Is Mexico on the verge of a general strike?
A standoff between the Mexican government and an electrical workers’ union, all 44,000 of whose members were fired on Saturday , Oct. 11, when federal police burst into the facilities, could soon lead to the first
serious attempt at a general strike in the country since 1916. The union, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME), represents workers in the industry in Mexico City and five surrounding states. Technically, what the government did was to abolish the state utility that served the same region
(Luz y Fuerza del Centro-LF y C), fold it into a larger state electric
utility that serves the rest of the country, and declare that those jobs don’t exist any more. The president, Felipe Calderón, and his secretary of labor, Javier Lozano, announced that the fired workers would be eligible for large severance packages, equivalent to two year’s wages, if they acted rapidly. Workers who went to collect the severance packages report that the payoffs were much lower than promised and that the offer to be hired by the firm that took over their work area has not materialized, either. “And we won’t find work anywhere else, either,” workers say, “when the government and the mass media dedicate so much time to calling us corrupt and thuggish.”
The government responded to this predicament by offering vouchers good for English classes, which supposedly would make the workers more employable.
At one demonstration, a worker responded to this offer on his protest sign: “Ya sé inglés, motherf*#%er.”
The government alleged that the union contract was too expensive (though the same government negotiated and signed the contract), that the union was
corrupt, and, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black,
Calderón alleged that a recent union election had been plagued by fraud. Government officials called SME members “privileged” because they earn $540 to $900 a month. The SME is considered by others to be one of the few
unions in Mexico that is not controlled by and submissive to the government.
The alleged high costs of Luz y Fuerza were apparently due largely to the huge subsidies to consumers. (Customers have, until now, paid about $5 a month for the electricity used in a small apartment.)
That corruption in unions and in government in Mexico is undeniable; that the SME stands out in terms of corruption is laughable; the leader of the teacher’s union, intimately linked to (and perhaps more powerful than) Calderón, lives in a $2 million house in San Diego.
The union is taking the approach of street action combined with legal action. It has already won an injunction preventing the dissolution of Luz y Fuerza, but the government, like good law and order advocates everywhere, pretends not to notice legal orders that aren’t in its favor.
The SME called a mass assembly of workers and supporters the day after the government’s action. In spite of the short notice, the auditorium and nearby streets were full of people who had arrived from faraway states like Oaxaca and Guerrero, people whose causes the SME has supported over the years. The crowd called for a general strike. The orators formed a consensus around three demands: the overturning of the shutdown action, the repeal of a recent package of regressive federal tax increases, and the resignation of Calderón. Martín Esparza, the secretary general of the union, discreetly removed (for now) the last demand when he recapitulated the day’s agreements and announced a mass march for the following Thursday. That march drew about 500,000 people. Four hours after it started, the final contingents, which included former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, were more than a mile from the destination, unable to move because there were so many people.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 11 (a month after the takeover), another march was held, this time in conjunction with a paro nacional, a one-day strike of sorts. The turnout was apparently lower, except that the march was one of several events that day. These events have a “las cucarachas pueden entrar pero no pueden salir” (“the cockroaches can get in but they can’t get out”) effect, as many people leave work early or don’t go to work because they believe getting home will be impossible.
Thus, although far from a majority of the population participates directly in these actions, almost everyone feels the effects, with the exception of those who don’t leave their neighborhoods all day. The network of independent unions who generally can be counted on to participate in these activities includes the telephone workers, the trolley operators, the public university unions in Mexico City (teachers and other workers), and dissident elementary and secondary teachers in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Zacatecas and Puebla.
A new mass assembly was held this past Friday, Nov. 20, the 99th
anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Esparza and other leaders had announced plans for a general strike at the end of November, but the new plans call for a “symbolic takeover “ of Mexico City on Dec. 4. Campesino groups explained how they would arrive by highway in intentionally slow caravans to all the entrances to the city, tying up commuter traffic. Union representatives from the United States and Canada are expected to arrive and the SME asks sympathetic unions and activists in all countries to organize demonstrations at Mexican embassies (or consulates, like the one in St. Paul).
Plans were also finalized for a hunger strike that began on Tuesday, Nov. 24, in the Zócalo (central plaza) and other locations. Participants include electrical workers, their families and the journalist Jaime Avilés.
Could this spill over into a mass movement that topples Calderón’s right-wing regime? It has happened in recent years in Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia. In Argentina, people finally became so fed up with neoliberal presidents De la Rúa and Menem that they spent the Christmas season in the streets, forcing the former to flee by helicopter. Subsequent presidents of Argentina, while not necessarily leftists, have stopped debt payments to the International Monetary Fund and have, recently, succeeded in passing a far-reaching media reform law that breaks monopoly concentrations and creates a media ownership formula that divides media outlets evenly among prívate companies, government and nonprofit organizations.
Mexico is a more Christian country than Argentina, and it won’t be possible to do all this during December. The union and its supporters must keep the
issue alive with smaller, attention-getting actions until January.
At the Nov. 20 rally, it was announced that Harvard historian John Womack, author of the definitive book about the revolutionary forces centered around Emiliano Zapata, was in town to receive an award. He dedicated the award to the SME, saying that the union was founded in 1914, when Zapata, Villa and their armies controlled Mexico City, and that the links between the SME and the original Zapatistas were very close. With Calderón limiting himself to claims that prosperity is just around the corner as thousands of people join the ranks of the unemployed every month, and with Mexicans’ heightened awareness of anniversaries, 2010 looks to be a crucial year for the country’s future.