The government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, of the right wing National Action Party (PAN), has launched a new attack on the militant Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME, for Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas). The SME is calling for worldwide solidarity.
The SME has managed to keep its independence from Mexico's system where unions are often subordinate to the party in power. When the Mexican government signed on, after 1982, to the full neo-liberal program of free trade, privatization and austerity, the SME was one of the few unions that consistently protested. In particular, the SME was a bulwark in opposition to what its leaders suspect is a plan of stealth privatization of electrical services.
In 2009, the government refused to recognize the results of the SME's internal elections. This right to "toma de nota" (literally "taking note") has been used by the Mexican government to withhold recognition of officers elected by other recalcitrant or independent unions.
Then on the night of October 10 and 11 of 2009, federal police entered workplaces represented by the SME in the government-owned company "Luz y Fuerza del Centro" (LFC, Central Light and Power), and ousted the union members.
The government then declared LFC dissolved. Services to Mexico City and the center of the country formerly provided by SME members were handed over to another company, the CFE (Comision Federal de Electricidad), whose workers are represented by one of the nationally approved.
This left 44,000 active SME workers and 22,000 retirees in the street. The government launched a vicious media campaign against SME, and exerted every kind of pressure on the fired workers.
But the SME leadership has hung on, as have 16,000 workers who would not accept severance pay in exchange for quitting the union.
SME challenged the legality of the dissolution of the LFC and has been carrying out militant direct action, including a "planton" (long running sit-in) in the Zocalo, or main downtown plaza, of Mexico City. The current demand is for the government to obey a law which requires it to find an "alternate employer" for the people laid off by the closing of LFC.
On September 16, Mexico celebrates its national independence by a ceremony, the "grito" (shout) in the Mexico City Zocalo, presided over by the president of the Republic. But the SME "planton" is still there, in spite of federal government demands that Mexico City regional Governer Marcelo Ebrard, of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) forcefully remove it, which he refuses to do.
The question arises as to how the "grito" can happen in the same place where the electrical workers are protesting. This may have been part of the motive for the latest repressive actions against the SME, though the mere refusal of the SME to lie down and die sticks in President Calderon's craw.
In July, the SME held internal elections again, and the leadership that has been carrying on the resistance, headed by SME General Secretary Martin Esparza, was handily reelected. The Federal Minister of Labor, Javier Lozano Alarcon, refused the "toma de nota" once more.
SME members began to report increased incidents of harassment, in at least once case (in Nexaca, in Puebla State) by military personnel. Then, the week before last, the government announced that it has ordered the arrest of Esparza as well as the union's Labor Affairs Secretary, Eduardo Bobadilla, and Legal Counsel, Amalia Vargas Rios. The reason is laughable: After the October 2009 government coup, the union officers tried access money in the SME's bank accounts in the National Savings and Financial Services Bank, which had been frozen by the government (and still are), an action which, according to a judicial ruling, they had the right to do. So the government accuses the union of trying to steal its own money.
The union and its allies are mounting a spirited resistance. In a press release, the SME accused the government of escalating repression against it, and issued a list of demands including respect for the union's autonomy and for Article 87 of the International Labor Organization treaty of the UN, to which Mexico is signatory.
They also demand that the union's funds be un-frozen, and of course that the charges against the three officers be dropped. The SME is already being supported in this by the AFL-CIO and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union in the United States, as well as the World Federation of Trade Unions and at least 40 other unions and civic organizations in Mexico. The SME has joined forces with other organizations fighting against the Calderon administration's policies and will announce in the coming weeks a new united front political organization of the left to carry on the struggle.
What unionists in the United States can do is explained on the Mexican Labor News and Analysis website of the United Electrical Workers.