Tuesday, February 26, 2019


By David Bacon
Truthout Photoessay, 2/26/19

Teachers and students carry a banner from their school, Oakland Technical High School.

Students and parents have come out en masse to join the marches and picket lines of the ongoing teachers strike in Oakland, California. All say that they are trying to save the city's public school system.

"This is a strike to save our district," said Heath Madom, who's taught 10th grade English for three years at Oakland Technical High School, which is referred to as "Tech" by educators and pupils. "Our Tech community is committed to saving public education. Twenty-four schools are on the chopping block. We could become like New Orleans, with no public schools and all charters, if this keeps going."

Like other teacher strikes around the country, the Oakland conflict is fueled both by a determination to protect the public school system itself and by the crisis in funding that has led to huge classes and deteriorating conditions in the schools themselves. According to Madom and the Oakland Education Association, only 5 percent of the district's 37,000 students have passed through their schools' doors over the last three days - evidence of vehement parent and community support.

Parents, students and teachers all condemn the rise in class sizes. "My class is a catch-all, because all students have to take it, so class size is a huge issue," said Rho Seidelman, who's taught ethnic studies at Tech for three years. "There's no tracking, which is great, because we have students from all backgrounds and previous schools. But it's hard to build community among the students when there are so many. The contract says 32 is the limit, and I routinely have at least 33. Research shows that the best learning environment is in a class of 18, where students can really learn and build community. When students are absent and my class size goes down to 28 or 26, I'm really happy."

Madom says most classes at Tech have 35-40 students, and the school, built for 1,800, has a student body of 2,000. "We only have two part-time nurses for 2,000 students, and they don't have the time or resources to deal with all their medical problems. We have a beautiful library, but haven't had a librarian for years. Our counselors have a caseload of 500 students apiece. If they saw every student, they would only be able to spend a few minutes with each," Madom said. The hiring of more nurses, librarians and counselors is part of the strike demands of the union, the Oakland Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA).

Teachers' pay is also part of the strike demands. The union wants a 12 percent raise over 3 years, and the district is stuck at 7 percent with a bonus. "The only reason I can live in Oakland is because I live with a partner who has a good income," Seidelman said. "What I make is not enough to live here. I'm still paying off my school loans, and rent takes up almost half my income. My job would clearly be improved if we won the demands of our strike, and I, and other teachers too, would be more likely to stay."

"People here are struggling," Madom added. "Some teachers are commuting long distances to get here. We had seven excellent teachers leave this year, including two English teachers with more than five years [of] experience."

Prior to the strike, a state fact-finder's report found that the teacher retention crisis in Oakland is worse than most other districts in the state, which the state attributes to substandard pay, the lowest among the Bay Area's districts. The fact-finder also mandated reducing class sizes, especially for special education classes, and concluded that school privatization was hurting students.

Slating 24 schools for closure is part of the privatization regime, Madom argued, adding that the closures are hitting communities that have been historically underserved the hardest. "At the same time, the district has allowed charter schools to proliferate, which is a direct reason why enrollment has declined in public schools they now want to close," Madom added. "Yet there's no discussion of closing any of the charters." Those charter schools already enroll 13,000 students in Oakland.

Seidelman said these priorities are part of a culture in Oakland that favors development to benefit the affluent. "If it was up to a popular vote, our community would support the strike's demands overwhelmingly. But our community is not in control of the basic decisions in the city. The strike has exposed the political corruption in Oakland city politics. The terrible condition of our schools is a consequence of the policies imposed by business interests. The resources of the city go to gentrification, which benefits them, but not our communities. It's true all over the country, which is why there are strikes now in so many places. It's not just a problem of Oakland."

But the national teachers' strike wave is challenging those priorities. "It's shifting the narrative on public education," Madom said. "The charter industry has claimed that poor students don't get the education they deserve because of poor teachers. Public school teachers haven't been heard until now. We do need great teachers, but the problems of our schools aren't due to individual teachers. The district for years hasn't funded classrooms adequately, but the state also has grossly underfunded education. California has a massive amount of wealth. I can't believe we're living in one of the richest states in the country, and yet there's no money for education. We're tired of putting up with austerity. The strike wave is happening because teachers are standing up, and saying 'enough is enough'."

After talks broke down on February 24, sending the strike into its third day, Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, told reporters that the district had "returned to the table without a proposal that would begin to meet our core bargaining demands [which include an obligation to] fully fund our schools and provide a living wage to keep teachers in Oakland."

Novelist Alice Walker was among many celebrities and political figures to rally behind the teachers. "You should be given, really, anything you ask for," she said in a letter. "It is criminal that you are not. Especially when we see it is the war effort, more often than not, that is supported lavishly. An effort that often cuts short the very lives you have lovingly prepared to live with understanding and intelligence in this world. Know that you have sisters and brothers who stand with you, heart to heart."

The majority of the following photographs were taken on the strike's first day, February 21, when teachers, parents and students rallied in front of the Oakland City Hall, and then marched through downtown streets to the offices of the Oakland Unified School District.  All photos (c) David Bacon.

Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, and other teachers lead a march through downtown Oakland.

Teachers and community members support one of the strike's demands - funding the district's restorative justice program, an alternative to traditional school discipline.

Students, parents and teachers demonstrate support for the strike.

The strikers march behind their banner down Broadway, in downtown Oakland.

Liz Ortega, executive secretary of the Alameda Labor Council, behind the banner during the march.

Striking teachers during the march.

Teachers and community members march behind a banner opposing the closure of 24 schools, which targets schools in the Oakland flatlands, predominantly low-income communities of color.

A student shows her support for raising teachers' salaries.

Students and parents sing, "Which side are you on?"

Teachers and community activists in a rally before the march.

Teachers with the basic demand of the strike - funding public schools.

Students and parents at the rally in front of Oakland City Hall.

Heath Madom talks with other teachers at a meeting in front of Oakland Technical High School.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


By Meredith Blasingame
February 1, 2019,  The Guardsman [Community College of San Francisco] 

Activist, journalist and documentary photographer, David Bacon has dedicated his life to social activism. Mild-mannered and matter-of-fact with a quiet sense of humor, Bacon has a way of putting people at ease-a skill that has no doubt served him well through many years of labor organizing and taking photographs to reveal and resolve inequities.

Bacon was born in New York City where his father, a printer and the head of the Book and Magazine Guild union, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He grew up in Oakland, and his father and mother gave him a first-hand look at what it takes to organize a group of people behind a common cause.

"Organizing and printers ink both run in the blood," he says, referring to the fact that he, like his father, worked as a printer for a time. Bacon worked to organize a union during his first job as a factory worker, launching a career that spanned two decades, both as a factory worker and union organizer. He has worked with the United Farm Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, and other labor organizations.

Bacon's time as a union organizer evolved into documentary photography and journalism in the mid-1980s. Today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He has written for publications including The Nation, The American Prospect, TruthOut and In These Times, and he is the author of several books. 

