Free Trade and Union Struggles Heat Up in Mexico

Kari Lydersen

Members of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) demonstrate in Mexico City's Zócalo on April 7, 2011.

On Tuesday, September 13, hundreds of members of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) and their supporters ended a six-month occupation of the Zócalo, the main plaza in Mexico City, in an apparent agreement regarding the government’s selling off and shutting down of the state-owned light and power utility — which caused 44,000 workers to lose their jobs.

Before the settlement was reached, the organization USLEAP reported:

Negotiations between the SME union and the government have intensified in recent days in anticipation of Mexican Independence Day, September 16, when the military traditionally takes over the Zócalo. Military trucks have reportedly circled the square and protestors over the weekend in what is seen as a sign of intimidation. The independent Mexican union movement, led by the National Union of Workers, is preparing for the possibility of an attempt to forcibly remove SME workers and their supporters from the square; the SME has vowed not to leave without a satisfactory agreement.

The same day the electrical workers ended their occupation, other Mexican and U.S. labor leaders briefed Congressional staffers in Washington about the impact of escalating violence in Mexico and the lingering effects of NAFTA and other U.S. policies on Mexicans.

In the wake of a historic merger between the United Steelworkers and Mexican Mineros” union last month, USW president Leo Gerard was joined at the briefing by Marco del Toro, legal counsel of the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers of the Mexican Republic (Los Mineros) and Sergio Beltran Reyes, Mineros internal and external affairs and recording secretary. Francisco Hernandez Juarez, general secretary of the Mexican Union of Telephone Workers, was also present.

The briefing was hosted by Rep. Mike Michaud (D‑Maine), on behalf of the Congressional Labor Caucus and International Worker Rights Caucus. Michaud said:

More than 15 years ago, we were told that NAFTA would create a thriving middle class in Mexico … and government officials said that the agreement would lead to growing trade surpluses and that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be gained. As our friends from Mexico can attest, NAFTA did not bring these benefits. Instead, workers’ rights are being violated on a regular basis, and both the U.S. and Mexico are worse off for it.

The Mineros have been a symbol of the Mexican government’s complicity in repression of workers by private companies, with more than 1,100 Mineros involved in the fourth year of a bitter strike over health and safety conditions at Cananea, one of the world’s largest copper mines, owned by Grupo Mexico.

At the briefing, Del Toro said:

We are taking this opportunity to paint a picture of the status of workers’ rights in Mexico and to outline the persecution faced by unions and leaders there. The diminishing of workers rights and very low wages produce an unequal standard between wage levels in Mexico and the United States. This is affecting the United States, which is looking to create jobs for workers here.

Gerard added:

It is clear that the agenda of the Mexican government is to keep workers’ wages low and use that as an economic tool, and we are here today so that representatives and their staff have the opportunity to hear the facts. The [previous presidents] Fox and Calderon administrations in Mexico have done everything they could to repress the independent unions that were actually raising the standard of living for Mexican workers … The U.S. government must condemn this repression and ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to bust unions in Mexico … It is to our advantage to help Mexican workers expose the kind of oppression and persecution they face every day. And it is very important to workers in America that Mexican workers get an opportunity to raise their standard of living.

The Mineros’ ongoing strike and the electrical workers occupation, among other examples, show how tenacious Mexican union members have been in the face of challenges even greater than what their U.S. counterparts face – even in such a dim time for unions. A declaration of support published by La Jornada about the electrical workers strike – at the time still ongoing – praised the union’s ability to hold an election with high participation in July, in the midst of their struggle:

The government has failed to take action to recognize the union’s national officers who were elected by an overwhelming vote in July. Instead, it issued arrest warrants against General Secretary Martin Esparza and another national leader, along with their legal counsel, based on spurious charges regarding actions occurring two years earlier [the charges relate to an attempt by the SME to withdraw money from its own bank account, as authorized by a judge, after it had been frozen by government authorities].

A magazine published by the United Electrical Workers union in the U.S. and other Mexican and international labor activists also weighed in earlier this summer:

The country is going through a disastrous situation. The imperialist pillaging and exploitation which the country suffers has grown to levels that are leading to a national catastrophe … At the moment, poverty affects 70 percent of the national population. Life in the indigenous communities and in the slums surrounding the cities is hell. Meanwhile, the oligarchs accumulate incredible riches through the exploitation of workers and the sacking of the national resources and public and social property.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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