Mexican power workers take on government

Issue 

I met Jose Hernandez, a leader of the Mexican Union of Electricity workers (SME), at his house in a working-class suburb of Mexico City. "I'm very tired, I'm exhausted", he said, smiling, as he made me tea. "I haven't stopped for days."

Hernandez spoke about recent events involving his union and the Central Light and Power Company of Mexico (LyF).

Six thousand federal police and soldiers occupied LyF offices on October 10. President Felipe Calderon then liquidated the company and its union, the SME, leaving 44,000 workers unemployed.

"In Mexico", Hernandez said, "we have an ultra-right national government. It is led by the extreme right group, el Yunque.

"This group is anti-communist and linked to right-wing groups in the Catholic Church. It is committed to the privatisation of the energy, electricity and oil sectors.

"Last year, it wanted to privatise the oil, but it couldn't because of large national mobilisations [against the plan].

"These mobilisations were lead by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who's a leader of the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution] and from the most nationalist and progressive section of the party.

"Obrador was a presidential candidate in the 2006 elections, in which almost all studies say there was fraud. Calderon officially defeated him by 0.56%.

"Despite large mobilisations, we couldn't overturn the fraud.

"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 passing these reforms is the SME."

Hernandez said the SME, which has existed for 85 years, was one of the most important unions in Mexico. "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 are corrupt. The leaders are bought by the state and the companies, the majority of them really are gangsters."

An example of the SME's historic militancy, Hernandez said, was that it won the right to retirement for its members in 1936 — a first in Mexico at the time.

He said LyF, whose workers the union covers, "supplies the centre part of the country — the capital city and half of four different states. This is the most important industrial part of the country and involves 6 million customers.

"The other electric company, CFE, works with the SUTERM union", he said. "This union is undemocratic, though there is dissidence in its ranks. CFE produces 95% of Mexico's electricity, of which 45% is bought by private companies."

Hernandez said: "The government has been trying to destroy the SME for 20 years. They've been investing in the CFE, in modernising but not in LyF.

"So now LyF seems like an inefficient company. Its equipment is ancient and it needs a lot of maintenance to work. The government took away its ability to generate electricity, and now buys 98% of it its electricity from CFE.

"The government also designed a system of accounting to make it seem like LyF was going bankrupt."

Hernandez said CFE was selling electricity to transnational companies and to LyF at a profit. However, the government forced LyF to sell that electricity to other companies and domestic consumers at a lower price that it bought it for.

"So the more LyF sells, the more it loses. It is absurd.

"And then the government says it has to subsidise LyF with a lot of money. It tells everyone this is 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 the subsidies. Really, the subsidies are for the big companies and for domestic consumers.

"Another reason why the government wants to privatise LyF and destroy our union", Hernandez said, "is because of the possibility of further profit. With 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 LyF provide those services, without any of the concessions to private companies that the government wants.

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

Hernandez explained that to destroy the SME, "the government passed a decree so that LyF would disappear, on the basis it was inefficient and very expensive. But the decree is unconstitutional, it violates the federal work law.

"LyF was created by the legislative power and the government can't override that. The government really doesn't have the right to just destroy companies in a unilateral way."

He said that under Mexico's work law, the new company must re-hire the workers who have lost their job, with the same union representing them and the same collective agreement.

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

In response, the SME organised a mass demonstration on October 16 involving nearly half a million people. The march included "unionists from various unions, students, Obrador's movement, farmers — that is, the people mobilised. And this was despite the huge media campaign attacking the SME, saying we are corrupt and lazy.

"And in the legal terrain, we've been fighting as well, seeking legal protection against the government's actions."

To organise against government attacks, the National Assembly of Popular Resistance was created on October 24 with representatives from 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 supporting us.

"And in the assembly, there are also students, farmers, miners and metal workers."

He said on November 5, "we're having another big assembly, and there we'll choose the date for a national strike. We're proposing for November 11, 12 or 13.

"It'll be the first of its kind in the country for almost 100 years. During the revolution, we gained a lot of rights, but over time we've been losing them."

Hernandez said: "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."

He argued that Obrador's role in this movement "is important, he brings a lot of people to the protests and he's committed to the upcoming national strike".

He said: "Some radical sectors, such as the Zapatistas and some anarchists, have criticised Obrador as 'bourgeois'. They attacked him during the elections and become isolated.

"But now these sectors can't explain why Obrador is supporting us."

Hernandez said the workers have been without work, and therefore pay, for three weeks. "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."

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