In the prologue to his most recent book. In the Fields of the North/En Los Campos del Norte (2017), Bacon states, "For three decades I've used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the 'reality check;' the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration and displacement."

"The Reality Check" is also the name of Bacon's blog, where he documents topics ranging from the working conditions of Iraqi oil refineries to California farm workers to hotel and school workers on the job.

I sat down with the documentary photographer to learn more about his career path, his goals and motivations, lessons from the field, and next steps in his lifelong mission to sow the seeds of change. 

The interview follows the photos.  Photos with permission by David Bacon/Special to the Guardsman

Hotel workers, members of Unitehere Local 2, go on strike against Marriott Hotels in San Francisco, protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. 

Workers picket the Marriott Union Square Hotel on Oct. 4, 2018.

San Francisco hotel workers vote to ratify their contract at the end of their strike against Marriott Hotels on Dec. 3, 2018.

After a week on strike against Marriott Hotels, hotel workers, members of Unitehere Local 2, are arrested for sitting down and blocking Fourth Street in San Francisco in an act of civil disobedience. The sit-in took place in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, the flagship Marriott hotel in the city. Workers were protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel.

After 61 days on their picket lines, San Francisco workers celebrate the end of the strike and the agreement on a new union contract on Dec. 3 2018. Workers protested low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel.

MB:  How did you get into photography?

DB:  I was into it as a teenager, but my camera got stolen and life moved on.  I didn't come back to it until later.

I was a union organizer for a number of years.  In the mid-1980s, I picked up a camera again to take pictures of the strikes that we would organize.  That beginning was utilitarian in a way - to publicize strikes, give prints to people on the picket line to take home to their families to show that they were standing up.  Then I began to realize that the photographs themselves had a meaning beyond what I was using them for, in that they were a documentation, especially at that point, of the changing demographics of the workforce - especially in factories here in the East Bay. 

On the one hand, we had a lot of factory closures.  Also, lots of Mexicans and Central Americans were coming into the workforce.  Before I got there, Black workers had broken racial barriers at work too, so you could see that. The photographs showed this, and people's response to it, which in my case was to organize unions and go on strike.  That was the root of the kind of work that I did, and in a way it still really has a lot in common with what I do.

MB:  You were a factory worker at one point.  Is that how you first got involved in union organizing?

DB:  Yes and no.  I needed a job.  I had kids and a family, and I needed an income.  But also in the 60s and 70s radical movement a lot of people thought that workers were going to be the engine for social change.  It was important to be in the factory; it was important to be where workers were to help people organize. So pretty much as soon as I started going to work, I started trying to organize unions.  I got fired from a printing shop in San Francisco for doing that, as well as from other jobs, including from National Semiconductor in Silicon Valley.

MB:  At what point did photojournalism become a large portion of your work?

DB:  I started working for unions partly because I was really interested.  The first union I worked for was the farm workers.  I think it was partly because I wanted to understand. I grew up in Oakland. I didn't know anything about farm workers or Mexicans or Spanish.  The union taught me about all those things. It was a real education for me. That's still part of what I'm doing today. My latest book included oral histories of farm workers in California, which goes directly back to that experience. 

But also, especially after I got fired and blacklisted in Silicon Valley, working for unions made sense.  It seemed like important work - helping to build the union. I did that for a long time - over 20 years.

At the end of that, I started taking pictures and writing short articles about what we were doing, and it kind of took over my life.  It became more important. I took classes in the photography program at Laney College in Oakland, while I also worked as an organizer.  That was a little crazy because organizers don't have a lot of free time.  But I could begin to see that I really liked doing this work and that I thought it was important. Also, I looked at it as being another form of organizing.

Organizing people is really all about changing the way people think.  Organizers do it by holding house meetings or talking to people at work. If you do the kind of work I do, you're really still trying to change the way people think, but you're doing it through different means - sort of on a broader scale but also less directly. 

For instance, I just did a big project on documenting the Marriott hotel strike in the Bay Area, all the way from last March when they were first thinking about it to the end of the strike.  It's still basically trying to document what happens to us as working people - what our lives are like, but also with a perspective of seeing us as actors, as social actors.

We're not just victims of bad circumstances. We are also capable of changing them, and in fact I think that's the process that's really the most interesting - the combination where you see the world that people are living in, and how people respond to it, and then what they do.  And that's kind of my approach to writing and photography both; that's what I'm doing.

MB:  When you say "we," who do you mean?

DB:  When I say what happens to "us" as workers, I'm talking about workers as a whole, in general.  But obviously, some working people are at more of a disadvantage than others. Some people are more conscious than others.  Some people do something about it and other people don't. I mean - how many workers are there in the United States? We are not just a majority of the population, we are like 80 or 85% of the people who live in this country.  So obviously, there's an enormous, huge, variety. That's one of the things that makes this fascinating.

MB:  What is it that you think actually makes people do something about it?  Out of all of those people, there's a large portion that doesn't proactively work for change. 

DB:  First of all, generally speaking, people still need to be pushed into it.  Usually. Not always. You know, in my generation, a lot of people got swept up in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movement, and went into workplaces to help organize workers.  That was a product of people's political understanding, I guess you would say.  But that's by far not the way most people wind up becoming part of social movements in this country.

Usually, people are responding to a crisis in their lives or a general feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction.  Looking for answers. And that is very widespread in this country. I think that most people, actually, are frustrated and angry and looking for answers.  But we are taught, as people in this country, to be distrustful of politics, cynical, and kind of susceptible to hot button quick answers, without really having to try to understand how the system works.  One of the obstacles that organizers have to overcome is that you have to help people understand how the system here works - that Trump-type answers - "build the wall" - are not good answers for us.  But to help people understand why that's not a good answer, for instance, they have to understand why people are coming here to begin with.

So it's a process.  I think it's a combination of the pressure on people and people's feelings of anger and frustration about it, but also things that set off sparks in people's minds, that help them think more deeply about their situation.  And that can be a lot of things. It can be reading books, or some organizer knocks on your door, or reading about Bernie Sanders in the newspaper and saying, "God, that makes sense to me." But it's that combination of the impact of ideas and the base of circumstances.  It's not to say that comfortable people don't struggle, because they do.  But I think the big motivating force for change in this country comes out of social and economic crisis.

For example, the anti-war movement had a lot to do with the fact that we had a draft.  Young people had to think about whether or not they wanted to go, and what the war was about.  And the civil rights movement had to do with the unbearable conditions for African American people in a lot of parts of the South, plus this rising idea that we're not going to take it anymore and that we don't have to.  You can trace it to people coming home from WWII, to having seen something of the world. You can trace it to radical organizations in the South, that agitated over all those years against lynching and for civil rights. Those seeds got planted and finally they grew.  So I think that's how social change takes place.

So what's my part in it? I used to be on the organizer side and now I'm on the idea planting side.  But really, they're so closely related that it's hard to tell them apart sometimes.

MB:  For migrant workers who are undocumented, is there a disincentive to organize due to the risks associated with their undocumented status, or have you seen instances of undocumented workers organizing?

