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By • Dec 26th, 2009 • Category: News & Analysis

Source:OSAG BY: John Ross

MEXICO CITY (Dec 22nd) – The Christmas season is in full flower in this
monster megalopolis. “The World’s Tallest Christmas Tree” (dixit Mayor
Marcelo Ebrard) which looks suspiciously like a huge bottle of Pepsi Cola
(the sponsor of this Xmas kitsch) towers over the elegant Paseo de la
Reforma. Ice skaters pirouette on the great rink that floors the
Tiennemen-sized Zocalo plaza – at the heart of the Mexican body politic,
Zamboni machines now rule. There is even a dollop of snow on the
surrounding volcanoes.

As is traditional, the government has shut down until after January 6th, the
Day of the Kings, and hordes of glassy-eyed shoppers stampede through the
downtown streets. Ersatz Santa Clauses cadge coins on the corners of the
Centro Historico and each evening neighborhood Marias and Joses knock on
doors pleading for “posada”, a safe place for Mary to birth the Christ
child. The pilgrims are treated to “ponche” (high-octane alcohol splashed
with fruit punch) and piƱatas stuffed with candy to the delight of
sugar-crazed moppets.

Navidad should be a moment of respite in the hardscrabble lives of the vast
majority of Mexicans (80%) who live in and around the poverty line but in a
year where the underclass, trapped in a seemingly bottomless downturn has
suffered grievously, the holiday season has become a cruel hoax.

The hoax is even crueler for 42,000 members of the Mexican Electricity
Workers Union (SME) who two months ago were pushed out of their workplaces
at the Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC), the state-subsidized enterprise that
supplied electricity to Mexico City and five surrounding states. Under
orders from President Felipe Calderon, the company was dissolved. Military
police continues to occupy the installations.

For the union and the combative social movement that accompanies it, the
coup d’grace may have come December 11th, two months to the day of the
take-over, when the Conciliation & Labor Arbitration Court denied the SME’s
request for an injunction to reverse the shutdown. Judge Guillermina
Coutino, a young and malleable jurist in her first year on the bench, ruled
that the executive branch was in its rights to close down a government
enterprise if it imperiled the national economy.

By 2009, Luz y Fuerza del Centro, decapitalized by zero investment during
the administration of the past four neo-liberal Mexican presidents, was
turning increasingly negative numbers. Calderon argued that the shortfall
was costing the federal government billions of pesos in subsidies that could
be better used to alleviate the suffering of 26,000,000 Mexicans living in
extreme poverty.

One reason why LFC was running so deep in the red: the company was forced to
buy its electricity from the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) at
exorbitant prices – 35 to 40% of CFE electricity is now generated by the
private sector, particularly transnationals like the Spanish Iberdrola,
despite constitutional prohibitions that restricts energy generation to the
state. With the shuttering of Luz y Fuerza, energy distribution in Mexico
City and adjoining states will be overseen by the CFE.

Despite Calderon’s insistence that he had no option but to close down LFC,
many observers see this slight of hand as a pretext for privatization and
the installation of a fiber optics network on the old Luz y Fuerza lines to
be contracted with W Communications, another Madrid-based transnational
fronted here by two former Mexican energy secretaries – Calderon himself is
an ex-energy secretary.

The denial of the union’s request for an “amparo” (injunction) was a
critical wound for the SME, which seemed to have put all its eggs in the
legal basket and was delusionally confident that the takeover would be
deemed an unconstitutional exercise of Calderon’s authority. SME lawyers
vowed to appeal the turndown to an unsympathetic Supreme Court.

The union has been further weakened, perhaps mortally so, by the voluntary
liquidation of more than half its members – 27,000 out of 42,000 workers,
61% of the membership, have caved in to Calderon’s entreaties to cash out.
Despite sugar-coated come-ons by hardnosed labor secretary Javier Lozano
that liquidated workers would be re-contracted by the CFE, only 3% of the
ex-SME members have been signed on – those who have are forced to abandon
the SME and affiliate with a company union, the SUTERN, whose “charro”
(sell-out) leaders have a baleful track record in defending workers’ rights.

