Working In These Times
Grassroots Movement Grows in Mexico, as Unionists Escalate Opposition to Government
MEXICO CITY—As the Mexican government refuses to budge in its decision to disband a state-owned electricity company, firing 44,000 unionists in the process, a national grassroots movement is growing that politicians may not be able to ignore for long.
The Mexican Electricians Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas) represented all electricians of the Light and Power Company of Mexico (Luz y Fuerza del Centro), one of Mexico's two state-owned electricity companies, along with the Federal Electricity Commission (Comision Federal de Electricidad). As reported on this blog, the Mexican government unexpectedly announced Luz y Fuerza's dissolution on October 11, citing the company's supposed inefficiency and waste. The move also entailed the mass firing of SME's 44,000 members.
Many of the electricians say this is no coincidence. SME is democratic and fiercely independent in a country where the majority of unions are corrupt, bureaucratic, and foot soldiers for the country's political parties. It is also one of the country's strongest, and has opposed President Felipe Calderon's past efforts to privatize the country's electricity.
The union demanded the order's reversal with a mass march of over 300,000 electricians and their supporters in the central plaza of Mexico City, a mere four days after the order was issued. A month later, the union carried out a one-day national strike on November 11 with the participation of students, rural workers, and unions throughout the country, grinding the world's third largest city to a halt with highway blockades and massive marches.
Yet the government has refused to budge. Recent attempts to introduce legislation overturning the liquidation order in the Mexican Congress have failed, and Calderon insists he's not changing his mind.
Rather than decapitating the union, however, the president's decision has brought together an incredible progressive coalition in a country famous for its fragmented left. In their view, the elimination of Luz y Fuerza is an attack on unions and workers throughout Mexico—and they're heading to the streets daily in SME's defense.
Students in solidarity
Last Thursday, November 26, the union and the student solidarity committee at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico's largest and most prestigious university, held an all-day concert, "Por la Luz y Con la Fuerza," with over 10,000 in attendance. The sight was a strange one for this American author: a college soccer field packed with people under 25 who thought unions were relevant and worthy of their support—and even cool.
Union support was palpable throughout the day, with almost every group that took the stage stopping between songs to speak about SME's struggle. (More than a few sarcastically dedicated songs to "that bastard Felipe Calderon.") SME General Secretary Mart'n Esparza was greeted with cheers and chants as he spoke between bands, thanking the students for their participation and calling the university/union coalition an "historic alliance."
Ana Espino, a law student at UNAM, is a member of this alliance. She linked her involvement in the movement as a member of the solidarity committee to her own family—her father works for Pemex, Mexico's national oil company.
Calderon's push to privatize the company is giving foreign energy companies like Halliburton crude oil wet dreams, but Espino (and much of her country) view such efforts as an attack on her family and an unabashed attempt to plunder the country's collective wealth. The liquidation of Luz y Fuerza and the privatization sure to follow, Espino said, is a testing ground to see how much the neoliberal government can get away with.
"If they attack SME, they could attack Pemex and their union next," she explained, "and I wouldn't be able to attend university. I'm not going to wait until they fire my father to act."
Espino's comments echoed that of many participants in the movement: the assault on Luz y Fuerza is not just against 44,000 electricians, but against all Mexican unions.
Standing in the back of the field, Isidro Oscar Chavez Arinas unzipped his official Luz y Fuerza jacket to gesticulate more easily while speaking. A 19-year veteran of the company now without income or job prospects, Chavez Arinas stressed the importance of SME's links with students.
"The government is very afraid of us getting together with the students, because the students think, they're smart," he stated. "They know that what happened to Luz y Fuerza was unconstitutional. The students were fighting with us [in the one-day national strike] on November 11, and they'll continue to fight with us."
Turning toward the stage, Chavez Arinas proclaimed, "They thought they could get rid of SME. Instead, now all of Mexico is with us."
Camped out on a hunger strike
From a distance, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) building appears emblematic of the kind of "progress" President Calderon and his cadre of free market boosters have attempted to achieve over the last two decades: its postmodern design of polished glass and red steel beams stretch high into the sky, an architectural flourish whose sole purpose seems to be the flaunting of private wealth generated from relentless attempts to chip away at the country's nationalized electricity industry.
Approaching the office by foot, however, gives a different view of the CFE and the effects of Mexico's race to deregulate and privatize. While a privileged few have enjoyed immense affluence as foreign companies have snatched up Mexico's resources, the majority of the country has seen their lot worsen. The latter currently sits defiantly at CFE's door, camped out and on hunger strike in protest.
SME has taken over almost the entire block on which the CFE building is located. Lamp posts and sidewalks, formerly bare, are now adorned with red stencils of the Luz y Fuerza and SME logos. Electricians and their families mill about, discussing the latest developments in their struggle; some are camped out in tents 24 hours each day. The entire entrance to the CFE building is covered in union propaganda, with the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Mexican flag situated at the center.
In front of the entrance sits Monica Jimenez Acosta, a Luz y Fuerza electrician and SME member of 10 years. One of the ten women on hunger strike in protest of Luz y Fuerza's elimination, she speaks with unexpected vigor for someone who has only consumed water for more than a week.
"We went to many people in the government to negotiate, to come to a solution," she recounted. "But no one in the government would listen to us. What else can I do?"
The issue, Acosta says, is not just about SME or the country's nationalized electricity. "They want to slowly privatize everything and eliminate the real unions," she argued. "They don't want workers, they want slaves."
Acosta insists she will be on a hunger strike until the union's demands are met and Luz y Fuerza workers are re-instated.
SME's uncertain fate
The union's future remains unknown, although worker morale remains high. SME actions continue daily, the hunger strike has no end date in sight, and more large protests are planned in the near future. Friday, the union plans for a "symbolic takeover" of Mexico City, convoking several mass marches and a citizens' congress "in defense of the nation."
Plans for a general strike throughout Mexico are also underway, most likely in early January if the conflict is not resolved by then. With the country celebrating both the bicentennial of its independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, many expect 2010 to entail widespread actions by social movements—from community groups to guerrillas—throughout the country.
For now, though, Acosta and nine other electricians are sitting at the entrance to the Comision Federal de Electricidad. Until the government offers a satisfactory proposal, she's not leaving and she's not eating.
"We're going to be here until our bodies give out," she said defiantly. "I'd rather die here in the street, with dignity next to my compañeras, than slowly starve to death in my home."