DB:   I went to work with the United Farm Workers Union in the 70s, which is when I first started learning about immigration and immigrant rights. I saw my first immigration raid, and tried to understand what it was like to be Mexican living in the United States.  That's when I first started getting interested in Mexico. If things are as bad as they are for people here, I thought, then why are people coming here? That led to a whole interest in Mexico, and now I write a lot about Mexico.

I'm an activist - a journalist, or an activist documentarian. One of the places where that activism happens is in the immigrant rights movement.  I've been an immigrant rights activist for a long long time. The first people who taught me about it were farm workers. One of the things I could see was that, as you said, not having papers makes it riskier to go out on strike or join a union. But it doesn't stop people.  In fact, most of the people who belong to the United Farm Workers union are undocumented. So obviously it didn't stop people. It's not to say that there aren't conflicts between people who have papers and those who don't. But certainly I could see that people were willing to struggle.

My work as an organizer was almost always talking with immigrants and people of color, and a lot of it talking with people who had no papers in foundries and factories.  That was mostly who we were organizing.

So it wasn't just learning that people could do it, but trying to figure out as an organizer, with those workers, how they could defend themselves against the risk you're talking about. What you can do if your boss threatens to call the migra on you. What to do if the migra actually shows up at the factory where you're working.  Very practical questions like that also lead to a certain level of political immigrant rights activism.

I've been part of working groups to change immigration laws, with big debates over whether we need to have enforcement, or what the border should look like. I'm very involved in that too. 

In fact a new book I'm working on is about the border.  It's trying to look at the border, not just as a wall, and not just a place people cross in order to come here, but as s a place where people live.  It is also, especially on the Mexican side, the scene of lots and lots of social movements and social struggles about the conditions for people there.  It comes from almost 30 years of photographs and interviews, which try to document the border as a region of people in movement. 

MB:  So what seeds are you trying to sow through projects like that?

DB:  You know, I originally called my blog the "reality check," because the idea is that, if we're going to talk about immigration laws or migration or the workplace, let's look at who's there. What do those situations look like? Let's listen to the people who are there, and then try and figure out what to do based on that.  So that's what the seed planting idea is. When I was an organizer, I used to write a lot of leaflets, which were urging people to immediate action - go on strike or boycott or whatever. I had to cure myself of that when I started, to move away from being an organizer and work as a journalist.

So now what it's trying to do is to draw a picture of the world, or part of it, in an accurate way, in a fair way, but certainly in a partisan way too. 

I don't believe in neutrality. I don't think that anyone is really neutral about anything.  I have a war with journalism schools and the way that they treat neutrality in journalism, because I think often that is used as a pretext for ensuring that the politics that appear in the newspaper reflect the editorial position of the owners and the people who manage it.

If you read the foreign coverage of the New York Times no one in their wildest imagination would believe that this is objective journalism. The reports don't even pretend it is.  They just try to assume this is the only way you can possibly see the world. But objective and neutral?! Not in a million years.

We choose what to write about; choose who to talk to; choose whose eyes we're gonna take a look at the world through {or the lens through which you tell a story].  Our mainstream media looks at the world through the eyes of people who have power. Unfortunately, where working people and people of color appear in our media world, they generally tend to appear as victims.  There is a certain muckraking tradition in journalism here and a lot of lip service is paid to it, but it doesn't necessarily see people as actors very much, who are able to change it. I very consciously try to do the work I do in a way that pays attention to how people analyze their world and change it.

For example, I wrote a long political biography of Rufino Dominguez about a year ago, right after he died.  Rufino, apart from being a friend, was a very crucial figure in the migration of people from Oaxaca to the United States, and helped to organize some very important organizations both here and in Oaxaca.  I was trying to present the ideas he contributed - and he contributed to some really brilliant ones. He talked about the duality, for instance, of the fight for the rights of migrants in the countries they're going to, as well as fighting for the right to not migrate in the places people are coming from.  In other words, there have to be political and economic alternatives in the towns where people are growing up so that a young person can actually decide, in a voluntary way, whether to leave and go to the US, or whether to stay and have a future with dignity. Rufino was a very important person in developing that idea. In fact, I was so enamored of that idea that I wrote a book about it called The Right to Stay Home. 

The whole biography tried to figure out Rufino's political history. Where did he come from politically? What were the currents of thought that helped him to develop both the ability to organize people and also his ideas.  This is really a very important part of documentary work. We listen to how people analyze their world and understand the ideas that they come up with. We don't just treat people as victims.

MB:  Do you photograph people in Mexico to highlight circumstances there as well?

DB:  Absolutely.  That border book I was talking about - there's a section in the book called "Communities of Resistance."  This is a Mexican phrase, and they are communities along that northern part of Mexico, along the border.  If you go back 60 or 70 years, very few people lived there. Now there are cities of millions of people. So one of the things that's happened is that people - poor people - have sometimes organized themselves to take over land owned by the Federal government. Before they changed Mexico's constitution, basically to help investors become secure in their land-holding titles, people could settle on Federal land if nobody else was there.  They changed the constitution to throw that out because, you know, it was not a good policy for attracting foreign investment.

There are a number of communities where I have taken photographs, settled by people who were looking for a place to live.  Because they're communities of very poor people, the first thing you see in the photographs is how poor they are. But they are also communities willing to create these settlements, and to do that, you have to fight the government. The government's going to bring in the police and try to stir up contra movements within your own community. Leaders will be sent to prison. So these are very activist communities.  And some of the struggles in the factories to organize independent unions have come out of those communities. They're really interesting to me because they have this combination, and you can see it visually. You can see the poverty of people but you can also see them in action. It's the way I try to document what's happening in Mexico - looking at that combination of things over and over and over again.  It's real easy in Mexico.

MB:  When you take photographs, what are you looking for in a "good" photograph - one that is trying to convey your desired message or achieve your desired result?

DB:   I'm not basically a landscape photographer, so usually its people.  One of the things I'm looking for is emotion - a feeling of intimacy, a feeling of closeness. I was at Horace Mann Elementary School in Frank Lara's class (a teacher and community activist in the Mission).  You know, kids are fun. They're very aware you're there and have this desire to mug for you and you have to wait for it to pass. But they're also very accepting so it's easy to get close.

I take a lot of photos with a wide angle lens - getting really close so you can see the person big in the frame but you can also see the context. That's sort of a classic environmental portraiture technique. 

Timing.  You know, still photographs are a slice [in time] - they're different before and different afterwards. You're just going to pick out that one moment.  You're always looking for moments - you're trying to predict what's going to happen and where you want to be. I've been doing this for a long time, and it gets to the place where I'm not really thinking about it. Some of it feels below the level of consciousness - I'm in the zone.  You have to trust yourself and develop your instinct to do that, and timing is a very important part of it. Watching people and seeing what's going on with them. I'm always looking for people expressing something with the way that they're moving or the expression on their face.

MB:  I read that, from your perspective, photos and writing individually are not as strong as they are together.  How do they work best together?

