Mexican union fights privatizing electrical grid

In recent years, the Mexican Electricians Union (SME, Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas) has been a key force in progressive politics in Mexico. It has been able to defend the interests of its members when many other sectors of the Mexican working class have been beaten down by the combination of the world financial crisis and the anti-labor policies of right wing Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon.  And the union has been at the center of coalition building efforts to fight against imperialism, neoliberalism and corporate globalization, at home and abroad.

In other words, the SME has been a thorn in the side of President Calderon and his right wing political party, the PAN (National Action Party).  Particularly annoying is that the SME is an obstacle to the government’s plan to defund and eventually privatize the central electrical generation and transmission systems based in Mexico City and neighboring central states, controlled now by a public entity, Central Light and Power (Luz y Fuerza del Centro).  Calderon knows that as long as SME members are in operational control of the electrical grid, privatization moves are likely to run up against militant opposition, the more so since one of the SME’s historic achievement has been the organizing of the broadly based National Front Against the Privatization of the Electrical Industry (Frente Nacional en Contra de la Privatizacion de la Industria Electrica).

The SME is also a very active component of the main coalition in Mexico which is opposed to corporate globalization and neoliberalism, and which has made advanced demands including the renegotiation of NAFTA.

This, charges SME Secretary General Martin Esparza Flores, is why, on Oct. 5, Mexico’s Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano Alarcon announced that he was not recognizing Esparza and his slate as the winners of a close union election in July.  At the same time, he is recognizing Alejandro Muñoz Resendiz, who ran against Esparza, as ongoing union treasurer, even though the union general assembly declared Muñoz to be deposed. At the same time, the management of Central Light and Power stopped delivering dues subtracted from workers’ paychecks to the union, and elements of a feared federal anti-riot police body were seen assembled near the central operations of Central Light and Power.

Labor Secretary Lozano Alarcon claimed that his motive for not recognizing the Esparza group’s victory was that there were “discrepancies” between the number of votes cast in certain areas and the number of union members who live in those areas.  Esparza quickly pointed out that under the statutes of the SME, electrical workers posted to work outside their home areas are allowed to vote in the areas to which they were posted, which, he said, more than explains the so-called “discrepancies” (the union has about 66,000 members including retirees and part timers, and about 55,000 voted in the election). Furthermore, Esparza and his allies pointed out, there have been several cases, involving the Petroleum Workers’ Union and others, in which the secretary of Labor has simply handed over the prized recognition of union leadership (called “toma de nota”) to pro-government union leaders whose legitimacy was under a far greater shadow.

Both sides are girding for a long and intense fight, similar to the years-long confrontation between the Fox and Calderon administrations and the Mexican Mine and Metal Workers’ Union.

The union leadership has made the accusation that the head of the ruling National Action Party, Cesar Nava, had been advancing union dues funds to the Muñoz faction before the election, so that a pro-government faction could be elected (both Nava and Muñoz deny this).

The SME leadership has made an appeal to the Mexican Chamber of Deputies to take action to force Secretary Alarcon to recognize the results of the July election, and to un-freeze the union’s funds.  It got a positive response from a majority of the multi-party Coordinating Committee of the Chamber, with congresspersons from the Center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, Convergence Party and Labor Party, as well as the formerly ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), while the delegations of Calderon’s National Action Party and allies opposed it.

On Oct. 9, tens of thousands of SME members and supporters marched through the center of Mexico City, and the possibility of a strike is being considered, though Esparza has promised not to plunge the area into a blackout.  The SME is also formulating an appeal to the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations.