The Soon-to-be Life and Death Story of the Mexican Electricians’ Union’s Fight for Survival

As of this writing, the hunger strikers camped out in Mexico City’s main plaza are up to Day 86 of their protest, and deteriorating health has led many of them to abandon the encampment. With little sign the government is interested in negotiating, it remains to be seen if the hunger strikers will get any resolution of their demands, or if one or more of them will die in their frustrated efforts.

As of this writing, the hunger strikers camped out in Mexico City’s main plaza are up to Day 86 of their protest, and deteriorating health has led many of them to abandon the encampment. With little sign the government is interested in negotiating, it remains to be seen if the hunger strikers will get any resolution of their demands, or if one or more of them will die in their frustrated efforts.

Their plight erupted October 11th, 2009; in the early morning hours after the match in which Mexico defeated El Salvador’s hopes of going to the world cup in South Africa, the majority of Mexicans were either still celebrating or fast asleep. At 12:10 a.m., the president of Mexico Felipe Calderon stealthily abolished “Luz y Fuerza de Mexico,” the state operated electrical utility that provided power to the central region of the country, including about 20% of the nation’s population. The military moved in and occupied electrical installations and expelled on-duty workers while most of the country was unaware.

The government claimed that union corruption and highly paid, inefficient unionized workers were responsible for low productivity rates of operations and high consumer prices, and launched a publicity campaign to discredit the workers, who were in fact the vanguard of Mexico’s labor movement. The truth is, four successive neoliberal presidents have forced Luz y Fuerza into bankruptcy through policies that have starved the company of investment and obliged it to purchase high-priced power from private producers, reselling it at a loss.

It is widely believed that corporate interests tied to the government are acquiring access to the rights over the fiber optics networks that had belonged to the Company, and that the true objective of the extinction of the company was to deprive the workers and the public of control over this enormous asset. Two ex-energy ministers in Vicente Fox’s government are now principal stockholders in WL Comunicaciones, a Mexican subsidiary of a Spanish firm staged to make a fortune with the fiber-optic network. Felipe Calderon incidentally is also a former minister of energy from the Fox government.

The secretary of labor, Javier Lozano, is closely implicated in the case as well; he was communications secretary in the governments of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo, and while in the past he proclaimed the fiber optical network to be a great boon to the country in terms of free access to universities, research institutes, hospitals and public schools, he no longer mentions public access and seems to have joined the lineup of government officials committed to the privatization of the resource. His staunch refusal to accredit Martin Esparza as leader of the SME union seems to be related to the conflict over the handing over of the fiber optic network to private hands of former government officials.

The Mexican Union of Electricians

Unlike most public-sector unionized workers in Mexico, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electricians’ Union, SME) is an independent union where elections of leaders are run within the union by rank and file members, and where the independent status of the leadership vis-à-vis the administration is legendary. In 2006, after the disputed presidential elections in which many analysts and experts refuted the official results, the SME earned Felipe Calderon’s unrequited enmity by coming out in support of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his campaign to overturn the tainted election results.

Historically, the union has been instrumental in the preservation of the Progressive Lazaro Cardenas government of the 1930’s which nationalized the petroleum industry: the workers backed Cardenas when reactionary forces threatened to undo his government and nationalization efforts.

The constitutional basis for the extinction of the publicly run corporation is shaky and the union has been following different avenues of legal recourse to have the decision overturned. However, they have had to deal with the intransigent Labor Secretary Lozano, who refuses to recognize the union’s re-elected president Martin Esparza, and instead declared the union elections invalid based on a complaint lodged by Esparza’s opponent, who is considered by many to have sold out to the government. By not accepting the election results the government has been able to refuse payment of union funds and salaries, further undermining the ability of the union to overturn the company’s extinction order.

National Solidarity

In the nine months that have passed as the SME has attempted to resist the pressure to be dissolved, the energy and spirits of the workers have dampened, despite receiving support of many sectors of the public, including solidarity with followers of ex-presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his movement against privatization of the petroleum industry; miners and their widows and families; dissident teachers (especially section 22 from Oaxaca), and other labor organizations including the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores who have now set up camp in the main plaza and who participate in actions of the SME.

But now there is a sense of movement in the plaza: in response to the decision of the Supreme Court against the electrical workers, other unions are escalating their actions and support. Other groups are now joining the SME in the main plaza, the zócalo, of Mexico City. At least ten other political, student, campesino (peasant) and indigenous groups are joining the occupation of the plaza.