DB:  It works in two or three different ways.  The classic way is - for example, the latest book that I have [In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte] is basically photos and oral histories. Even the captions on the photos are sometimes extended quotes from someone in the picture.  We're listening to voices and looking at the images and the combination is giving us a much richer idea of that part of the world and the people in it - what they think, what they have to say, what they look like. You're getting a deeper understanding.  So that's one way of doing it.

There's another way. I do a lot of writing.  For example, I covered a meeting between a farm workers union in Baja California and one in Washington State. I wrote about the things they found they had in common with each other - which was a lot.  So the article was illustrated by photographs of some of the people quoted in the article, or who the article talked about. The photos are used to illustrate the story.

Generally speaking, especially now, I don't think I will actually sell an article without pictures.  If you want an article from me, you have to run the pictures. I don't have to fight so much [with editors] anymore because they know this is what I do and they like it.

Occasionally I'll do what I call photo essays.  They're really basically a string of photographs together.  Newspapers, magazines, and websites are run by editors who are word people.  They will almost never run a selection of photographs made up of just the photographs, or photos with captions.  They'll want a story, even if it's a brief one. So I'll give them the story. But they're really pieces that are carried by the photographs.  So that's another way of doing it.

I think in some journalism schools, young photographers are taught that the photograph must be iconic, meaning that it has to stand by itself regardless of the context, with no explanation.  I find this a kind of problematic idea. Especially in documentary work, context is very important. You can change the meaning of a photo by changing the context in which someone is looking at it.

Words and images react with each other to produce the politics.  So when they talk about the iconic image, journalism schools are trying to pull the politics out of journalism - a way of making it more conservative, more acceptable to the New York Times' owners or whatever. 

Think of the young girl naked running down the road with smoke rising from the burning village behind her [Nick Ut's photograph of the child fleeing the bombing of her village during the Vietnam war].  You can understand that picture without knowing it's the Vietnam War. I think most people will understand that it's war.  But if you understand which war, and if you understand who bombed the village, the photograph becomes much more political.  The reason it helped end the Vietnam war was not just because it was a generic photograph of a young girl fleeing a burning village, but because it symbolized the horror of that particular war, that our bombers were bombing that village and that young girl was fleeing the napalm into the arms, ironically, of the US soldiers who were participating in it.

MB:  Regarding the photo essay "Mexicans Greet Their New President" what were you trying to convey there?

DB:  It was a project borne out of necessity.  I guess if I'd really wanted to, and really tried, I might have been able to engineer myself into the group of photographers that were on the stage when [Mexico's new president] Lopez Obrador received the staff of office from indigenous leaders.  That was certainly a very important thing in Mexican history.  We all knew what was going to happen and why it was important. Lopez Obrador was recognizing that Mexico is a multi-cultural country. He is the first president of Mexico ever to talk about the cultures of Mexico - plural. But I didn't really want to do that, partly because there were already people taking photographs of the ceremony.

I was more interested in how people were reacting to this enormous political change - ordinary people interested enough to come to the Zocalo [Mexico City's central plaza] to see the thing happen, but not the powerful and influential people sitting on stage or in the Mexican Congress.  I watched Lopez Obrador's speech to the Congress on TV, which preceded the event in the Zocalo, and thought it was a remarkable and very important speech.

As a photographer, I wanted to look at what was happening to people.  In some ways, you could predict what some of it would look like. People were moving down these avenues in downtown Mexico City, which are lined with the old colonial buildings, so it's a great environment in which to take pictures.  Then they'd be in the Zocalo, a huge square with a million people in it.

So I just walked around taking pictures of people.  Some of the pictures are very overtly political. Lots of people had flags, banners, signs that all have "AMLO (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] Mexico" and similar writing on them.  To me, that's important to have in a photograph. That's what people are saying through what they're carrying.

One of the pictures is a guy who was part of a bus drivers' movement that I documented 25 years ago.  In the Zocalo he was appealing to Lopez Obrador for justice for their cause, which they are still fighting for.  So in the background you have part of the banner, which says Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and you can read enough of it to know his name is there. But what you're really doing is reading the emotion on his face.  It's really all about what's going on in his face.

Other photographs were not overtly political.  I'm just trying to shoot what's there.  The world is a rich and complicated and marvelous place, so I'm not trying to limit it by saying that the only pictures we're going to show are people with banners marching down the road, although there are some of those too.

I was actually looking for people marching into the square, and there were not a lot of people marching. Then at the end, as I was leaving, there were these people marching down one of the avenues.  I was like "Oh, thank God!"

MB:  Do you see any changes occurring as a result of the politics with respect to immigration here in the U.S.?

DB:  There have been lots of changes.  We could talk for hours about the terrible things that Trump has done.  On the other hand, people spontaneously went out to the airports when he issued the first anti-Muslim order and shut them down - in San Francisco they got 50 people out of detention - I haven't seen that before.  All the women who came out on two marches a year apart.

People are upset, angry, trying to organize in different ways.  I've been taking pictures - at the marches. It's one of the reasons that I was taking pictures at the Local 2 [Marriott Hotel] strike. I would have been there anyway, but it was really interesting and a morale booster that this happened right in the middle of all this Trump shit.  Here they do a strike against the largest hotel chain in the world and they win! You know, life is not just full of terrible news.

MB:  Do you have any upcoming projects?

DB:   I'm trying to get enough time to finish this book; or at least get a proposal together. Then we'll see.  Publishing photo books is really really hard. The last one I was able to publish because a university in Mexico decided to do it and then I was able to use that to convince the University of California to co-publish it.  They all take an extraordinary amount of effort and luck. I've published books that are just text - it's easier to be a professional writer than a photographer.

Thursday, February 7, 2019



The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) is Mexico's most important independent union on the Left. Ten years ago, it was nearly destroyed. Today, its members are rebuilding through a new labor cooperative.

By David Bacon
NACLA Reporting on the Americas -February 7, 2019

Electrical workers march for their jobs. (Photo by David Bacon)

Mexico's new President, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), probably the only head of state to give two press conferences a day and then post them online, is accustomed to having his statements cause headlines. Last week it was a reporter's question that caused a hot controversy, seemingly intended to drive a wedge between AMLO and one of his most important labor allies, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electrical Workers union, SME).

Reporter Rosa Elena Soto, of Acustik Noticias y La Neta Noticias, alleged corruption between Lopez Obrador's predecessor and the union, over contracts for operating the huge Necaxa hydroelectric power station. "Many of these contracts have indications that they were plagued by corruption," she charged.

In his response, AMLO called the union "possibly the most democratic union in Mexico's history, until they viciously destroyed it in the neoliberal period." Noting that its 44,000 members had been fired in 2009, he called for a solution to the conflict. Any corruption, he emphasized, wasn't attributable to workers but to companies that took advantage of the situation. But López Obrador also called for consulting the discredited former leaders of the union, who had accepted government's payoffs after the firings.

