A New United Movement Stops Mexico for a Day

The recent financial crisis has only intensified the already acute post-NAFTA woes of Mexican workers. Last month, the government’s firing of 44,000 electricity workers, members of the county’s most combative and independent union, SME (Mexican Electrical Union), became catalyst for a movement of people deeply angry at both an unfair economic system, and towards a president who, most studies admit, used fraud to win the elections in 2006.

In the many metro stations of giant Mexico city, amidst the ugly smell of Pizza Hut and the newspapers vendors yelling out, “Gráfico! 3 pesos!”, youth crowd around the hand written posters recruiting for the national police daily. At 12,000 pesos (US$1000) per month, and with increasing unemployment and harder prospects for the country’s youth, the offer is very tempting.

Since the US-Mexico trade agreement, NAFTA, the number of Mexicans illegally crossing the border into the US seeking employment has risen to 500,000 a year. Add to this the financial crisis (Mexicans repeat to me “When the U.S sneezes Mexico gets pneumonia”) and Mexican president Calderon’s measures to handle the crisis, which consist in a “fiscal package” of an increased consumption tax including food and medicine, new communication taxes and decreased government spending. Then add the fact that the minium wage in Mexico today buys a third of what it bought twenty years ago, and you can see how the government’s firing of 44,000 electricity workers, members of the county’s most combative and independent union, SME (Mexican Electrical Union), became catalyst for a movement of people deeply angry at both an unfair economic system, and towards a president who, most studies admit, used fraud to win the elections in 2006.

The electricity workers were fired on October 10th. On October 16th, around 500,000 people marched in the capital in protest. One month after the firing the people’s anger still had not cooled, and on November 11th there were again massive marches, road blocks, full strikes and partial strikes all across the country.

The Assembly

ImageThe decision to strike was taken on November 5th, in a massive meeting of the newly formed National Assembly of Popular Resistance. This is a convergence made up of around 400 unions, student, rural workers, and indigenous movements, women and gay rights organisations and left and revolutionary political parties from across the country.

The meeting was meant to start at 5, but at quarter to, the hall was already full and the streets outside where loud speakers were setup were also starting to fill up and block traffic. The chair was already welcoming each group, “Comrades from the teachers union, welcome. Compañeros of the Socialist Front, welcome,” and so on. It took about 25 minutes to welcome everyone.

There was an atmosphere of excitement, support and solidarity. In fact “support” (“This support really is seen!”) was the chant of the day as speaker after speaker from various unions declared that their union would also march and strike on November 11th, and, for four hours running, each organization declared that they would contribute to the campaign, hold their own assemblies, print leaflets, rally and march in the lead up to the strike. After and during each speaker, the audience stood tirelessly, waving their fists in the air and chanting.

On the few occasions when unions declared their support in the march, but said they would but not strike, everyone stood up and demanded, “Strike! Strike! Strike!”

The speaker from the telephone union detailed the union’s donations of food to the fired workers, while the left parliamentary party, Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) spokeswoman, a legislator, said the PRD had agreed to support all the SME’s decisions and to promote any marches, and handed over a cheque for 154,000 pesos (US $11,700).

University students promised to 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 organise the people of Mexico…We create the wealth, and they socialise the losses… we pay to import what the Gringos (U.S) don’t want.”

Image“They’re after our collective contracts and our unions,” he concluded, talking of inequality, the need for dignity and for organization.

With more chants of “It’s a struggle of all workers of this country”, “Here the workers’ movement is forming”, “Give me an S, M, E…what does it spell…SME! SME! SME!” and “Unions united will never be defeated!”, the meeting concluded with a vote to strike on November 11th and to allow the SME to form a temporary organizing committee of movement representatives to coordinate the strike plans and campaign.

The Campaign

It was an intense week of campaigning. The next morning, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) students had already put large stickers for the strike all over the insides of the trains, and there were hand painted banners in most faculties of the university, calling for assemblies and covering the walls with virtual articles on what had really happened to the SME workers.