The hunger strikers are fewer in number now, down to fourteen from a high of ninety three, but some of the remaining strikers are determined to fight to the bitter end, insisting that while they are conscious, they will not allow themselves to end their action. The most famous is Cayetano Cabrera, a professor at the Instituto Politecnico Nacional as well as electrical engineer, who has repeatedly refused to end his strike. In spite of being warned that he has heart arrhythmia, and is highly at risk to heart attack, he has refused to stop fasting. He has criticized the government of Felipe Calderon, but has also criticized the movements of the left for being fragmented and unable to coalesce around important issues. Cabrera has been offered a job with the Commission Federal de la Electricidad, the company taking over the operations of Luz y Fuerza, but has refused, saying that his fight is everyone’s fight, and he will not “sell out.” Emblematic of the movement, his health at the moment is a cause for general concern, as he is the longest term hunger striker and has lost a greater percentage of bodyweight relative to other strikers who began the fast at higher weights. Cayetano has fasted 86 days at this point, and refuses to stop until the situation is resolved.

On Thursday, July 15th, an ambulance arrived to try and remove him. The personnel of the ambulance claimed that they had been summoned, but they could not confirm by whom. In the end the nurses attending the hunger strikers confirmed that no one had called them, and they were expelled.

The Interest and Convenience of the Country

On July 5th, the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that the extinction of the company is constitutional, based on the assumption that the president establishes public corporations at his convenience, and likewise can extinguish them. In response to the decision, the hunger strikers replied with a July 6th letter criticizing the decision based on the government’s claim that it is in the “economic interest of the country” to suspend the company.

In the letter, they ask, “Is it in the interest and convenience of the country that a small group of businessmen, principally linked to Spanish interests, are able to take control of the fiber-optic network that rightfully is patrimony of all Mexicans? Is it in the interest of the country that malfunctioning aged equipment is being improperly repaired by inexperienced workers, putting Mexican citizens at risk, also from highly polluting backup generators that contribute to air contamination in the Valley of Mexico?”

They point out that the strategies of the federal government are reminiscent of those used in Falangist Spain, with their declared efforts to take away the conquests and rights of organized labor and open postures as enemies of the workers.

Rumors and Threats

Juan Carlos Escalante, electrical technician, is part of the autonomous justice commission of the SME and is part of the contingent at the zócalo in Mexico City. As we spoke Friday July 16th, there was a sense of urgency; over the previous two days, constant rumors circulated that the government wanted to move in on the occupation and break up the resistance of the electrical workers and the hunger strikers.

Alfredo Verdiguel, the doctor who has been attending the strikers had also received threats to himself and his family.  “If Cayetano dies, you will go to jail”, “You’ll lose your license to practice”, “You and your family are going to lose everything”.

The night before, there had been rumors that there was a move on foot to break up the occupation, and calls went out to ask supporters to come to the aid of the strikers. There was an overwhelming response and the area was flooded with supporters.

Resolution as Attrition

Meanwhile in terms of the bigger picture, the new minister of the interior, Mexico’s number two government official, was sworn in early last week and proclaimed his intention to dialogue with the different sectors and try to reconcile some of the current crises affecting the country. Yet last Friday’s meeting with representatives of the SME, which the new secretary José Francisco Blake Mora was to have attended, was postponed until next Wednesday, much to the disappointment of the protesting electricians.

In response to the cancellation, Cayetano announced that he would from then on refuse the electrolyte fluids and oxygen that have been keeping him going, which may lead to his health collapsing sooner rather than later. He said that if the government was not taking this situation seriously, he is more determined than ever to carry his hunger strike to its logical conclusion.

Juan Carlos Escalante agrees that it is a serious decision to risk one’s health and life, and the families of the strikers are supportive of the decision of the participants, but it is still extremely stressful in the encampment. The possibility that the government will send in forces also is unnerving, and in past days there have been many more people present in the encampment looking at options for the upcoming days.

At this stage after so many months, it would seem that the will of the workers should be breaking. Part of the government’s strategy has been to drag out the process of resolution, in order to wear down the workers, according to Escalante. A third stage of the severance process began four days ago. While about 60% of workers have accepted to sign and renounce their claims to their collective contract, the remaining 40% haven’t and are determined not to give up their rights.  Now the government is sweetening the deal for the holdouts, offering credits to help them with house payments, which of course many are behind in after being locked out of their workplaces. According to electrician Daniel Pineda Millan, none of the workers have signed up for this latest round of liquidations.

