Mexican electricians receive U.S. labor solidarity

A growing list of U.S. labor unions is expressing their solidarity with workers of the electric company that serves central Mexico, which is facing repression from the government. 

Over the last two weeks, right-wing President of Mexico Felipe Calderon launched a two pronged attack on the electricians union. Called SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, Mexican Electricians’ Union), the Mexican Secretary of Labor, Javier Lozano Alarcon, refused to officially recognize the July re-election of SME Secretary General Martin Esparza Flores, and other union leaders.

Then around midnight on October 10 and 11, riot equipped federal police invaded the generating stations and other facilities of Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Central Light and Power), which serves Mexico City and a swathe of Central Mexico, and whose employees are represented by SME. Luz y Fuerza, a government run electrical utility, was declared dissolved by a decree issued by President Calderon, all its workers fired, and control of the company handed over to another government run company, CFE.   In effect, this cancels SME’s collective bargaining contracts and practically disbands the union.

CFE workers are represented by SUTERM, considered one of the most corrupt and least independent unions in Mexico, while SME has been an independent force in Mexican labor and society for many decades, and has been at the center of Mexican popular resistance against “free trade,” privatization and other neo-liberal measures which have characterized successive Mexico’s presidential administrations since 1982.

SME and its allies are not taking this lying down.  Large scale demonstrations have continued since the weekend. SME leader Esparza has demanded legislative hearings on the Calderon coup, and has been supported in this by the left in Mexico’s parliament.  However, Calderon’s right wing National Action Party (PAN) and the formerly ruling PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) with allies together control a majority of seats in the lower house, and they will not support the SME.  So the struggle goes to the streets, where SME is supported by left forces.

The government launched an anti-SME propaganda offensive based on suggestions that the relatively high salaries and benefits of the SME members are the cause of high electrical rates, and the reason the government has been forced to subsidize Luz y Fuerza with lots of taxpayer money.  SME leader Esparza replied that a large number of powerful institutions have not being paying their electrical bills, including Calderon’s presidential palace, Los Pinos.  The union also accuses the government of forcing fired SME members to come and do their old jobs “at gunpoint”.  There have also been scattered reports of local blackouts.

SME claims that the anti-union and anti-Luz y Fuerza moves are part of a privatization scheme, in which the fiber optic dimensions of the company’s operations especially, are seen as juicy plums to be picked up by politically connected private companies. SME has put out a call for international solidarity with its embattled members. 

U.S. labor is quickly stepping into the fray. Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers Union, issued a strong statement, which read in part, “The actions of the Mexican government in using federal forces to take over the public utility and thereby effectively disbanding their union is an outrageous act of union busting….it is similar to actions taken against the Miners’ union and provides further evidence of the government’s anti-union, anti-worker agenda and its scorched earth policy against democratic and independent unions”.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Robert McEllrath wrote, “I write to protest the Federal Police occupation of the electrical plants, the liquidation of the [Central] Light and Power Company, the firing of 45,000 workers, and the destruction of their union. This action is a violation of labor rights, of human rights and a disgrace to your government”. McEllrath went on to demand the reversal of the government’s action.

The AFL-CIO, in a statement, summed up the view of U.S. organized labor. “On behalf of the 11 million working men and women of the United States, the AFL-CIO condemns this unilateral action by the Mexican authorities, which effectively destroys the SME and the trade union rights of the Luz y Fuerza workers.”  The statement demands the reversal of Calderon’s actions.

Photo: Labor Notes