This response provoked outrage from the union's leaders. SME General Secretary Martín Esparza replied: "We walked miles and miles in demonstrations, faced with dignity those who fired the workers. We did not sell out, even as our families suffered, and we didn't just sit back with our arms folded and wait for answers. In fact, we proposed viable and novel solutions."

Leobardo Benítez Álvarez and other workers lived in a tent in front of the office of the Federal Electircity Commission on the Reforma in downtown Mexico City for a year to protest the firing 44,000 electrical workers and trying to smash their union. (Photo by David Bacon)

That solution is a cooperative that has taken over many of the facilities where SME members formerly worked, including the Necaxa power station in the reporter's question. This "novel solution" represents the union's hope of putting back to work the thousands of electrical workers thrown into the street a decade ago.

When López Obrador carefully noted the union's reputation, he was acknowledging the importance of its 100-year history on the Mexican left. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union, the oldest democratic union in Mexico, was founded in 1914 when the armies of Emiliano Zapata took Mexico City. Almost a century later, in 2009, the Felipe Calderón administration attempted to destroy the union and the nationalized company that employed its members. But thousands of the SME's members refused to give up their union. Instead, they spent the next eight years "en resistencia" (in resistance).

This willingness to fight for principled labor policies is not only crucial to the country's political left but has an impact across the border as well. Today, electrical workers in the U.S. work on an energy grid increasingly integrated with Mexico's. To avoid the whipsawing and job competition familiar in industries like auto, U.S. unions will need Mexican partners with the kind of class-oriented unionism the SME has championed. That class-based unionism has a long history. In its new cooperative, that history is not only still alive, but has been adapted to the realities of an integrated economy dominated by pro-corporate reforms.

SME engineers march to protest their firing. (Photo by David Bacon)

The origins of the SME's class-based unionism

In 1898, the Compania Luz y Fuerza del Centro (the Power and Light Company of Central Mexico, LyF) was founded in Canada, and granted a concession by President Porfirio Díaz to generate, transmit, distribute, and sell electricity in central Mexico. In the middle of the Mexican Revolution, LyF workers organized the SME primarily because Mexican workers were paid much less than those working for the company from Canada and the United States.

In 1916, the SME organized Mexico's first general strike. Union leaders were imprisoned and condemned to death, but their lives were ultimately spared after huge demonstrations. In 1936, the SME went on strike against the U.S., British, and Canadian owners of Luz y Fuerza. Mexico City went without electricity for ninety days, except for emergency medical services. The strike was successful and led to the negotiation of one of the most important labor contracts in Latin America. This contract preserved SME's independence from the government, unlike other Mexican unions, and made it an important organization on the Mexican left.

In 1937, Amendment 27 of the Mexican Constitution made the oil and electrical industries the property of the state. Then, in 1949, the Comisión Federal de la Electricidad (Federal Electricity Commission, CFE) was established to provide power to all of Mexico-except for the area served by LyF. Nevertheless, private companies like Luz y Fuerza continued to operate under government concessions.

In 1960, the SME began to push for the nationalization of electrical power. The Mexican government subsequently purchased 90% of LyF shares, making it a state-owned and operated company. Then-President Adolfo López Mateos added a paragraph to Article 27 determining that the Mexican government has the exclusive right to provide electricity to the country.

The Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de Electricidad de la República Mexicana (Sole Union of Mexican Electricity Workers, SUTERM), headed by Rafael Galván, was established in 1972 for CFE workers. Galván, however, was expelled from the union for opposing government policy. He then organized the Tendencia Democrática del SUTERM, (Democratic Tendency of SUTERM), whose leaders were all fired. The union consequently became a pillar of support for Mexico's governing party, the PRI. Since then, the two unions have represented the two poles in Mexican labor: an independent democratic organization with left politics, and a bureaucratized union tied to the PRI and the government.

An SME member protesting her firing. (Photo by David Bacon)


The SME contract with LyF carried strong protections, such as the guarantee of a safe workplace, vacation time, sick leave, and leaves of absence. A fund helped workers find adequate housing, and even build or buy a home. Workers also received an aguinaldo [an extra month's salary distributed at the end of the year] and a savings fund in which the company matched workers' contributions.

"Basically, our contract meant that we had the minimum conditions for a decent life," says SME's External Affairs Secretary Humberto Montes de Oca. "It wasn't some kind of privilege, but rights that cost a lot to win." The contract set the standard for electrical workers-not just in Mexico-but throughout Latin America, Montes de Oca says. It also gave the SME the ability to mobilize workers in support of progressive politics, giving it an important presence on the left.

Fighting to Survive Neoliberal Reforms

SME's progressive contract and politics made it a target of large corporations and their political allies, especially when the SME opposed privatization and corporate economic reform in the 1990s. In 1994, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari reversed the push towards nationalization of the electricity sector when he issued a decree allowing private companies to generate electricity and sell it to the CFE-despite the constitutional prohibition on doing so.

The first foreign electric generators, led by San Diego's Sempra Energy, began to build plants along the U.S. border in 2002. As foreign companies moved in, government managers of LyF stopped investing in the modernization of the generation and distribution systems for the publicly-owned utility. The company was forced to buy electricity at high prices from CFE and sell it at low prices to government and large- scale users. LyF's deficit ballooned, while the company's infrastructure deteriorated.

In the late '90s, President Ernesto Zedillo proposed an electricitya reform to open the electricity market to further private investment. He also cut the rate subsidy for the poor, asnd rates shot up 30%, notes Montes de Oca. The SME responded by forming the Frente Nacional de Resistencia a la Privatizacióon de la Industria Electrica (National Front of Resistance to the Privatization of the Electrical Industry) in 1999. In three weeks, it collected 2.3 million signatures on a petition opposing privatization., and Zedillo then abandoned his proposal.

But the next two administrations would seek to push similar reforms. In 2002, Vicente Fox proposed a similar, World Bank-backed reform. The backlash was strong: thousands of SUTERM workers marched alongside the SME in Mexico City, defying their own leadership and forcing Fox to withdraw his proposal. At that time, LyF had 5.7 million customers, serving an area with a total population of about 20 million, according to Montes de Oca.

The next administration under Felipe Calderón tried a different strategy to try to soften opposition to another privatization effort. Under Mexican labor law, the government has to certify the election of union leaders and can use this power to intervene in them. Calderón did just that by refusing to recognize the reelection of SME General Secretary Martín Esparza, provoking an internal struggle over the union's leadership.

A week later, President Calderón declared Luz y Fuerza "non-existent" and ordered the army and police to occupy the generating plants and all other facilities. The SME was also declared "non-existent." The government seized $80 million in union funds and tried to expel it from its union hall, where the SME's history is celebrated in a huge mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros. The union's members defended the hall, but all 44,000 were ultimately fired. The CFE took over the operation of LyF facilities and SUTERM supplied the workers to replace the SME members.

