A new united movement stops Mexico for a day

By Tamara Pearson

November 14, 2009 -- Mexico City -- In the many metro stations of this giant city, amidst the ugly smell of Pizza Hut and the newspapers vendors yelling out, “Grafico! 3 pesos!”, every day young people crowd around the handwritten posters recruiting for the national police. At 12,000 pesos (US$1000) per month, and with increasing unemployment and harder prospects, 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 (as Mexicans often repeat to me ``when the US sneezes Mexico gets pneumonia’’) and Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon’s “fiscal package” to handle it, which consists of increased consumption taxes on 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 20 years ago, and you can see how the firing of 44,000 electricity workers, members of the county’s most combative and independent trade union, SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas), became the catalyst for a movement deeply angry at both an unfair economic system and a president who used fraud to win election in 2006.

The electricity workers were fired on October 11. On October 16, around 500,000 people marched in the capital in protest. One month after the sackings, anger has simmered and again on November 11 there were massive protest marches, road blocks, full and partial strikes all across Mexico.

Mass movement launched

The decision to strike was taken in a massive meeting on November 5 of the newly formed National Assembly of Popular Resistance, made up of around 400 trade unions, and student, rural worker and Indigenous movements, women’s and gay rights organisations, and left and revolutionary political parties throughout the country.

The meeting was meant to start at 5 pm, but at quarter to five, the hall was already full and the streets outside, where loudspeakers were setup, were also starting to fill up and block traffic. The chairperson 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 ``This support really is seen!’’ was the chant of the day as speaker after speaker from various trade unions declared that their union would also march and strike on November 11, and for four hours running each organisation declared how they would contribute to the campaign, how they would hold their own assemblies and would print leaflets and hold a rally here and a march there, in the lead-up to the strike. During and after each speaker the audience didn’t tire of standing up and waving their fists in the air and chanting.

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

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

University students said they would organise a range of political-cultural events and an “information week” to counter the misinformation in the mainstream media, while a rural worker said the SME’s demands were also 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 [United States] don’t want.”

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

With more chanting -- “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 spel/? SME! SME! SME!”,

“Unions united will never be defeated!” -- the meeting concluded with a vote to strike on November 11 and to allow the SME to form a temporary organising committee of movement representatives to coordinate the strike plans and campaigning.

Intense week of campaigning

The next morning, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) students had already put large stickers for the strike all over the insides of trains, and there were hand-painted 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.

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

The long-anticipated march of November 11 was due to leave at 4 pm, but I got there at 2.30 pm, and already there were thousands of people at the starting point, many having a snooze or sitting on a curb reading a news magazine. Some were spraypainting a huge SME logo on the road, joking about needing some whiteout to fix their mistakes, and chanting when they had finished it.

Street vendors, who make up an ever-growing army of their own as the unemployed look for alternative ways to stay alive, were selling corn, chips and nuts from carts, with posters supporting 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 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", said one street vendor, Octavio Manzera, when I asked him why he was marching. He wasn’t working that day.

“I’m here to support the Mexican people. I’m one of those who doesn’t support the government we have”, 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”, university student Omar Vazquez said.

“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”, explained Omar Ruiz, wanting to say so 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 into the arms of the stiff metal statues that line the wide main avenue.

200,000 gather

An hour later we arrived at the huge Zocolo 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. Our march kept arriving for another two hours, while marches from six other locations also continued to arrive.

Organisers estimated that 200,000 people participated in the march, while the left-wing daily La Jornada reported that police estimated 60,000. But that march 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 six in the morning.

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 Other Campaign” in front of the US embassy. Universities went on strike and students and teachers joined the march after their own protests on campus. Telephone workers’ unions went on strike. Some shops had signs saying they were turning off their lights or 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 Organisation of Administrative, Manual and Technical Workers of the National Anthropology and History Institute organised partial blockades of museums and archaeological zones. 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 protesters and three police there. Eleven protesters were arrested and on November 12 told the press that they had been detained incommunicado and some had been beaten.

Standing, listening to the speakers in the Zocolo, with my feet at unnatural angles in the little ground space they had, a man in a mask shared his mandarin with me, and everyone around me listened with good humour and concentration to the speakers. Some people with a large plastic SME banner tied to ladders wedged their way in front of us. “Lower the banner! We can’t see!”, yelled the crowd around and behind me. The banner holders did, and the crowd called out, “Thanks compañeros!”

