Posted December 8, 2009
Tens of thousands of Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) members, their families, other union members, peasant organizations, social movement activists and students engaged in a symbolic “taking of Mexico City” on December 4. The action, modeled on the actual taking of Mexico City by the armies of Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata in 1914, was to protest Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s liquidation of the Light and Power Company of Central Mexico, the police seizure of the company’s facilities, and the firing of the workforce of 44,000. The government’s action would eliminate the SME which has been at the center of opposition to President Calderon’s policies.
Particularly notable in the protest demonstrations were contingents from the Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM), from the National Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), and from the streetcar workers union. Following the main march and rally, thousands of union members and allies marched to the headquarters of Televisa to protest bias in that corporation’s coverage of the Light and Power struggle and controversy.
Union Seeks Negotiation of Issues
Martín Esparza, general secretary of the SME, demanded that the Mexican government negotiate the liquidation of the company with the union. He proposed that José Narro, rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), as mediator.
Apparently retreating from an earlier position, Esparza called not for the restoration of the old Light and Power Company, but rather for the collective re-hiring of the fired workers by the Federal Electrical Commission (FCE), with the SME acting as the agent for the rehiring of the workers and presumably as their union. The Federal Electrical Commission workers are represented by the Sold Union of Electrical Workers of the Mexican Republic (SUTERM), a union which is friendly to the Calderón government.
Since the Felipe Calderón government’s attack, the union has been in constant struggle with the government. That struggle has now become a protracted and multifaceted battle. While many of the union’s members continue to fight, and there has been strong support from telephone workers, university employees, teachers and many others, this is without a doubt a tremendously difficult challenge for the Mexican labor movement.
The union now fights on many fronts: to maintain the unity of its members, to find economic resources, to win the battle of public opinion, to gain political allies, to garner solidarity from unions abroad, to convince Mexican legislators, to gain relief in the courts and find vindication in the eyes of international legal organizations.
The Union in the Streets
Expelled from their workplaces on October 11 and therefore unable to strike, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union called upon other unions to join them in massive protests of hundreds of thousands on October 15, on November 11 and in the most recent protest on December 4. The second protest was a national work stoppage, which, if it did not bring the country to a halt, still found support in cities and states throughout the country, with strong support from telephone workers, university employees, and teachers.
The Electrical Workers Union has received support from Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his so-called Legitimate Government of Mexico, the shadow government that he created after losing what many believe to have been the fraudulent election of 2006 that brought Felipe Calderón to power. López Obrador has given his platform to Martín Esparza, general secretary of the Electrical Workers Union, and López Obrador’s dedicated supporters who number in the hundreds of thousands have thrown their weight behind the union, including in massive rallies and demonstrations in the nation’s capital.
Leafleting, Collecting Funds, Hunger Strike
With Mexico’s major television networks—Televisa and TV Azteca—providing negative news coverage and rabidly anti-union commentary, and most newspapers too expensive for working class people to buy, the Electrical Workers Union has organized its members and supporters to distribute leaflets putting forward the union’s point of view. Workers have been handing out leaflets at over 150 major intersections in Mexico City. Union members are also passing the hat on the streets, in the metro, and on buses in Mexico City to gain financial support for the union’s activities, now that its members have no jobs, the union receives no dues, and its accounts have been frozen by the government.
Many groups of workers have taken creative steps to show support for the union. For example, dozens of members of a Motorcycle club rode through Mexico City carrying the banner of the electrical workers union to show support for the union. Eleven women union members, many of them heads of their households, began a hunger strike on November 23 in front of the Federal Electrical Commission, the government agency that has absorbed the former Light and Power Company. The women, camped out in tents, have pledged to limit their diet to water, honey, and saline solutions, say they are prepared to take their strike “to its ultimate consequences.”
The Political Struggle
All of the Electrical Workers Union’s efforts are aimed at pressuring President Calderon to rehire the fired workers and at preserving the independent union. The Legislature of the Federal District attempted to bring suit in court, but the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the matter since the Light and Power Company was a Federal (that is national) issue and not a Federal District matter.
At the same time the union has taken its case to the House of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican Congress, in an attempt to have the legislature intervene before the Supreme Court. That attempted failed by a vote of 298 to 84, with President Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party that ruled Mexico from 1928-2000, both voting against. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers Party (PT), and Convergencia supported the union’s proposal. The union will now take its case to the Senate, which may prove even more difficult.
While pressuring Congress and attempting to involve the Supreme Court, the Electrical Workers Union has also assisted its members in filing tens of thousands of individual petitions for relief (amparos, similar to injunctions) in lower courts, claiming that the government has violated their rights. So far those petitions have not been acted upon.
Mexico’s independent and more militant unions and federations have backed the Electrical Workers Union. Most important has been the backing from the Mexican Telephone Workers Unions (STRM) whose members participated in the November 11 work stoppage. The Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM) have also come out strongly in support of the electrical workers, as has the National Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), which is an opposition caucus with great support in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Michoacán and in Mexico City. The Authentic Labor Front (FAT) has also backed the movement.
International Solidarity has been offered by unions around the world, including from Canada, the United States, the European Union countries, and Latin America. (See Mexican Labor News and Analysis, October 2009 for statements of support by several unions.) Since then, many others have issued statements of support.
Only two days before the SME’s “taking” of Mexico City, a delegation of U.S. and Canadian labor union leaders visited Mexico to show their solidarity with fired electrical workers of the former Light and Power Company and to tell Mexican President Felipe Calderón it was not too late to negotiate a just resolution to this crisis.
The delegation was led by Hasson Yussuf, secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labor Confederation (CLC), and by Stanley Gacek, associate director of the International Department of the AFL-CIO. The group included the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada, the United Steel Workers (USW), which represents workers in both the Canada and the United States, and the independent United Electrical Workers Union which represents U.S. workers.
The U.S.-Canadian trade union delegation expressed its solidarity with the SME members and their families and criticized the Mexican government for violating its own constitution and laws, for failing to live up to the standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and for human rights violations.
Taking the Case to the World
While continuing to fight on the streets, in the courts, and in Congress, the Electrical Workers Union is also taking its case to international organizations. The union is sending delegations to the International Labor Organization (ILO), part of the United Nations, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and to the European Parliament.
The union will argue before all of these organizations that the government has violated the labor rights, the human rights, and the individual civil rights of its members. While these venues do not provide mandatory relief, they do provide an opportunity to bring the case before world public opinion.
An Uphill Battle
Still, this remains an uphill battle. The Mexican government reports that 62 percent of the workers have accepted their severance pay—they were offered a big bonus to do so—which means that they give up any legal claim to their jobs. The Federal Electrical Commission, which has absorbed Light and Power, has said that it will hire at least 1,000 former Light and Power workers, but has not yet announced exactly what categories of workers it will be employing.
Meanwhile, former Light and Power workers say that because they were members of the militant Mexican Electrical Workers Union, they are being blacklisted by both government and private employers.
The Mexican Electrical Workers Union has called for more actions in December, a month when many Mexicans will be traveling or celebrating with their families, and it will be difficult to maintain the momentum of the movement. Still, the union plans to try, and many have indicated that they are prepared to sacrifice time, tradition, and the festivities to fight for the electrical workers.