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Electric Workers of Mexico Take on Calderon


 Interview by Tamara Pearson 

I met Jose Hernandez, a leader of the Mexican Union of Electricity workers (SME) at a metro station called Obrera (Worker), unsurprisingly located in a working class area of Mexico city, and from there we walked back to his house.

"I’m very tired, I’m exhausted," he said, smiling, as he made me tea. "I haven’t stopped for days."

What follows is his account of the recent events in his union and the electricity company Luz y Fuerza, after 6000 federal police and soldiers occupied it on 10 October. President Felipe Calderon then liquidated the company and its union, the SME, leaving 44,000 workers unemployed. 

"Let me start by giving you a bit of background to it all. In the first place, in Mexico, we have an ultra-right national government. Formally its considered Christian democratic, but its lead by the extreme right group, el Yunque. This group is anti-communist and well linked to the right wing groups of the Catholic Church. They’re committed to the privatisation of the energy sector, of electricity and oil and last year they wanted to pass reforms to privatise the oil, but they didn’t achieve it because of a large national mobilisation."  

"These mobilisations were lead by  Manuel Obrador, who’s a leader of the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) and from the most nationalist and progressive section of this party. He also ran in the 2006 elections, in which all most all studies say there was fraud. Calderon won by 0.56%. Despite large mobilisations we couldn’t overturn the fraud." 

"So this right wing government aims to deepen what they call the structural reforms, reform the work law to allow for flexibility of the working day, for unstable work, for sub-contracted labour, and the biggest obstacle to be able to pass these reforms is the SME." 

The SME is one of the most important unions in Mexico 

"Yes, the SME has existed for 95 years, it has been characterised by its combative and democratic nature and for being independent of the government. This is special because most unions here are very linked to the government and corrupt, the leaders are bought by the state and the companies, the majority really are gangsters."

"The SME won the right to retirement, for the first time here in Mexico, in 1936, through strikes, so we’re talking about the most important strengthening of the working class." 

"The company Luz y Fuerza, where we work, is a company that supplies the centre part of the country – the capital city and half of four different states, which is the most important industrial part of the country and with 6 million customers. The other electric company, CFE works with the union, SUTERM… well this union is undemocratic, its leadership that is, though there is dissidence in its ranks. CFE produces 95% of Mexico‘s electricity, of which 45% is bought by private companies." 

So why and how is the government targeting Luz y Fuerza? 

"The government has been trying to destroy the SME for 20 years, they’ve been investing in the CFE, in modernising it, and not in Luz y Fuerza. So now Luz y Fuerza seems like an inefficient company and its equipment is ancient and it needs a lot of maintenance to work. The government effectively took away its ability to generate electricity, and now it’s buying 98% of it its electricity from CFE." 

"And the government designed a system of accounting to make it seem like Luz y Fuerza was going bankrupt." 

Here Hernandez explained how CFE was selling electricity to transnational companies and to Luz y Fuerza at a profit price, and then how the national government was obliging Luz y Fuerza to then sell that electricity at a lower price, that is, at a loss, to other companies and domestic consumers. 

"So the more it sells, the more it loses… its absurd, one government company selling to another… and then the government says it has to subsidise Luz y Fuerza with a lot of money, and it tells everyone its to pay the so called high salaries of the workers and the retirement payments, which is not true, our salary represents a bit less than one third of those subsidies, really the subsidies are for the big companies and for the domestic consumers." 

"Another reason why the government wants to privatise Luz y Fuerza and destroy our union is because of the possibility of further profit. With the new technology the power lines and cables can also be used to transmit images, voice, and information- that is, television, internet and phone. It’s a bigger business than electricity. The union has proposed that Luz y Fuerza provide those services, without any concessions to private companies, which is what the government wants." 

"It shows the irrationality of capitalism, these things could be provided free to society, but they want to privatise it all to make money." 

"The government, to destroy the SME, passed a decree so that Luz y Fuerza would disappear, arguing it was inefficient and very expensive. But the decree is unconstitutional, it violates the federal work law. Why? Because Luz y Fuerza was created by the legislative power and the government can’t override that, and the government really doesn’t have the right to just destroy companies in a unilateral way."  

"Also, under the Mexican work law the new company must re-hire the workers who have lost their job, with the same union and the same collective agreement." 

"So the government is violating the law. It’s a declaration of war against the working class." 

How has the SME responded to all this? 

"The first thing we did in response was to mobilise; on 16 October there were nearly 500,000 people; unionists from various unions, students, Obrador’s movement, farmers- that is, the people mobilised, and despite the huge media campaign attacking the SME, saying we are corrupt, we’re lazy." 

"And in the legal terrain, we’ve been fighting as well, seeking legal protection before the actions of the government." 

What effect have these events and mobilisations had on left unity? 

"On 24 October the National Assembly of Popular Resistance was created, representing all the democratic unions and social movements. There aren’t many democratic unions, but they are still very important. There’s the telephone union for example, and the teachers. The teacher’s union has about 1.2 million members, but a good 400,000 of these are dissidents that are supporting us. And in the assembly there are also students, farmers, miners, metal workers." 

"On 5 November we’re having another big assembly, and there we’ll choose the date for the national strike that we want to carry out, that we’re proposing for the 11, 12 or 13 November. It’ll be the first of its kind in the country for almost 100 years, since during the revolution we gained a lot of rights, but over time we’ve been losing these rights." 

"So our struggle has become a catalyst for the enormous social discontent that there is and this strike will be very important. It will put the current federal government in doubt." 

"Also, some of the radical sectors- the Zapatistas and some anarchists, have generally criticised Obrador as being bourgeois, they attack him during elections, and become isolated, but now these sectors can’t explain why he’s supporting us. Obrador’s role is important, he brings a lot of people to the protests and he’s committed to the upcoming national strike." 

Have you received much solidarity? 

Well we’ve been without work for three weeks now, three weeks without pay.  We’ve received economic support and food and a lot of messages of solidarity from around the world. But we need more solidarity, we need protests in front of Mexican embassies, demanding the government respect union freedom and stop destroying unions and collective contracts.

 – 

The next day I was invited to attend an SME assembly. The meeting was due to start at 5, and by 5 the hall, which normally fits 1,500 people, was filled, with union members in the aisles, squashed in the door ways and outside the doors, leaning on the stage, and even packed onto the stage. Outside, hundreds more crowded outside, to listen to the meeting though loud speakers. Many had placards, and the walls were covered with hand written signs slamming Calderon and motivating the struggle.

The meeting itself showed just how democratic and determined the union is. After a vigorous singing of the union anthem there was a moment of silence for any members who have died (since the meeting took place on day of the dead), followed by a reading of the list of representatives, without which the meeting would not have legal validity, then various union secretaries reported on events they have organised, income and expenses, other union support, the court case to overturn the government’s decree, and a detailed plan of action with multiple events each day to build the new resistance movement and to achieve their demands.

The union is organising a newspaper, called Resistance, is organising various film showings, a signature campaign, meetings with intellectuals and artists, among other things.

Through out the meeting members chanted "Here you see the power of SME", and "The support can be seen" and "Unity is essential for victory". At one point, chanting started outside in the street, it was heard in the hall, and taken up with vigour, unionists standing up and waving their fists in the air. Despite the fact that all the union members are currently out of work, there was the definite sense that they are ready and excited to fight this out in the long term, and that they see their struggle as part of something much larger, as part of a general struggle against the right wing government and for affordable basic services.

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