The students to my left meanwhile were having a ball chanting all sorts of things, laughing, smiling and jumping up and down as it turned cold, and sharing bags of apples around.

By 7.30 pm it was dark and freezing, and I watched the end of the march I had been in arrive. In it, a group with drums, someone dancing. Later, a guy with a violin. Someone in the plaza set off fireworks. The palace was lit up, barbeque corn could be smelt, a truck with music arrived, then more drums and a guy with a guitar, others in large papier mache masks of politicians, a group of chanters with audibly sore voices, then a guy with a pink papier mache pig -- I could only guess what it represented.

`Violence’ and `chaos’

Mexico’s mainstream media the next day chose to highlight the tear-gas incident, with headlines of “Violence” and “Chaos”. The Excelsior headlined with “Patience tested”, its biggest photo was of the tear gas, it talked about “children left without classes” and naively said “we can’t see what Chiapas is protesting about, SME has nothing to do with them”.

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 labour conflict, with many 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 mobilisation was much bigger than previous ones, but that it was less apparent as it was spread out in various places and times. “Up until 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 disorganisation 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.”

The Mexican people respond to union busting with national strike

By Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas

November 9, 2009 -- On the night of October 11, six thousand soldiers and militariaed 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. Since then, the corporate media has been slandering the workers and particularly their union, the Mexican electrical trade union SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas), one of the most militant and anti-neoliberal unions, which has been fighting against the government's attempts to privatise the energy industry. The occupation of the buildings prior to announcing the closure was an illegal preventative strike, with the objective of preventing industrial action or any other form of protest on behalf of the sacked workers.

With the closure of the entity, 44,000 employers lost their jobs and 12,000 retired workers saw their pensions disappear by “presidential decree”, in the context of massive unemployment in Mexico (reaching officially 3 million unemployed and 12 million in the informal economy). The government argued that LyFC was inefficient and was too expensive to support. However, the reality is that the company was shut down to destroy its union, SME. This government action is also anti-constitutional, as this violated the labour law and Mexico's constitution, which declares that the state has the exclusive right to produce and provide electrical service.

It is now well known that the main reason for the closure of the company is the interest in privatising the energy industry (at the moment, private companies run 40% of the production of energy for the country). The privatisation of such strategic industry has been a demand of the foreign financial institutions to fulfil the neoliberal agenda imposed on Mexico and accepted by the conservative Mexican ruling class. The SME has been a thorn in the side of the private companies and the complacent government.

The fact that the state company could provide valuable high-tech service of optical fibre meant that national and foreign communications companies were interested in closing down Luz Y Fuerza so as to gain this lucrative concession to provide the service. Calderón was the energy minister of the previous government, and knows perfectly well the potential of the industry. The union was an obstacle to allowing private big corporations to profit from a business worth over US$6 billion.

Despite the attacks on the workers and their union, led by the labour and treasury ministries and the corporate media outlets, resistance in Mexico is growing. The SME has been fighting on the legal front, appealing for legal protection against the illegal sacking of workers and have initiated a lawsuit to demonstrate that the dissolution of the company violates the Mexican constitution.

On November 5, some of the unionists symbolically took over their offices and put up red and black flags, a traditional Mexican symbol of striking workers. A judge has declared (on November 7) legal protection for workers. Brigades of workers, students and people′s organisations have been distributing information at bus stops, roads, their workplaces and neighbourhoods, in an attempt to tell people about the movement and the union, whose struggles are being harassed and defamed by the media.

On November 5, in a very well-organised general assembly, it was decided to place black and red flags in all the buildings of the now extinct Luz y Fuerza. Dozens of unions and organisations attended and agreed on a national strike for November 11. Road blockades, information sessions, leafleting, coordinated massive absenteeism from work, and strikes when possible, are part of the actions called for the day of action. The telephone workers will stop administrative services for the day, several other unions will help blocking roads and striking their workplaces. Other unions and political parties will provide economic assistance to the SME.

The union is asking for national and international solidarity, organising protests and information sessions, bringing representatives or sending economic support for the struggle.

The November 5 assembly, called initially to support the struggle of the electricians, now embodies the discontent of thousands of workers and millions of citizens, left out of the national “priorities” determined by the gederal government. A National Plan of Action will be set after evaluating the results of the national strike on November 11. In Mexico, there has not been a national strike in many years.

You can send your support to the union by contacting the union by email at sinmexel@sme.org.mx, contacting the foreign relations secretary Fernando Amezcua. All your support is welcome.