The Mexican Electricians Union, locked in a struggle with the government of right-wing President Felipe Calderon for the past year, now has to take up the cause of one of its own officials, jailed without bail last week in the central state of Puebla.
Miguel Marquez Rios, a member of the national leadership of the union, is being prosecuted on the basis of civil disobedience actions in which he and other union members allegedly participated in a March sit in protest at three electrical installations in Nexcala, Puebla. Marquez is accused of "deprivation of liberty" because employees of the Federal Electrical Commission and federal police who were impeded from leaving.
He is also accused of damage to property and of interfering with the generation of electricity.
The incident in Nexcala is part of a long struggle between the electricians on the one hand and the Calderon government and its agencies, including the electrical commission, on the other. The Electricians Union (SME) is an independent union, which historically has been an organizing center for the Mexican left.
In October 2009, the Mexican government forcefully seized all installations of the SME's employer, Luz y Fuerza del Centro, handed them over to the Federal Electrical Commission, and declared the SME's labor contract to be cancelled and the union leadership to be deposed. Since Luz y Fuerza was the only employer of SME workers, this would destroy the union.
Both the Federal Electrical Commission and Luz y Fuerza del Centro are autonomous publicly run enterprises, but the union at the federal agency is conservative and has faced many accusations of corruption.
The SME and its allies in the Mexican political left accuse the government of making the change so as to be able to set up crooked fiber optic deals with TELEVISA, a telecommunications company that has strong links to the political elite, and other foreign and Mexican companies.
Of the original 44,000 active SME employees, 16,000 have refused to accept severance and have continued the struggle.
The government orchestrated a vicious propaganda campaign against the SME, accusing them of being to blame for poor service and high electric rates. But electrical rates under federal management have risen sharply, while service complaints have skyrocketed as the federal commission has brought in inexperienced subcontractors to do the work formerly done by unionized SME members. So the SME is now working with other organizations to organize electrical service consumers, and is suggesting tactics such as refusing to pay electrical bills and making it hard for agents to read their meters.
During the summer, several electrician union members carried out a hunger strike in the central plaza (Zocalo) of Mexico City. They stopped the strike when the newly appointed interior minister, Francisco Blake Mora, agreed to negotiations. However the electricians charge Calderon's secretary of labor, Javier Lozano Alarcon, of trying to torpedo any negotiated agreement, including a proposal by SME that the Federal Electrical Commission hire the remaining SME members.
Currently, the demand is for a new public entity to be created to provide electrical services for Mexico City and the central part of the country, areas formerly served by Luz y Fuerza del Centro.
Major demonstrations of unionists and consumers are being organized for November. The SME is getting support in this from other independent unions such as telephone and streetcar workers, as well as consumers and community organizations
This is the context in which the delayed-action arrest of Marquez has taken place.
On Sunday, October 24, the SME released a statement which runs in part:
"The Mexican Electricians Union demands the immediate freeing of Miguel Marquez, secretary for divisions of the Central Committee of this organization, [who was] arrested without an arrest warrant and with much violence, in an operation including military and police, in the area of San Martin Texmelucan, Puebla.
"The unionist was returning from delivering a petition to the Puebla legislature which asked to create a public decentralized entity to [provide] electrical service for Central Mexico."