A long running hunger strike by laid-off electrical workers in Mexico City has reached a point of high drama. Meanwhile, the United States corporate controlled media, which have paid huge attention to Cuban hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas (who has now ended his strike), is not covering this dramatic story at all.

The strikers belong to the independent and left-led Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). This union has been a thorn in the side of various governments going back to the days of the Mexican Revolution.  Not only has it consistently fought for and achieved higher than usual wages and benefits for its members, it has been a politically progressive force in opposition to the neo-liberal policies of “free” trade, privatization of public resources, austerity and repression. It has been at the center of a major coalition of workers, farmers and others calling for the renegotiation of NAFTA.

This got to be too much for Mexico’s right-wing president, Felipe Calderon, and his National Action Party. So on October 14 of last year, federal agents forcefully took over the facilities of the government owned Central Light and Power Company (Luz y Fuerza del Centro), which provided electrical service for Mexico City and a wide swathe of the central part of the country and for whose workers SME was the collective bargaining representative.  The action led to the immediate laying off of 44,000 active electrical workers. The government then announced that another state owned company, the CFE, Federal Electricity Commission, whose union has a reputation for submissiveness and corruption, would take over all Central Light and Power’s functions. The government tried, but failed, to order the SME to be dissolved. However, efforts by SME and its political allies to get the courts to declare illegal the dissolution of Central Light and Power also failed.  The SME and its allies accuse the government of trying to break their union so as to clear the way for eventual privatization of electrical services.

Since the takeover of the company, there has been a psychological and media war against the union. The right wing has accused the union of destroying Central Light and Power by demanding excessive wages. The union has responded with information showing that the company had been systematically starved of resources because a large number of private and public institutions were contriving to get electrical service at practically no cost.

But the union has now given up the effort to restore Central Light and Power to life, and is using political pressure to get the government to hire the laid-off Central Light and Power SME workers to work at CFE. Mexican labor law states that in a case like this, the workers in the dissolved entity have a right to employment from a “substitute employer”, i.e. CFE.  Also, frequent blackouts since the government takeover lend credibility to the union’s claim that more workers need to be on the job.

The union’s campaign has involved many marches and protests, but also a hunger strike which now involves 14 union members. Two of the strikers have been refusing food for so long that their lives are now seriously endangered:  Cayetano Cabrera, Esteva, who has been fasting for 88 days, and Miguel Angel Ibarra, who is right behind him with an 84 day fast. Both, who are being attended by medical personnel on a round the clock basis, can hardly move or speak, but hold firm to their demands. On Monday July 19, Cabrera demanded that President Calderon and Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake meet with them face to face.

The publicity and pressure generated by the hunger strike has been enough to get the Interior Department to meet with SME leader Martin Esparza to discuss solutions, but as of Wednesday the government had not agreed to the hiring of the SME members by CFE. The Permanent Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican Congress has announced that it is going to form a multi-party task force to try to end the dispute.

The high drama of the SME hunger strike is not being covered at all in U.S. corporate media, even though the number of strikers is greater and they have been on strike longer than the Cuban, Fariñas. We should ask ourselves why. Could it be that while Fariñas was a right-wing protester against a left-wing government, the Mexican hunger strikers are left-wing protesters against a right-wing government?


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.