Labor lawyer helps workers in Mexico’s maquiladoras get their due

Photograph dated Feb. 18, 2019, showing Mexican labor attorney Susana Prieto Terrazas (c), surrounded by workers demanding better pay at the maquilas (assembly plants) in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. EFE-EPA/ Abraham Pineda-Jacome

MEXICO CITY.- A veteran attorney, Susana Prieto Terrazas, heads the so-called «Border Spring» that is playing the leading role in the workers’ movement in the northern Mexican city of Matamoros, achieving pay hikes for more than 70,000 employees of the maquilas (assembly plants) clustered along the boundary separating Mexico from the United States.

That translates into a pay increase of 20 percent and the payment of a bonus of about 32,000 pesos ($1,650).

In mid-October 2018, Prieto Terrazas posted a video on her Facebook page – which has been shared more than 1.7 million times – in which she reported to workers in the 43 Mexican municipalities on the border strip about the benefits they could achieve with a doubling of their salaries.

That increase was recently decreed by Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and entered into force on Jan. 1.

In the border zone, the minimum wage was set at 176.72 pesos ($9.00) per day, in addition to which the Mexican government lowered the prices of fuel and reduced the income tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.

After posting the video, the attorney received approximately 15,000 messages from Matamoros workers asking her to help them because they did not know what was in their collective wage agreements.

That number of messages disturbed Prieto Terrazas, who three years earlier had refused to represent Matamoros workers who had been receiving death threats.

But starting on Jan. 12, when the workers began consulting her again, she decided to intervene in the matter.

«What are we doing? They don’t want to give us a copy of the collective wage agreement,» the lawyer told EFE that the workers said to her.

Prieto Terrazas once again resorted to social media to ask the workers to get their paystubs for their one-time bonuses.

«When they sent me the paystubs I got to work. I made some calculations that didn’t work out for me until I found the formula,» she said proudly.

She said that the workers told her that the maximum bonus payment had been about 3,000 pesos ($154), less than 10 percent of what they were supposed to receive.

With the machinery now in motion, Prieto Terrazas moved from her native Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, to Matamoros, neighboring Brownsville, Texas.

With Facebook as their communications channel, the lawyer and the workers came to an agreement that they would launch a strike on Jan. 25.

On that day, some 45,000 maquila workers placed red-and-black strike flags at 45 companies and walked out en masse.

The pressure by the workers, who were «the true stars of the movement,» bore fruit after almost two weeks of being on strike, after which the majority of the firms reached an agreement with them.

Although the start-up process was tough, each day during late January and early February, Prieto Terrazas and the workers added to their victories by getting the various firms to give in to their demands.

After witnessing their colleagues’ victories firsthand, workers at other companies began organizing and added 25 maquilas in the following weeks.

But that was not before they received warnings from their bosses and the authorities that they were risking their jobs.

The reprisals against the attorney and against the workers were not slow in coming.

«I didn’t have anything to lose, but the workers did and, more importantly, that would leave them no food on their tables» if they remained unemployed, Prieto Terrazas said.

Given the strength of the movement, a number of stories and a lot of criticism began to swirl around the attorney, who received numerous death threats.

Although no official figures exist, estimates are that the strikes resulted in the firing of some 6,000 workers, and estimates by the employers’ organization are that the strikes caused more than $200 million in losses for the firms.

Prieto Terrazas, direct and fond of salty language, has posted on Facebook practically everything about the movement which, although it has become reduced in size, continues to operate more than two months after it erupted.

«Looking at the comparisons, this has been like the (2010) Arab Spring. I always dreamed that the workers would wake up and fight and it happened,» Prieto Terrazas said proudly.

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