Older workers were bamboozled into liquidating by Calderon’s promises that
they would be first in line for fast food franchises in which to invest
their pay-out checks but the cheapest buy-in was reportedly 190.000 pesos to
sell ready-made tacos (“tacos de canasta”) in the street.

In 1914, at the height of the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa and the
great Zapata occupying the capital, the city’s electricity workers struck
the transnational Canadian Light & Power Company, paralyzing trolley car
transit over demands for the recognition of a union. The SME was born into
social turmoil and has not been a stranger to struggle in its near-century
on the march. Always a bastion of working class solidarity, the Sindicato
Mexicano de Electricistas has traditionally sent tens of thousands of its
workers into the streets to back up citizens’ demands for justice from a
government once described as a “perfect dictatorship.”

In 2006, the SME incurred Felipe Calderon’s undying wrath when it backed
leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the presidential race the
right-winger was later dubiously awarded, and urged its members to vote for
AMLO. Retribution is one of the subtexts of Calderon’s takeover of Luz y
Fuerza del Centro.

Since the October putsch, those SME members who line up with firebrand
secretary general Jorge Esparza have mounted non-violent civil resistance
24-7. Three mass mobilizations have drummed out nearly a million marchers.
On October 15th, just four days after Calderon’s takeover, a quarter of a
million incensed citizens filled the Zocalo. On November 11th, the SME
spearheaded another huge turnout that was billed as a national strike –
telephone workers shut down Information services for an hour but no other
work stoppages were reported.

Although the “strike” was supported by some public employees unions and
unions representing workers at former government enterprises grouped
together in the National Union of Workers or UNT, it was pointedly ignored
by pro-government unions like the Education Workers (SNTE), with 1.3 million
members the largest labor organization in Latin America whose leader Elba
Esther Gordillo, the virtual czarina of public education, is a Calderon
crony. Nonetheless, dissident teachers have provided bulwark back up for
the SME.

A third public outpouring December 4th, a symbolic takeover of the capital
to commemorate the day Zapata and Villa rode into Mexico City (Mexico will
celebrate the 100th anniversary of its revolution in 2010) brought out tens
of thousands of supporters who marched into the center of the city from the
four cardinal directions and tied traffic in knots all day and all night.
Indignant at the biased reporting of Televisa, the nation’s television
kingpin – Calderon runs spots on primetime news urging SME members to go
scab and accept liquidation – workers staged a rare nighttime march on the
communication conglomerate’s headquarters to demand airtime. A tense
standoff ensued and was only resolved when the SME’s Esparza offered to buy
time to present the workers’ side of the story.

The militancy of the SME rank and file has been unrelenting. 11
electricistas were jailed for a week after they blocked the federal highway
from Queretero into the city. 15 workers endured a 17-day hunger strike in
front of the CFE offices demanding reinstatement. Two women hunger strikers,
Cielo Fuentes and Monica Jimenez, are fourth generation SMErs who remember
being rocked to sleep at union meetings when they were babies.

Ex-LFC workers shake cans in the subway and on the buses to keep their
families fed. Many workers’ families have been forced to sell in the street
to make ends meet. “There’s not enough corn in Mexico to supply all the new
quesadilla makers Calderon has created,” one union member joked.

On December 12th, the day Mexico sets aside to honor the Virgin of
Guadalupe, the Aztec nation’s patron saint, Samuel Ruiz, the liberationist
Bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, conducted Mass at the union
hall, imploring the Dark Madonna to help the workers get their jobs back and
condemning the corruption of the “mal gobierno” (bad government.)

As the movement enters into its third month with no resolution in sight, the
Virgin of Guadalupe may be one of the few assets the SME can rely on.