The government offered severance pay to SME members who would renounce claims to their jobs. Facing a future with no job or income, about 28,000 accepted. The government promised jobs to former LyF workers to entice them to take the severance but never made good on its promise. More than 16,000 refused to take the payment, and declared themselves "in resistance." With new, less experienced workers working the electrical grid, Mexico City suffered frequent service cuts and blackouts. Thirty scabs were killed by accidents on the job in the first two years afterwards.

In 2010, after staging hunger strikes in front of the CFE and the Mexican Congress, the SME declared a national strike and tried to put up strike flags on the former LyF facilities. Under Mexican law, when workers in a legal strike string the flags across the gates into the workplace, not even the owners and managers can enter, much less strikebreakers. Police, however, tear gassed and beat the strikers. Police arrested SME members and invaded activists' homes, including that of SME General Secretary Martín Esparza.

Two years later, in 2012, the SME organized a hunger strike in El Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza. A Day of Indignation drew a million demonstrators. Supported by a solidarity campaign initiated by the AFL-CIO-allied Solidarity Center and the IndustriALL international labor federation, the SME negotiated a settlement with Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora. The government agreed to reemploy the SME's members and free 12 imprisoned leaders. Mora then died in a plane crash and the government backed out of the agreement.

The Peña Nieto administration introduced a constitutional amendment in 2013 to eliminate the exclusive right of the government to generate, transmit, distribute, and sell electricity. Once again, the SME entered negotiations for a settlement. In compensation for the $80 million in union funds the government had taken in 2009, the government agreed in 2016 that the SME could organize a cooperative, with the right to operate the former LyF generation plants and take over its former offices and other worksites.

Organizing electrical workers across borders

After NAFTA passed, electrical workers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico began to see a future in which they would eventually be connected by a common electrical network and would face the same employers. Indeed, in 2001, Enron created 64 subsidiaries to operate within the Mexican power market, and its executives advised then-President Vicente Fox on energy policy. San Francisco-based construction giant Bechtel Enterprises partnered with Shell Generating Ltd. to set up Intergen Aztec Energy and built a plant near Mexicali, which generates 750 megawatts. Two-thirds of the power the plant generates is sold in Mexico and a third is exported to California. San Diego's Sempra Energy Resources built another power station near Mexicali. The 600 megawatts it generates goes to the U.S. The gas for its boilers comes from the U.S. in a Sempra-built pipeline, making the plant the first true energy maquiladora.

Meanwhile, as private plant construction surged ahead, Mexico stopped almost all new construction of its own power plants. Twenty-three foreign companies were granted licenses after 2000. Even some leaders of Mexico's ruling PRI party, including its chair Manuel Bartlett, became vocal opponents. "Look at the energy chaos in California," he declared. "Do they want to sell the American failure to us?" After switching to MORENA, the party of López Obrador, Bartlett now heads the CFE.

Martín Esparza (Photo by David Bacon)

Below SME General Secretary Martín Esparza explains the challenges of the last years:

In reality, one purpose of Mexico's electricity reform is to permit the generation of electricity in one country (the U.S. or Mexico) in exchange for its sale and use in the other. Many multinational corporations have entered the markets. And because this year Mexico ratified the ILO Convention No. 98 about collective bargaining, unions can organize in those companies. So it's extremely important that we have ties with unions in the U.S., to work together to organize and improve the conditions of the workers.

Yet these companies operate with no collective bargaining agreements, and avoid it by subcontractings. We want to force them to recognize unions and bargain. Our union has a national registro (legal status) that allows us to represent workers in any part of this industry, in any company. And while the transmission lines can only be operated by the Federal Electricity Commission [which has a company union, SUTERM] the government is not obligated to bargain only with it. The workers have the freedom to choose what union they want to belong to.

Right now the workers in SUTERM have a terrible contract. In the past, when the SME won important rights and benefits, all workers in the industry could ask for the same things, including workers in SUTERM. Now, because we lost our contract, workers in SUTERM are losing those benefits.

The corrupt Mexican governments of the past always support SUTERM and attacked us. We are expecting that this will change with the new administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The new Labor Secretary, Maria Luisa Alcalde, has always supported democratic unions. We think the new government will support the freedom to organize and struggle, so we have to organize to help these workers win a good contract.

International solidarity is important for another reason also. The government is building transmission lines using direct current and new technology. Unions in the U.S. and Europe can help share the necessary skills and knowledge, to enable our members to work anywhere in the world.

The Luz y Fuerza Cooperative

Today, in the union's new Luz y Fuerza cooperative, some SME members have been able to return to work in the electrical sector. Some of them work for the cooperative itself, and others for a partnership called Fenix, between Mota Engil, a Portuguese construction company (51% of the shares) and the SME (49% of the shares). Fenix operates two generating stations, including the large Necaxa complex, and employs 49 people. Once it begins operating other stations returned by the government, the union hopes it will employ 500-600 people.

About 1,400 people currently receive some income from the cooperative. The other 15,000 people, including some who've already retired, are still "in resistance." In the nine years since its members were fired, SME members have done many jobs, with some in the United States. Many returned to school and can now perform more sophisticated work, including as engineers. The union hopes they'll return to help bring the recovered plants on line, according to Montes de Oca.

Humberto Montes de Oca (Photo by David Bacon)

As Humberto Montes de Oca, SME Secretary for External Affairs, says:

We always sought a solution that would put us back to work in the electrical sector. The government even proposed training us as barbers, but we would not give up. The electrical industry has changed a lot, however, and the CFE is on the brink of bankruptcy. We can't go back to where we were. So we had to look for ways to get back into the sector in concessions to operate hydroelectric plants, or in other kinds of work we've done in the past, from construction to fixing vehicles.

We had to create a new generating company that could recover the installations of the old company Luz y Fuerza. That is the cooperative. If the electrical industry went back to the public sector, that would certainly be better. We'd get our contract and our jobs back. But the cooperative is also an answer for us. In generation, we were forced into an alliance with a group of Portuguese investors. But we also have control of some facilities that can directly employ our members, without partners. These are small plants, but the construction of new plants that could generate more power. A lot depends on whether the new government decides to finance this project.

In 2019, providers other than the CFE will be able to purchase blocks of energy and sell it to consumers in Mexico City. When this happens, we are planning to set up a project called Subase. We already have trained people who've done this job for years. We know the management systems. That could reintegrate 2,000 workers.

Electricity rates have gone up 700%, and there's great dissatisfaction with CFE's service provided. It cuts off service to people too poor to pay. The members of SUTERM working for the CFE just come and cut their power. People angry about this have been organizing with us in the National Assembly of Electricity Users. They've declared a strike in payments to the CFE. Membership in the Assembly is now up to 60,000, and we've filed a complaint with the Federal prosecutor for consumer affairs.

 Eduardo García (Photo by David Bacon)

Despite an agreement with the government, regaining control of the facilities of the former company Luz y Fuerza was not automatic. In fact, workers had to force their way in, and then rebuild what they found, as the president of the cooperative, Eduardo García, explains:

We had to force our way into this worksite [speaking about the large facility of several acres where the coop's offices are located]. We had a court order saying they had to turn it over, but the CFE refused to let us in. In our 103 years as a union, we've learned how to deal with things like that. We put ladders up against the wall, distracted the guards, and then opened up the main gate. We've learned in this country that workers' rights can only be won through struggle and resistance, not because the government gives something to us.

