Mexican president urges reason in wage demands

MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tried Thursday to close the Pandora's box of wage demands he helped unleash when he doubled the minimum wage along Mexico's northern border.

His pledge to end government manipulation of unions opened the flood gates to new, more combative labor movements in a nation where unions have long been quiet, and a wave of successful strikes erupted in January at 48 export-oriented "maquiladora" assembly plants in the border city of Matamoros.

The labor unrest has now expanded to non-export factories in the city, which is across from Brownsville, Texas. Workers at local industries like bottling plants are demanding the same kind of 20 percent pay increases and $1,650 bonuses that the maquiladora employees successfully negotiated, and walkouts are threatening to spread across Mexico,

Lopez Obrador sought to cool the strike rush Thursday, saying that wages should rise "but we shouldn't create an atmosphere of labor instability."

His own actions touched off the troubles. Seeking to address decades of stagnant real wages, the president after taking office Dec. 1 doubled the daily minimum wage to 176.20 pesos (about $9.30) in communities along the U.S. border, where the cost of living is higher than elsewhere in Mexico. That set off the strikes in Matamoros because many union wage contracts in the city are indexed to minimum wage increases.

Lopez Obrador has been left to engage in damage control. He held meetings this week with leading businessmen to reassure them that his leftist administration will be business-friendly.

"My recommendation is that salaries should rise, but at the same time people should consider the companies' situation, there should be balance. We have to preserve jobs," the president said Thursday.

That was an apparent reference to threats by several companies to close their plants in Matamoros.

The situation has gotten so bad that Coca-Cola products are growing scarce in Matamoros stores after the local plant was hit by a strike. The local Coca-Cola bottler, Bebidas Mundiales, said some workers had hijacked delivery trucks and set up a picket line outside its plant in the city, idling about 718 workers.

The company said its workers already earn an average of about $13 a day, more than the $9.20-$10.50 that the maquiladora workers won in their strikes.

Walkouts are also spreading beyond border areas under variants of the Matamoros banner demand of "20/32" — a 20 percent pay raise and a bonus of 32,000 pesos.

A union federation representing workers at Walmart de Mexico, which is the country's biggest retailer, said a strike is being planned at 80 Walmart stores nationwide on March 5 unless the company agrees to a 20 percent wage increase and bonuses for employee based on a percentage of the stores' sales. That strike, if it happens, could involve as many as 60,000 workers.

"My understanding is that the talks (on the demands) haven't made much progress," said Isaias Gonzalez of the Revolutionary Workers Federation, which represents Walmart employees.

The strike threat to Walmart is a new turn for the federation, which is one of many longstanding unions in Mexico that have been known for company-friendly approaches. But it appears the new ferment among workers is pushing at least some old-guard unions to become more radical to fend off new, more combative organizing efforts that have sprung up since Lopez Obrador took office.

For example, the strikes in Matamoros have spread to more conservative unions whose members have forced their leaders to press for the same 20-32 demands their colleagues at the maquiladora plants won.

"People's natural reaction is to say, if my neighbor got it, why shouldn't I?" said Rogelio Garcia, head of the local Industry Association in Matamoros. "In many cases, just 10 percent of the unionized workforce would set up a picket line outside and call for reinforcements from the workers at the first plants who got the bonuses."

"We see people becoming emboldened because the government won't act" to break wildcat strikes, Garcia said.

He noted that one Matamoros employer, Joyson Safety Systems, which supplies automotive parts, has already hung a banner on its factory reading "Thanks, Matamoros, Goodbye!"

Garcia predicted companies will put off planned expansions and direct work away from their Matamoros plants, potentially costing Matamoros as many as 10,000 to 15,000 of its 90,000 industrial jobs, as well as future growth.

That is exactly the opposite effect from what Lopez Obrador had hoped for the border. The president's plan was to create jobs in border areas so Mexicans and Central Americans wouldn't have to emigrate to the United States seeking work.