International support for the embattled union has not been spectacular.
U.S. and Canadian labor federations have made perfunctory pilgrimages to
Mexico City in solidarity. Stan Gacek, speaking for Richard Trumpka, the
new AFL-CIO chieftain, accused the Calderon government of violating the
terms of the labor side-agreements signed along with NAFTA in 1994 and
offered to take the matter to the U.N.’s World Labor Organization (OIT by
its Spanish initials.) Calderon’s vituperative labor secretary Lozano
responded that the North Americans “know nothing about Mexican labor laws”
and accused Gacek of interfering in Mexico’s internal politics, a charge
that could have gotten the AFL-CIO rep booted out of the country under
Article 33 of the Constitution.

Lozano, who has engaged in a long-standing personal feud with the SME’s
Esparza, refusing even to validate the union leader’s re-election last
spring, has reason to gloat these days. Not only have the electricistas
lost their last, best chance for redress with the denial of the injunction
but the Conciliation & Arbitration Court also nullified the SME
secretary-general’s victory by 300 votes over union treasurer Alejandro
Munoz (who has since turned government stooge) and declared the elections
null and void. Lozano also accuses the SME of sabotaging the electricity
grid after major blackouts in Mexico City and surrounding states plunged the
region into darkness.

As labor secretary, Lozano, a Calderon unconditional, has repeatedly lashed
out at unions that reject the government’s privatization plans. His
never-ending vendetta against Mine & Metal Workers’ union boss Napoleon
Gomez Urrutia, now in self-exile in Canada, continues to trouble the
industry – miners have been on strike at Cananea in Sonora, the world’s
eighth largest copper pit and in Taxco Guerrero and Sombrerete Zacatecas for
two years. This week, the miners’ union sent urgent alerts to its locals to
be on guard against a Calderon takeover during Christmas week.

Like the electricistas, for many postal workers this is going to be a
miserable Christmas. Nearly 3000 were fired for the holiday season, a
moment of maximum volume, and forced to sign off on liquidations far below
those guaranteed by law. Meanwhile, the Mexican postal service, always
untrustworthy, has undergone a costly makeover – logos and uniforms are now
lime green and raspberry sherbet instead of the drab national colors – but
service is just as abysmal. The makeover suggests that Calderon is sprucing
up the postal service for sale to the highest bidder – DHL is frequently

The SME celebrated the 95th anniversary of its founding December 14th 1914
in times that were no less treacherous than they are today, with militant
speeches and half-hearted fiesta. A few thousand gathered at the well-worn
union hall downtown. Members’ kids competed in potato sack races and rowdy
troubadours sang songs of past peoples’ struggles. Workers’ wives dished
out homemade tamales and rummaged through piles of old clothes collected by
the civil society, looking for warm coats for their kids.

The walls of the SME offices were plastered with hand-scrawled cardboard
signs calling Calderon every kind of creep on the books and the floor
littered with old leaflets and tamale husks. Every once in a while,
exuberant chants – “Aqui Se Ve La Fuerza del SME!” and “Lucha, Lucha, Lucha
No Dejan de Luchar!” – would burst forth from the auditorium where
proletarian performers serenaded the faithful. But despite the samples of
enthusiasm, exhaustion stalked the room.

The next day, the SME announced that it was suspending resistance activities
until the holiday season was done with after January 6th. Until then, the
movement will be immobilized. Whether there will be enough energy to
rekindle the struggle remains to be tested.

Can social movements still modify egregious government policies? The SME
has carried out months of wall-to-wall fightback and are increasingly
ignored by the public and the government. Millions marched after Calderon
stole the 2006 election from Lopez Obrador and three years later Calderon is
still very much the president. A survey of conflictivity during 2008 done by
Bishop Ruiz’s non-government think tank SERAPAZ is revealing. 64% of the
conflicts under review went unrecognized by public authorities. In 31% of
the incidents, security forces waded in to disperse the protests. Only 4.6%
of these conflicts resulted in dialogue or mediation.

Such a dismal success rate indicates that non-violent civil resistance is
not very efficient at sparking change, a conclusion that must bring holiday
cheer to those who advocate the armed option.



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