet Trade Unions Against the Working Class

[8]. We do not intend to dwell on conjectures about the honesty of the lawyer S. Prieto: the principles of her profession lead her to move within the framework of bourgeois laws, but the fact that she maintains a sympathy and support (as she herself has declared) for the government of López Obrador places her on a clearly bourgeois terrain.

[9]. SNTE: National Union of Education Workers (official union). CNTE: National Coordination of Education Workers (“dissident” union).

[10]. CTM: Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), created in 1936. CROM: Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers, founded in 1918. CROC: Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), formed in 1952. The PRI is the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” that governed Mexico for decades.

[11]. The “American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations” (AFL-CIO) is the largest of the US trade union structures, also grouping unions such as the United Steelworkers (USW) of Canada.

[12]. IMSS: Mexican Social Security Institute; PEMEX: Mexico’s main oil company with international projection. UNAM: National Autonomous University of Mexico, considered one of the best in the world.

[13]. On December 10, 2018, AMLO’s government presented a programme to boost investment and employment in the border area. Its objective is to co-opt a portion of Mexican and Central American migrants, in order to slow the flow of migrants to the United States. In summary, this programme offers: i) Reduction of the Income Tax (ISR) from 30% to 20%; ii) Reduction of the Value Added Tax (IVA) from 16% to 8%; iii) Equalization of the price of fuels with the United States; iv) Increase in the minimum wage at the border to $8.8 dollars.



Strikes in Mexico