With the lapse of time, the new severance package offers, the inclement rainy season setting in, the discouraging court ruling and the sense of desperation, there had been more marches and more manifestations of inconformity and anger amongst the workers. Marches in the periphery of the main plaza had become more regular as the former workers look to rally their forces.

The leftist government of Mexico City has asked the workers to reduce the disruptiveness of their marches and protests, as they have left the city’s traffic in chaos. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has demonstrated solidarity on several occasions, providing some support and services while also demanding that the federal government negotiate with the workers. However tensions have risen as well, as was the case when the city government insisted on placing a mega screen in the area of the protest to broadcast the World Cup matches.

The demonstration of support organized on Sunday, July 18th was scheduled to take place at the monument of the Angel of Independence, in the principal Avenida Reforma. However, when organizers arrived in the morning, the monument was surrounded with crowd control barriers and patrolled by city police. Officials claimed that it was in order not to obstruct the Sunday bicycling event that the city had organized. The event moved to the Rio Tiber Street facing the monument instead, while supporters questioned the sincerity of the Leftist mayor’s support. Four truckloads of riot police and crowd control barriers also prevented spillover from the event into Reforma Avenue.

The demonstration invited supporters of the SME to participate in a 12 hour solidarity fast. I was told there were 2,200 people who signed up to participate, although it was clear that many had not stayed for the full twelve hours. Speakers at the event included federal legislators, representatives of Mexico City´s teachers’ union, activists from the 1968 movement, Gay rights activists, university researchers, parents of Mexican university students massacred in Ecuador by Colombian forces, and more. Independent neighborhood groups were present, and many grass roots political and social groups participated.

When I asked Juan Carlos Escalante earlier if he agreed with Cayetano’s opinion that the Left is too fractured to pose serious resistance to the onslaught of the right-wing government’s attempts to demolish workers’ rights in Mexico, he was hesitant to give an opinion on the subject of alliances. As July 4th was an election day characterized by awkward alliances between the left and the far right against the center-right PRI, he pointed out that the same repressors that eliminated the electrical company are in alliances with the supposed supporters of the workers’ movements of the Left. Obviously, the politics of the elimination of workers’ rights and the respect of labor contracts is a topic that will continue to create tensions in any alliances between the Left and the Right, as well as within the Left itself. Workers’ rights are an important issue in the current economic crisis in Mexico.

Escalante claims that the Supreme Court decision upholding the government’s override of workers’ protections is proof that there is no state of law in Mexico. He maintains that the president has put pressure on the judges, and that the electricians’ only hope is to go to other independent arbitrators in hopes that their demand will be met.

The stipulation that they are pressuring the government to enforce is that a Patrón Sustituto, or obligation that the company taking over the operations of the electrical company be required to honor the contracts in effect when, on October 11th, the president signed the decree extinguishing the company. Escalante pins his hopes also on the formation of an inter-party commission of the federal legislature that could investigate the legality of the decree. He wants the union to sit down with the Secretary of the Interior and the Energy Secretary to find a solution to the situation. If that does not happen, Escalante feels that mobilization of the forces in opposition to the government’s agenda will be the only option left. He says that if the government refuses to respect the labor laws of the country, it will be hard to convince the electricians and their supporters that they are obligated to respect laws while the government is not.

Finally, I asked if Escalante had seen any help from outside of Mexico. He said that some of the electrical unions in the United States and Canada were helping in organize a suit against the Mexican government for disrespect of the labor rights conditions of the Free Trade Agreement. He also said that the International Labor Organization of the UN was also offering some support.

Independence: Tradition and Reality

In less than sixty days Mexico will celebrate its two hundredth anniversary of independence. The main plaza of Mexico City would normally be a focal point for the festivities, as that is where the president normally performs the traditional “grito de independencia,”  the shout declaring independence.

But for the moment, the situation seems explosive and contains the possibility of the imminent death of at least one of the hunger strikers. It remains to be seen if the next days or weeks will see any sort of resolution to this ongoing battle between workers’ rights and presidential powers. If not, the party to celebrate independence may turn into a more literal than traditional event.