On Friday December 4, 2009, tens of thousands of laid-off Mexican electrical workers and their supporters again took to the streets of the capital to protest the Mexican government’s sudden liquidation of the government-owned Central Light and Power Company (Luz y Fuerza Central) the night of Oct. 10 and the government’s interference with the union Sindicato Mexicano de Electrisistas (SME). http://cupe.ca/privatization-watch-november-2009/privatization-force-unions-Calderón. The Calderón government claims it took the step because the company was inefficient and losing money; opponents say the government is seeking to privatize the LFC and to break the powerful independent Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) which represented the company’s 44,000 active employees and 22,000 retirees.
At the December 4, 2009 rally, the SME announced that the Mexican government has finally agreed to negotiations through a team of mediators approved by the union.
Also on Friday, the Mexican government announced it would extend health care benefits to all of the laid-off workers for a year. Prior to the announcement only those who agreed to sign individual contracts with the government accepting their termination were offered medical care for a year, part of an enhanced severance package. Those members of SME who continue to resist the government’s attempts to divide and weaken the union were having their medical benefits cut off after the legal minimum of eight weeks, even though they have not received any severance pay.
Members of a Canadian and American union delegation to Mexico last week raised the basic unfairness of this policy in a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Services on their last evening in Mexico City.
The Canadian members of the joint CLC/AFL-CIO delegation to Mexico City from November 30, 2009 to December 3, 2009, were: Hassan Yussuf and Sheila Katz from the CLC; Barb Dolan from CEP; Paul Turtle from the USW as well as Shelly Gordon, CUPE Research Representative. Carl Wood of the Utility Workers’ Union, who has spoken in Canada defending public power, and Dan Kovalik from USWA joined Stanley Gacek from the International Affairs department of the AFL-CIO. Andrew Dinkelaker from the UE also joined the delegation.
The Mexican government has interfered with the SME since last summer, refusing to recognize the outcome of a leadership election and freezing the union’s assets. Martín Esparza, the incumbent, won the election for Secretary General by a small margin over the former treasurer of the union, who is now cooperating with the government. On December 2 the Minister of Labour and Social Services declared the election null. The Union has challenged the government’s authority in court. The only other union to be obstructed in this way is the Miners’ Union, another militant and democratic union critical of the Mexican government.
The SME has opposed privatization of electricity in Mexico. Recently the SME has been fighting to keep the fiber optic cable that has been laid in Mexico City in public hands, campaigning for a “triple play” - offering internet, telephone and cable services over the public lines in the public interest. For CUPE it seemed like “back to the future”, predicting and mirroring the conflict of interests over public and private power and communications in Canada. A notable Mexican constitutional lawyer has launched a court challenge contesting President Calderón’s authority to dissolve a public electrical utility.
Over time SME has been particularly successful in fighting off contracting out of their work. Laid off employees from Luz y Fuerza are now being offered training and assistance by the government to set themselves up as independent contractors who, if they are chosen, will be able to work for the other utility, the Federal Commission of Electricity, without any job security, benefits or pension.
The union delegation from Canada and the U.S. was enormously impressed and inspired by the organization, solidarity and strength of the members of SME. In downtown Mexico City women who represent the administrative and clerical workers have set up an encampment right on the front terrace of the Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE) building, the other Mexican utility who has been handed all of the assets of Luz y Fuerza. Eleven of the women SME members are on a hunger strike. They have plastered the front windows of the CFE building with their own posters and with messages of support. They have even hung a Luz y Fuerza banner over the main CFE sign two stories above the street. Members of the Canadian and American union delegation expressed their support for the women at a rally at their encampment and left messages of support to put up on the windows.
Other SME members have set up an encampment at the front gate of the Mexican Congress. Again there are hunger strikers and always hundreds of supporters chanting the strength of SME. Wherever the union has set up a protest or picket there are dozens of hand-painted banners, posters, effigies, cartoons and artistic installations. Both camps are surrounded by lines strung with “money bags” festooned with “rats”.
Picket lines at various Luz y Fuerza installations are keeping the equipment in with the armed police and soldiers who have taken over the offices, plants and sub-stations, stopping the government from stripping the company’s assets until it has settled with the union. At the same time, picketers and protesters have started to raise money for themselves and their union through car washes, electrical and plumbing jobs, cooking hot lunches at a sidewalk stand, selling miniature Christmas trees that commemorate World Aids Day and even asking for cash donations from people going in and out of Congress. Allies (unions and peasant groups) drop off food donations of beans, rice and massa.
The CLC/AFL-CIO union delegation met with constitutional and labour lawyers who filled in information about Mexican laws and explained the SME cases in front of the courts. At a press conference the leaders of the CLC/ALF-CIO delegation announced their intention to file a joint complaint against Mexico’s violation of its own labour laws under the NAFTA side agreement on labour rights - the NALC. Both labour centrals will campaign against the weakness of NALC when it comes up for review by all three ministers of labour next spring.
Solidarity greetings and commitments were exchanged between the Canadian/U.S. delegation and supporters of the SME in the Mexican congress, largely members of the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), as well as leaders of allied unions, the STRM (Telephone Workers) and SNTMMSRM (Miners). Later the delegates met with officials from both the Canadian and U.S. embassies to convey the union’s side of the story and impress upon them that the unions in all three countries will be opposing trade agreements with Mexico as long as it continues to break its own labour and human rights laws. How can it claim a commitment to ensure that Mexican companies will respect human and labour rights when the government itself does not?
The CLC will be asking each of the unions who participated in the delegation to assist the SME financially in the short term, and all will be planning more solidarity in the weeks ahead.
Shelly Gordon is a CUPE national research representative working in Ontario.