A Mexican union fights for its life

October 23, 2009

Stuart Easterling reports from Mexico City on the government's attempt to smash one of the country's most democratic and fighting unions.

THE MEXICAN government has recently taken dramatic steps to openly break one of the country's most militant independent trade unions.

On October 10, in the middle of the night, Mexican federal police occupied more than 100 electrical installations across central Mexico belonging to the public power company Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC). Simultaneously, a total of 44,000 workers--members of Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME), Mexico's electrical workers' union--were fired.

The government claims some 8,000 to 10,000 workers are eventually to be rehired, but with their union contract and union representation eliminated. This represents the most direct attack on the Mexican labor movement in the country's recent history.

Mexico's conservative President Felipe Calderón has attempted to blame the workers of SME for losses and inefficiencies in the electrical power system in central Mexico, which is served by LyFC. The conservative press, meanwhile, has attempted to demonize the workers for the pay and benefits they won thanks to their union organization.

SPE members march against the government attack on Luz y Fuerza del Centro stations
SPE members march against the government attack on Luz y Fuerza del Centro stations (Jesús Villaseca)

The SME has pointed out that the real losses at LyFC come from subsidies given to large corporations, who buy power at a rate roughly 10 percent below that of ordinary consumers. Moreover, LyFC has not been allowed by the government to expand its generating capacity in decades; it thus has to buy electricity at artificially high rates from Mexico's national power company.

But breaking the SME is not about fixing Mexico's electrical power system. It is first of all a political move, engineered to bolster the government of Felipe Calderón, and to rally support behind his National Action Party (PAN), by blaming the unions for Mexico's problems. Calderón may be feeling more confident given the significant losses by the left in elections this past summer.

Secondly, getting rid of the SME would be the logical first step in privatizing the electrical power system in Mexico, which would be consistent with the free-market agenda of the PAN and the Calderón government. The SME has been an important opponent of this agenda, playing a key role in forming the National Front Against Privatization earlier this decade. Thus, eliminating the SME would also conveniently remove one of the most active and vocal opponents of the right wing's economic agenda in Mexico.

But most significantly, the attempt to crush the SME is widely regarded as a test case for future attacks on the labor movement, and on the living standards attained by organized workers in Mexico. Indeed, the conservative press has been openly asking: Who's next? Will it be the teachers union, the SNTE? Or the workers at PEMEX, Mexico's public oil company?

THE CONSERVATIVE media overall has been in a state of hysteria over the SME. One recent TV news program devoted an entire segment on the "possible" connection between the SME and a recent string of small and amateurish bombings of bank branches. The report included the ridiculous claim that, "according to intelligence sources," the SME has members who are involved in various armed or terrorist groups.

Outlandish charges aside, the anti-union campaign by the government and media has helped to polarize public opinion about the attempt to destroy the SME. The fact is that people of all social classes are very frustrated with the poor quality of many public services, including the delivery of electricity. The right wing is attempting to blame the workers of SME for things like power outages, which especially hurt small businesses that can't afford a generator.

Some people believe these arguments: polls indicate that roughly half of all Mexicans support the government's move. But how breaking the SME will end power outages in Mexico City, the government has never made clear. The SME has argued that the ancient equipment and infrastructure they have to work with--due to lack of investment--are the real problem.

The anti-union press has also played on the image of "special privileges" and corruption among unions, which many associate with the decades of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Despite the SME's long record of union democracy, its leaders have been accused of lining their pockets at the expense of the workers. And in a country where many workers live near or below the poverty line--and want good jobs--the SME's critics accuse the union of distributing such jobs through favoritism and bribery.

Plenty of people, however, don't buy what Calderón and the right-wing media are saying. The SME and its allies have responded to the campaign against them with various mobilizations, including a mass march in Mexico City on October 15. Roughly 300,000 people attended, despite its being called with only a few days' notice. Mexico's massive central square, the zócalo, was filled with demonstrators.

Marchers from SME locals across central Mexico were present, with their own banners, chants and homemade signs. Large contingents from numerous other union organizations and locals from the nation's capital also came. The mood was extremely angry and militant throughout. Contingent after contingent was chanting or singing, many with fists pumping in the air in unison.

Students also participated in large numbers, with at least 1,000 students marching together from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), roughly the same number from the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM), and several hundred from the National Technical Institute (IPN). They all came with banners, signs and chants supporting SME.

Since the liquidation of LyFC, there have also been protests by consumers over power outages. The major highway between Mexico City and Puebla was occupied in both directions October 21 by some 500 people protesting their communities' lack of electricity. The freeway had already been occupied earlier this week by residents of a community that had lost drinking water for nearly two weeks.

WHAT WILL happen next is unclear. The struggle to save the SME is still unfolding.

The leadership of the SME opened a dialogue with the government following the march. But Calderón's administration explicitly stated from the start that the dialogue would not lead to a reversal of their decision. And so, not surprisingly, it failed after only a few days.

The opposition center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has called for additional mobilizations in the capital, as well as submitting a case before Mexico's Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Calderón's decision. The SME's leadership is also putting forward a legal strategy in part, including asking its members to file individual lawsuits against the government's move.

Various organizations of the left are arguing that marches and rallies will not be enough, and that the legal route is very likely to fail in the courts. They are calling for a wider solidarity strike--or a general strike--by Mexican unions. The idea of a solidarity strike has also been publicly raised by the leaders of some of Mexico's independent unions. Whether they will take this step remains to be seen.

However, raising the stakes in this way will likely be necessary to save the SME. Mexico's PRI and PAN governments of the past two decades have seen big demonstrations before. And right now, the SME is in serious danger of being smashed by the government and effectively disappearing as a union organization.

What is clear to all is that this is the most important battle among Mexican workers in decades. Its outcome will affect the direction of labor struggles for years to come.

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