After we recovered our workplaces, and went inside, we had to rebuild everything. It took a lot of work. We had to learn how to bid on jobs, and we are now offering over 500 different services, from cleaning offices to building generation stations. We have more than 400 engineers. We have about 4,000 people who can work on live lines, and we run generation plants, and install photovoltaic cells. We're even setting up a dining hall because we have chefs in the union, and a textile department that makes our uniforms. We're all cooperating so that we can go back to the kind of work we did before.

As the exchange in López Obrador's press conference makes clear, the relationship between these two old allies is not going to develop without obstacles and frustrations. SME members were among López Obrador's strongest allies when he was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. When he ran for President in 2006, and was then denied victory by electoral fraud, SME members heeded his call to occupy Mexico City's main thoroughfare, the Reforma, in tents for months. And although the SME, because of its rules about political independence, did not endorse his 2018 presidential campaign, the union's members were overwhelmingly supportive.

In his speech to the Mexican Congress, and later to the public in the capital's Zocalo, López Obrador, promised to halt the privatizations and reverse reforms he characterized as 36 years of neoliberal policies. Reestablishing the state-owned Luz y Fuerza is not likely, however. And as Montes de Oca points out, keeping the current electrical network operated by the CFE solvent and in the public sector will be a challenge.

Two members of the SME cooperative, Luz y Fuerza. (Photo by David Bacon)


SME members could be rehired by the CFE into the jobs they did before 2009, as the scuttled deal with Blake Mora would have provided. The new labor legislation already in the Mexican Congress, initiated by Lopez Obrador's party Morena, would allow the SME's existence inside the CFE, perhaps eventually even challenging the SUTERM's right to represent all workers in the enterprise. That would shift the politics in Mexican labor sharply to the left.

In the short term, however, the main issue will be the level of support the López Obrador administration will give to the Luz y Fuerza cooperative. Contracts to help build and operate solar and wind farms, and new direct-current transmission lines bringing the power to Mexican cities, would create many jobs for SME's members. Putting up a roadblock to that was perhaps one motivation for the accusations of corruption in Rosa Elena Soto's question in the press conference, and for the controversy now grabbing headlines in the Mexican press.

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer, and former union organizer. He has written about Mexican labor and politics for 30 years. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA (UC Press, 2004), The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013), and most recently In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (Colegio de la Frontera Norte and UC Press, 2017).

Wednesday, February 6, 2019


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, February 6, 2019

Two busses take residents of Derechos Humanos and Fuerza y Libertad barrios to the factory parks where many work, and others to the bridge over the where they cross the border over the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas.

The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of Mexico has raised the hopes and expectations of millions of Mexican workers. There could be no better evidence of this than the strike of tens of thousands of workers in Matamoros, a city at the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border, across the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo in Mexico) from Brownsville, Texas.

During the past month, between 30,000 and 40,000 of the 70,000 maquiladora workers in Matamoros plants have walked off their jobs. The maquiladoras are factories, mostly foreign-owned, that manufacture goods destined for sale in the United States. They are the product of a development policy begun by the Mexican government in 1964, allowing the construction of foreign-owned plants, so long as their products were sold outside Mexico. The attraction for foreign companies has been a wage level far below that of workers just a few miles north, and the lax enforcement of environmental and worker protection laws. As a result, along the border today, more than two million workers labor in these factories.

"Workers and employers from Tijuana to Juarez are looking at the courageous actions of the Matamoros workers," says Julia Quiñones, director of the Border Committee of Women Workers in Ciudad Acuña, and a veteran of three decades of labor conflicts. "Workers are thinking about following the Matamoros example, and of course employers are worried they'll do exactly that."

The strikes have their immediate origin in a promise made by López Obrador in his speech to the Mexican Congress, and repeated in Mexico City's main plaza, the Zócalo, as he was sworn into office on December 1. "From January 1," he promised, "the minimum wage [on the border] will be doubled." Keeping his word, on January 1 he raised that wage from 88.36 pesos ($4.63) per day to 176.72 pesos ($9.25).

In Matamoros, however, factory owners declared that the wages of their workers would not increase because they were already making what López Obrador had ordered. According to Juan Villafuerte Morales, general secretary of the Union for Workers in the Maquiladora Industry, the workers were earning between 156 and 177 pesos per day. Villafuerte's union is affiliated with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which, during the past 25 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a labor partner of the pro-corporate Mexican governments that preceded López Obrador's. On the border especially it has acted as a labor enforcer for the government policy of using low wages to attract foreign investment in maquiladoras.

Quiñones, however, says the employers were really playing tricks with the way they calculate wages. "The base wage in most maquiladoras is 90-100 pesos. But workers also earn a number of bonuses-for productivity, attendance, transportation, and other reasons. They depend completely on these bonuses. When the workers said their base wage should be doubled, as the government promised, the companies said they'd eliminate the bonuses and the result would be the same as not raising the wages at all."  Villafuerte said the union's agreement with Matamoros companies permitted them to cancel bonuses if they faced an "economic emergency."

Many older Matamoros workers remember a pre-NAFTA era when their wages were much higher and the CTM union was run by a different kind of leader, Agapito González Cavazos. From the late 1950s to the late 1980s, the period in which the maquiladora industry mushroomed, the Matamoros maquiladora union had 50,000 to 60,000 members. In the 1970s, when the national minimum wage was 140 pesos (then worth $11.20), in Matamoros it was 198 pesos ($15.84). In 1983, González negotiated a famous agreement with a 43 percent salary increase, and an arrangement in which workers were paid for 56 hours of labor, but only worked a 40-hour week.

González also opposed the neoliberal reforms of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which included privatizing national enterprises, ending land reform, and preparing the ground for NAFTA. Matamoros's largest employers considered him an obstacle to passing and implementing the treaty. In February 1992, as NAFTA's terms were being finalized, Salinas had him arrested and taken to Mexico City. González had been negotiating union contracts with 42 companies, including General Motors, and his arrest was protested by the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO in the United States.

In the NAFTA era that followed, labor opposition was weakened and wages fell drastically. In 1992, workers were demanding $19.50 per day. The new minimum wage, even after being doubled by López Obrador, is $9.27. The workweek has gone back up from 40 hours to 48 hours in most factories. Making matters worse, while Matamoros's maquiladora wages aren't the lowest in Mexico, the cost of living on the border is much higher than in the rest of the country.

This neighborhood of maquiladora workers in the "Derechos Humanos" and "Fuerza y Unidad" barrios on the edge of Matamoros, is contaminated by white powder chemical waste from the Quimica Fluor plant (which makes hydrofluoric acid) onto the dirt roads between the houses.  Residents complain of rashes and illnesses.

