Mexico: United movement stops the country

Issue 

Since the US and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, 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 and Mexican President Felipe Calderon's "fiscal package" to handle it — increased consumption taxes on food and medicine, new communication taxes and decreased government spending.

Then add in the fact that the minimum wage in Mexico buys a third of what it bought 20 years ago.

You can see how the firing of 44,000 electricity workers, members of the countRy's most combative and independent trade union, SME, became the catalyst for a movement angry at the unfair economic system and a president who stole the 2006 elections.

The electricity workers were fired on October 11. On October 16, about 500,000 people protested in the capital.

On November 11, there were huge protest marches, road blockades, and full and partial strikes across Mexico.

Mass movement launched

The decision to strike was taken on November 5 in a huge meeting of the newly formed National Assembly of Popular Resistance. The new body is made up of about 400 trade unions; student, rural worker and indigenous movements; women's and gay rights organisations and left-wing parties.

The meeting was meant to start at 5pm, but at quarter to five, the hall was already full and the streets outside, where loudspeakers were set-up, were filling up and blocking traffic.

The chairperson was already welcoming each group: "Comrades from the teachers' union, welcome. Companeros of the Socialist Front, welcome."

It took about 25 minutes to welcome everyone.

There was an atmosphere of excitement as speaker after speaker from trade unions declared that their union would also march and strike on November 11.

For four hours, each organisation declared how they would contribute to the campaign. The audience never tired of standing up chanted with fists waving.

On the few occasions a union, declaring its support, said it 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.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) spokesperson, a parliamentarian, said the PRD had agreed to support any decision the SME took and to promote any marches it organised. The PRD handed over a cheque for $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.

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.

SME general secretary Martin Esparza told the meeting: "With this movement we're going to define what kind of country we want …

"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."

The crowd chanted: "It's a struggle of all workers of this country", "Unions united will never be defeated!", and "Give me an S, M, E. What does it spell? SME! SME! SME!"

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 students had already put large stickers for the strike all over the insides of trains. There were hand-painted banners in most faculties of the university calling for assemblies.

The walls were covered with articles on what had really happened to the SME workers.

Many workplaces held their own assemblies. Even high school and primary school students marched 10 kilometres on November 8, holding placards reading "Don't steal my future".

SME workers marched in their thousands in the centre of the capital on November 9 and 10.

The November 11 march was scheduled for 4pm, but I arrived at the march site at 2.30pm to find thousands of people.

Street vendors, who make up an ever-growing army of their own as the unemployed look for alternative ways to survive, sold 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 march chants and calling out: "Two gum packets for 5 pesos!"

One street vendor, Octavio Manzera, told me: "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."

One marcher, Omar Ruiz, told me as the march began to leave: "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."

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!"

Others sang and some stuck flags into the arms of the stiff metal statues that line the wide main avenue.

An hour later we arrived at the huge Zocolo Plaza, filling it, squashed together. The march I had joined kept arriving for another two hours, while marches from six other directions also arrived.

Organisers estimated that 200,000 people took part. The march was just one of many. Large marches taking place across the country and in outer suburbs, and workers and movement members blocked roads from 6am.

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. 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 power in solidarity and many were closed.

Miners sent a contingent to the main march and held 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.

said 14 toll-booth points were also taken over.

At one roadblock, police dispersed the blockade with tear gas. La Jornada reported four injured protesters and three injured police in the clash.

Eleven protesters were arrested and some told the press they had been held incommunicado and beaten.

Listening to the speakers in the Zocolo, with my feet at unnatural angles in the little groundspace 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 me. The banner holders did, and the crowd called out, "Thanks companeros!"

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

By 7.30pm it was dark and freezing and I watched the end of the march finally arrive.

Someone in the plaza set off fireworks. The palace was lit up, and we could smell barbequed corn.

There was music, drumming, dancing, people in large papier mache masks of politicians, a group of chanters with audibly sore voices, and a guy with a pink papier mache pig — I could only guess what it represented.

'Violence' and 'chaos'

The next day, Mexico's mainstream media highlighted the teargas incident with headlines shouting "Violence" and "Chaos".

The Excelsior headlined with "Patience tested". Its biggest photo was of the tear gas and it talked about "children left without classes" and "we can't see what Chiapas [a southern Mexican state with a sizeable indigenous population] is protesting about, SME has nothing to do with them".

The media did not want to talk about the bonds of solidarity that have formed or how the campaign has gone beyond just a labour conflict, with many more youth taking part in it than in the protests against electoral fraud in 2006.

SME militant Jose Hernandez told me the mobilisation was much bigger than previous ones, but it was spread out in various places.

"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 as all the higher education institutions", he said.

"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."

[A longer version of this article, with a slideshow of photographs, can be found at www.links.org.au.]