Many workplaces held their own assemblies and even high school and primary school students marched 10 kilometres on 8 November, placards such as ‘Don’t steal my future”. SME workers marched in the thousands in the centre of the capital on 9 and 10 November.

The March

The long anticipated November 11th march was due to leave at 4 PM, but when I arrived at 2.30, and already there were thousands of people. Many were taking a snooze on their banners, while others were sitting on curbs reading the news. One group was spray painting a huge SME logo on the road, joking about needing Whiteout to fix their mistakes, and chanting when they finished it.

ImageThe street vendors, which really make up an ever growing army of their own in Mexico as the unemployed look for alternative ways to stay alive, sold 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!”

one street vendor, Octavio Manzera,  wasn’t working that day. “I’m supporting the movement; I think it’s a just struggle. The government is acting in an unconstitutional way, violating the laws and constitution of Mexico, for commercial reasons and in order to privatise," Manzera said.

Bernando Mejia, a young worker, said “I’m here to support the Mexican people, I’m one of those who doesn’t support the government we have here.”

“I’m here to support the union,” said Ana Laura Flores, a self-described “wife of a worker.”

“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. Ruiz was eager to say much more, but the march had already started to leave.

Marchers chanted “If there’s no solution there’ll be revolution!” and “From north to south, east to west, we’ll take on this struggle, no matter what it costs!”, while others sang, and some stuck flags in the arms of the various metal statues that line the wide main avenue.

ImageAn hour later, we arrived at Mexico City’s huge Zócalo plaza, filling it, squashed together 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. Members of this march kept arriving for another two hours, while marches from six other locations also continued to arrive.

One of Many

Organizers estimated that 200,000 people participated in the march, while the newspaper La Jornada reported that police estimated 60,000. However, the march in Mexico City was just one of many, with large marches taking place across the country and in outer suburbs, and workers and movement members blocking roads from 6 in the morning.

University students closed off the roads leading to TV Azteca, one of the most right wing TV stations in the country, and there was also a protest by “the Other Campaign” in front of the US embassy. Universities went on strike, and students and teachers joined the march after their own protest on campus. The telephone and judicial power unions also went on strike, and some shops had signs saying they were turning off their lights or electricity in solidarity, while many shops were simply closed. Miners sent a contingent to the main march and held other marches in seven of the main mining cities and towns, and the National Organisation of Administrative, Manual and Technical Workers of National Anthropology and History Institute organized partial blockades of museums and archaeological zones of the country.

La Jornada reports 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, on Thursday, Esparza told the press that they had been detained incommunicado and some had been beaten.

The Zócalo

Standing, listening to the speakers in the Zócalo, with my feet at unnatural angles in the little ground space available, a man in a mask shared his mandarin with me, and everyone around me listened with good humour and concentration to the speakers. A group wedged their way in front of us with a large plastic SME banner tied to ladders.

“Lower the banner! We can’t see!” yelled out the crowd around and behind me. The banner holders did, and the crowd called out, “Thanks compañeros!”

ImageMeanwhile, the students to my left were having a ball chanting vehemently, laughing and smiling and jumping up and down and sharing bags of apples.

By 7:30, it was dark and freezing, and I watched the end of the march arrive. In it came a group with drums, a dancer and a violinist. Someone in the plaza set off fireworks and the palace was lit up. The smell of roasted corn rose above the milling people as they drummed and sang, some with large paper mache masks of politicians. A group of chanters defied their audibly sore voices, and a truck with music arrived, then more drums.

Covered and Uncovered

The next day, Mexican mainstream media chose to highlight an incident involving tear gas, with headlines of “Violence” and “Chaos.” The Excelsior headlined with “Patience tested,” and its biggest photo was of the tear gas. It bemoaned “children left without classes” and naively stated: “We can’t see what Chiapas is protesting about; SME has nothing to do with them.”

ImageWhat the media did not want to talk about was a new solidarity that has formed, and how the movement has gone well beyond a labour conflict, with much more youth participating than during the protests against the electoral fraud of 2006.

An SME leader (who prefers to be described as a member), 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 until now,” Hernandez said, “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.”