On October 10, 44,000 electricity workers in Mexico, members of the county’s most combative and independent union, SME (Mexican Electrical Union), were fired. The layoff became a catalyst for a movement deeply angry at both an unfair economic system and towards a president, Calderón, who used fraud to win the elections in 2006. On October 16, around 500,000 people marched in the capital in protest. On November 11, there were massive marches, road blocks, and strikes all across the country.
The November 5 decision to strike was taken at a massive meeting of the newly formed National Assembly of Popular Resistance, made up of around 400 unions, students, rural workers, indigenous groups, women’s and gay rights organizations, and left and revolutionary political parties from across the country.
The meeting was meant to start at 5:00 PM, but at 4:45 the hall was already full and the streets outside were starting to fill up and block traffic. There was an atmosphere of excitement, support, and solidarity. In fact, "support" was the chant of the day as speakers from various unions declared that their union would march and strike. Each organization described how it would contribute to the campaign, how it would hold its own assemblies and print leaflets and hold rallies and marches in the lead up to the strike. On the few occasions when unions declared they would march, but not strike, everyone stood up and demanded, "Strike! Strike! Strike!"
The speaker from the telephone union detailed how they had donated food to the fired workers. The left parliamentary Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) spokesperson said the PRD had agreed to support all the SME decisions, and then donated 154,000 pesos ($11,700).
University students said they would organize a range of political-cultural events and an "information week" to counter all the misinformation in the mainstream media, while a rural worker said the SME demands were their demands, but that they would also add the demand for food sovereignty. Even the association of retired people had a detailed and ambitious schedule of action to prepare for the national strike.
Martin Esparza, general secretary of the SME, was the last speaker. He told the meeting, "With this movement we’re going to define what kind of country we want…. We have to advance and organize the people of Mexico…. We create the wealth and they socialize the losses…. We pay to import what the gringos don’t want…. They’re after our collective contracts and our unions," he concluded, talking of inequality, the need for dignity, and for organization.
The next morning, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) students had already put large stickers calling for the strike all over the insides of the trains and there were banners in most faculties of the university calling for assemblies. The walls were covered with virtual articles on what had really happened to the SME workers.
According to a union statement, "On the night of October 11, 6,000 soldiers and militarized police took over the offices of Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC), the state-owned corporation that provides power to Mexico City and some states in Central Mexico; the entity was liquidated by an executive order issued by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón. With the closure, 44,000 employers lost their jobs and 12,000 retired workers saw their pensions disappear…. The company was shut down to destroy its union…one of the most militant…which has been fighting against government attempts to privatize the energy industry."
Many workplaces held their own assemblies. High school and primary school students marched 10 kilometers on November 8, carrying placards such as "Don’t steal my future." SME workers marched in the thousands in the capital on November 9 and 10.
11-11 march to Zocálo—photo by Pearson
The long anticipated march of November 11 was due to leave at 4:00 PM, but by 2:30 there were already thousands of people gathered.
The street vendors, which make up a growing army—as the unemployed look for alternative ways to stay alive—were selling corn, chips, and nuts from carts with posters for the strike taped all over them. When the march left, they pushed their carts along with it. One woman with an SME bandana and placard alternated between joining the chanting of the march and calling out, "Two gum packets for 5 pesos."
"I’m here to support the Mexican people. I’m one of those who doesn’t support the government we have here," said a young worker, Bernando Mejia. "I’m here to support the union," said Ana Laura Flores, a "wife of a worker" as she described herself. "I’m supporting the SME. I’m here for the solidarity more than anything," said university student Omar Vazquez.
"I’m an SME worker. I’m an electrical engineer and I was unjustly fired. This government is a sham. It’s a government of thieves. They took our jobs unconstitutionally, violating our rights as workers and as humans," said Omar Ruiz.
An hour later, the march arrived at the huge Zocálo plaza, filling it to the point where an interesting system of lines of humans with hands on shoulders formed in order for people to move through the crowd. The march kept arriving for another two hours, while marches from six other locations also continued to arrive.
Organizers estimated that 200,000 people participated in the march, while La Jornada reported police estimates of 60,000. But that march was just one of many, with large marches taking place across the country and in outer suburbs, while workers and movement members blocked roads from 6:00 AM onwards.
University students closed off the roads leading to TV Azteca, one of the most right-wing TV stations in the country. There was a protest by the Zapatista organized "Other Campaign" in front of the U.S. embassy. Universities went on strike and students and teachers joined the march after their own protest on campus. The telephone unions went on strike. Some shops had signs saying they were turning off their electricity in solidarity, while many shops were closed. Miners sent a contingent to the main march and held other marches in seven of the main mining cities and towns. The National Organization of Administrative, Manual and Technical Workers of the National Anthropology and History Institute organized partial blockades of museums and archaeological zones around the country. La Jornada reported that 14 toll booth points were also taken over.
At one road block, on a main road to Puebla, one of the closest cities to the capital, national police dispersed the blockade with tear gas. La Jornada reported four injured protestors and three police. Eleven protestors were arrested and detained; some had been beaten. Mexican mainstream media the next day chose to highlight the tear gas incident with headlines of "Violence" and "Chaos." The Excelsior headlined "Patience Tested," and its biggest photo was of the tear gas. It talked about "children left without classes" and how "we can’t see what Chiapas is protesting about, SME has nothing to do with them."
11-11 marchers in Mexico—photo by Pearson
What the media did not want to talk about was a new solidarity that has formed and how the movement has gone well beyond a labor conflict, with many more youth participating than during the protests against the electoral fraud of 2006. An SME leader, Jose Hernandez, told me the mobilization was much bigger than any previous ones, but that it was less apparent as it was spread out in various places and times. "Up till now, we’ve heard of 16 marches in other states and just in the state of Michoacan for example, 11,000 schools went on strike, as well all the higher education institutions…. It’s also necessary to consider the amount of disorganization and domination which the large part of the Mexican working class has found itself in. What happened today signifies, without any doubt, a leap in the consciousness of the Mexican working class. We need to be patient, but it seems to me that we’re on the threshold of qualitative change."
Tamara Pearson is an Australian activist and writer as well as a member of the Australian-Venezuela Solidarity Network. She currently lives in Venezuela.