Worker-farmer protests rock Mexico

A major event took place just across our border, but few U.S. media took note of it: Hundreds of thousands of workers and farmers marched through the streets of Mexico City and other Mexican cities and towns Jan. 30, demanding that their government deal with the growing economic crisis.

The current U.S. and world financial crisis is hitting Mexico hard. It’s a country whose growth has been stagnating for a decade, even in comparison with other Latin American countries. Mexico’s per capita gross domestic product is one-quarter that of the United States. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the much smaller Mexican economy reacts drastically to economic disruption north of its border, especially as 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are to the USA. Not only has U.S. demand for Mexican-made products dropped sharply, but Mexican immigrants living and working in the U.S. have also cut back on the money they send back to relatives in Mexico. These remittances are Mexico’s second largest source of foreign currency, after oil.

Since the inception of NAFTA, Mexico has increasingly imported basic foodstuffs from the United States, Canada and other places. Now the Mexican peso has been dropping like a stone against the dollar, from 9.87 pesos per dollar in August 2008 to 14.50 pesos per dollar two weeks ago. This has greatly exacerbated the already problematic price rise for imported staples.

Mexico’s industrial production dropped 3.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008, and manufacturing exports dropped 8 percent. Income from the key petroleum industry has dropped a mind-boggling 42.3 percent, mostly because of the drop in world oil prices. Yet farmers and truckers complain that the price of diesel fuel keeps rising.

These blows and the threat of more and worse to come spurred the Jan. 30 march.

The umbrella coalition which put together the demonstrations, called the National Movement for Food and Energy Sovereignty, Workers Rights and Democratic Freedoms, brought together labor unions and federations such as the National Workers Union (UNT), the National Coordinating Committee of Educational Workers (CNTE), the National Federation of University and Higher Education Employees’ Unions (CNSUES), the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, the National Union of Mine, Metal and Similar Workers of the Mexican Republic, and the Mexican Labor Front (FSM). But numerous members of other unions also joined the demonstrations.

In addition, major peasant or farmers organizations including the venerable National Peasants’ Federation (CNC), the National Council of Rural and Farming Organizations (CONORP), the National Union of Regional, Peasants and Autonomous Organizations (UNORCA), the Independent Peasant Center (CCI) and the Democratic Peasants Union, as well as a wide range of civic organizations of other kinds, did a splendid job of mobilizing their bases.

The protesters demanded that the right-wing government of President Felipe Calderon drop its neoliberal, anti-worker policies and replace them with policies that respond to the critical needs of workers and farmers.

A particular concern was the question of pensions.

In the 1990s pension funds for Mexican workers were privatized into entities called “afores,” with the promise that private pension fund managers would be able to get better yields for workers than the government would — essentially the same thing that George W. Bush and the Republicans have been trying to foist on the United States.

Now, with the worldwide financial and economic crisis, workers and retirees face the possibility that the use of afores will result in the looting of the pension funds, leaving the workers with nothing. So a key demand of the marchers was that the government re-nationalize the privatized pension funds to protect their value.

Other demands included a massive jobs program; renegotiation of the agricultural clauses of NAFTA to rescue Mexican small farmers who are being swamped by U.S. and Canadian dumping of grains and other crops; creation of a new unemployment insurance program; more government help for small farmers; help for mortgage payments for people who have lost their jobs; improvements in the educational system, a reduction in diesel fuel prices; renegotiation of foreign debt; and protection of Mexican national sovereignty.

Speaking at the rally in Mexico City, the secretary general of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, Martin Esparza, said, “The bankers and businessmen, in complicity with the governments, are those who are breaking the world economy,” the Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported. “Are we going to accept that they make us pay for a crisis which we did not generate?” he asked.

Evidently, millions of people in Mexico, the United States and around the world are ready to fight to prevent that from happening.