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Mexican union declares victory in strike at 48 border plants

A union declared total victory in a mass strike by about 25,000 workers at 48 assembly plants in a Mexican border city, but the movement spawned a storm of wildcat walkouts Monday at other businesses.

The Industrial Workers and Laborers' Union won 20 percent wage increases at all 48 "maquiladora" factories in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. It also won a one-time bonus of about 32,000 pesos, about $1,685 at current exchange rates.

Now workers at about a dozen non-union businesses as well as factories organized by other unions have started wildcat walkouts to demand the same increases, known colloquially as "20/32."

The Tridonex auto parts company said in posts on its Facebook page Monday that pickets had prevented employees from entering its Matamoros plant and it cancelled some shifts. Video showed workers outside the plant chanting "20/32!"

The local maquiladora association, known as Index, said that all the plants in the association had signed labor contracts as of last week and that none of the businesses affected by the wildcat strikes are members.

Javier Guerrero, a Matamoros public relations specialist who has been active in strike support work, said the example set by the first round of strikes has spread to local businesses, many of which are not maquiladoras, which assemble products for export to the United States.

Supermarkets, bottlers and a milk company in Matamoros were reportedly hit by walkouts.

"In the past week, the strike wave has spread beyond the factories to supermarkets and other employers, with all the workers demanding "20/32," said the AFL-CIO, which has sent a delegation to support the striking workers.

The mass strike erupted after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador decreed a doubling of the minimum wage in Mexico's border zones, apparently unaware that some union contracts at the maquiladora plants are indexed to minimum wage increases.

While other Mexican cities don't have the same contract clauses, for workers often making less than $1 an hour, the appeal of a pay raise and bonus has proved irresistible.

"Just as happened in Matamoros, it (the walkouts) spread to other companies and unions. It is very probable that it will spread to other cities, at least within the border area," Guerrero said.

There has been a generalized upsurge in Mexico's long-dormant labor movement since Lopez Obrador took office Dec. 1, something the president doesn't appear to have planned on or encouraged. Lopez Obrador has simply promised to keep the government out of unions' internal affairs and allow for free and fair union elections.

For a union movement kept in check for decades by pro-company union bosses allied with the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the promise of union democracy has been enough to spark a revival.

But there has already been a backlash.

"In the past week, as many as 2,000 strike leaders have been fired and blacklisted, despite legal prohibitions and non-reprisal agreements signed by the employers," said the U.S. union delegation, which included representatives from the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers.

"The Mexican and U.S. governments must both demand that these U.S. companies honor their agreements and stop firing and blacklisting these courageous workers," said Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay.

Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador has been struggling with the most radical and intractable union in Mexico, the CNTE teachers' union, which has blocked railroad lines in the western state of Michoacan on and off for the last month.

The teachers lifted most blockades last week but on Monday they briefly re-established a protest camp on a line operated by Kansas City Southern de Mexico.

KCSM reported that by late Monday, the camp had been removed and the line re-opened. But the company said that during 28 days of blockages, 414 trains were prevented from running and 3.5 million tons of freight was stalled.

The teachers initially started the blockages to demand back pay, but they kept blocking rail lines even after they were paid.

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