The price of many basic necessities, like milk, is actually higher in supermarkets in Mexican border cities like Matamoros and Tijuana than it is just across the line in Brownsville and San Diego. A woman on the assembly line in Tijuana has to labor for half a day to earn enough to buy a gallon of milk. Prices have been rising rapidly in Matamoros, according to the Tamaulipas office of Mexico's Federal Consumer Affairs Prosecutor. A pound of serrano chiles now costs 55 pesos, more than half a day's wage at 88 pesos. The price of tomatoes has gone up by 20 percent and onions by 26 percent.

Delfina Martínez, a worker at Trico Componentes, which makes auto parts for AutoZone and other U.S. retailers, told reporter Julia Le Duc of the Mexico City daily La Jornada that she was overjoyed when she heard about López Obrador's promised wage increase. "Then the union delegate told us that it was only for those who were earning minimum wage, and we didn't qualify." Instead, she discovered in her paycheck that the company had raised her wages by just 5 pesos a day. Then she found out it wasn't going to pay the 3,000-peso annual bonus either. Instead of helping her, the Federal decree raising the minimum wage "gave a pretext to the factory to not pay us what we'd normally get every January ... We went to the union, and on Saturday we put up the red and black strike flags."

Matamoros workers began making demands directly on the factory owners in early January, and organized wildcat walkouts to pressure them into raising wages. Like Martínez, workers were additionally enraged when the companies refused to increase the aguinaldo, an additional month's wages companies are obligated by law to pay workers at the end of the year.

Soon work stopped in many plants, including Polytech 1, Polytech 2, Dura 4, AFX Autoliv, and Cedras de México. A large percentage of the striking workers came from factories producing auto parts for U.S. assembly plants. AFX, for instance, is a supplier to General Motors. According to the Matamoros Maquiladora Association, companies lost $100 million in the first ten days.

Thousands of workers marched through the streets of Matamoros. On January 18, the workers-2,000 strong-occupied the offices of their own union, which Villafuerte had closed, fearing the strikes and demonstrations. Angry workers accused him of caving to company demands, especially in a new contract being negotiated for 2019. One of their chants (which rhymes in Spanish) was "The people are tired of so many damned tricks!" Workers organized their own independent network, called the Workers Movement of Matamoros.

Villafuerte was forced to announce that the union would mount an official strike. The workers' basic demand was a 20 percent increase in pay, and an increase in the productivity bonus from 3,500 pesos yearly to 32,000 pesos. Some factories offered a 10 percent wage increase, and a 10,000 peso bonus, but workers rejected it. On January 24, they began walking out at the 45 factories covered by the union agreement.

According to La Jornada's Le Duc, "in some factories it was a violent process, because the managers ordered the security guards to block the doors to prevent workers from leaving the production lines." Workers also tried to blockade the doors into some plants themselves, suspecting that managers might try to sneak out machinery to continue production elsewhere.

Rolando Gonzalez Barron, a leader of the employers' association, called the workers "ignorant" and threatened to fire them if they participated in strike actions. Nevertheless, on January 24-the very first day that workers walked out-four factories agreed to the workers' demands. Over the past week more than 20 more have given in, thereby getting their workers to return to the assembly lines.

The anger directed by workers at the CTM may have far-reaching consequences. Last year, before López Obrador took office, the previous government was forced to ratify Convention 98 of the International Labor Organization, guaranteeing freedom of association. The Mexican Congress then passed a constitutional reform, embodying these changes, including the right of workers to vote on contracts, elect their own leaders, and form unions of their choice-practices that the government and its cooperating unions did not previously recognize. Sweetheart agreements, called "protection contracts" because they protect the employer from any effort by workers to form independent unions and raise wages, will no longer be legal.

Many families survive by running small businesses from home, and at the same time going to jobs in the maquiladoras.  This family sells buns, chocobananas and tostada snacks.

In Matamoros, one result of the strikes and organizing may be a decision by workers to use the labor law reforms and leave the CTM. Other national independent unions may also challenge the CTM. The miners' union has been active in organizing on the border, and has supported the Matamoros workers, although it has no union contracts in the city.

While the López Obrador administration has promised that the legal mechanisms protecting the old "protection" unions will be dismantled, it has been slow to support the movement in the streets of Matamoros. In a November interview, Alfredo Domínguez Marrufo, deputy to the new Labor Secretary Luisa María Alcalde, said that "this government will defend the freedom of workers to organize," and that "we're not just fighting for an economic goal, not just for decent wages, but for the revitalization of the democratic life of workers."
Nevertheless, Domínguez held a press conference in Matamoros on January 25, and asked workers to postpone their strike for ten days while negotiations took place. "I expected more," Quiñones said. "It was a very cold response. I think Alcalde should have come to Matamoros herself."

The lukewarm response didn't earn the government any breaks from employers either. Maquiladora owners are angry with López Obrador for having raised workers' expectations. "Andrés Manuel López Obrador is burying the export industry in this country," said Luis Aguirre Lang, president of the National Maquiladora and Export Industry Council, "which has been a successful model for business and regional development for 53 years. It's sending the world a very wrong message of distrust about Mexico, that it's no longer a safe and attractive place for investment."

Some maquiladora owners are threatening to close their factories, or move them to another city. The employer association for the auto parts industry declared that what the workers want is impossible. Instead of coming to terms with them, recalcitrant employers blamed the conflict on Susana Prieto Terrazas, an attorney from Juarez helping the strikers, calling her an outside agitator.

When the strikes started, the state labor board said that it had no jurisdiction over the Matamoros conflict, because it fell under Federal purview instead. But on January 29 it declared the strike "non-existent" in 16 factories. Such a declaration allows a struck company to bring in strikebreakers and fire striking workers. However, another feature of the new government's labor law reform is the replacement of the labor boards, which have historically defended employers, with a neutral system of labor tribunals. The actions of the labor board in Matamoros provide strong evidence supporting the need for this change.

Following the labor board's announcement, Tridonex fired 600 workers, with the support of the CTM. In protest of the firings, a former union leader, Leocadio Mendoza Reyes, began a hunger strike in the city's downtown plaza. "These people were fired because they asked for wage increases, and the head of the union-who's my brother-turned his back on them," he told La Jornada.

Despite the firings and repression, workers have succeeded in winning significant wage increases in a number of factories. Of the original 47 that workers struck, companies agreed to the workers' demands in all but 11, and strikers returned to work following those agreements. The strike has spread to three other plants, Toyoda Gosei, Fisher Dinamic, and Robert Shown, where workers rejected an 8 percent raise negotiated by another CTM union. Nearly 1,000 other workers at the non-maquiladora facilities of Coca-Cola and Matamoros's main milk distributor, Leche Vaquita, also walked off their jobs, demanding the same 20 percent raise and an end to unpaid overtime.

Quiñones says that the situation of workers everywhere on the border is changing rapidly, in part because of their rising expectations. "They're tired of abuse and exploitation, and if they can see some hope for change, they will act. What we're seeing in Matamoros is that rank-and-file workers are becoming more conscious and aware, and that makes me optimistic."