Professor John Womack, an expert on Mexican labor history, has given up a prestigious prize, asking that it instead be awarded to the embattled Mexican Electrical Workers’ Union.

The prize is called the 1808 Medal, is awarded by the government of Mexico’s Federal District, which included Mexico City. It is given annually in honor of heroes of Mexico’s independence struggle against Spain. Recently retired Womack, who is the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics at Harvard and the author of a noted book on Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata is the 1808 recipient, along with another historian Eric Van Young.

The “1808” refers to the date on which a government autonomous from Spain was set up in Mexico City, two years before the official declaration of independence. It is given to benefactors of the Mexican nation, whether Mexicans or foreigners.

Womack sent a remarkable letter to the awards committee, which was read out to the audience by Mexican historian Alicia Hernandez Chavez.

The letter read in part:

“I accept the honor of the prize, the 1808 Medal, which the committee has awarded me. I accept the distinction, not because I think my work deserves a prize, but because of the love I feel for this great city, the greatest and most tremendous that I know.

“I recall the year 1973. An organization, to which I owe a special debt, opened its historical archives to support my research on the workers’ movement: I refer to the Mexican Electricians’ Union, the SME.

“I always have in mind its essential characteristic: The SME [has been] the most strategic, honorable and responsible union in the country, always acting as the force and symbol of the collective of Mexico City and the great metropolitan area of the country.

“[It is] Very special because, from 1915 [when the SME was founded] to the present year, 2009, it has maintained itself autonomous from the commitments tying other organizations to economic and political forces of power”. 

Womack’s letter goes on to mention events in the SME history, for example the events of 1914-1915 when the Liberation Army of the South, headed by revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, and the SME cooperated to keep a high level of order in Mexico City when the Zapatista troops took over the region.

The context of Womack’s gesture is one of a ferocious attack on the union by the corrupt and reactionary government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. After refusing to recognize the results of an SME leadership election, on October 12, 2009, Calderon mobilized police and pounced on facilities of the public utility “Central Light and Power” where workers were represented by SME, and declared the utility dissolved and the union nonexistent. Many believe that this action, directed at a union which refused to accept neoliberal policies to which the Calderon administration is wedded, was a prelude to the privatization of the electrical industry, as well as a blow against left-wing opposition to the government.

The union and its allies has been fighting back hard, mounting legal and constitutional challenges and mobilizing tens of thousands of its own members (about 62,000 including many retirees) and allies in mass protest marches in Mexico City and other places. It was this gallant fight, as well as SME’s long history of struggle, which Womack intended to honor by passing on the 1808 medal.

In his letter, Womack denounced the “obscurantist” methods of the Calderon government and pointed to the wider goal for which the SME and others are fighting: “The citizens, not only of Mexico but also of the entire world, demand efficient and more just governments, not wasteful ones; we demand transparency in parastatal enterprises and those with mixed public and private capital”.

Mexico City regional Governor Marcelo Ebrard, who has supported the SME’s struggle, expressed appreciation of Womack’s gesture, and blasted Calderon’s attack on the union.