In October 2009, with Mexico facing severe repercussions from the international economic crisis—its GDP contracting by nearly 6%—the government of President Felipe Calderón organized a takeover of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). Using the constitutional and legal powers that make the Mexican president effectively a monarch for his six-year term, President Calderón decreed the extinction of Central Light and Power (LyFC), the utility company that served Mexico City and four surrounding states. Not only did this action violate the Constitution and the law, but it took work away from more than 44,000 unionized electrical workers who were part of SME, left more than 22,000 retired electricians with diminished benefits, and harmed more than 66,000 families, who saw their life projects and most fundamental human rights truncated or destroyed.
In its war of extermination against SME, Calderón’s government counted on the complicity and assistance of the judicial system, as well as the legislative branch represented by the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. These chambers have legislative powers over the electrical industry, but declined to even discuss the closing of LyFC, let alone make a decision. To ensure the destruction of SME and its collective work contract, Calderón’s administration orchestrated a huge demonization campaign through the radio, TV, and print media, most of which is controlled by the powerful Mexican elite. Of course, the oligarchy contributed to and applauded the coup against SME.
SME has been a formidable obstacle to the privatization of the national electrical industry and the fiber optics in the electrical networks, both coveted for years by transnational corporations and their Mexican business partners. The fundamental goal of annihilating SME was, and still is, to eliminate that obstacle and open the industry to privatization. The ultra-right’s hatred for one of the oldest unions in Mexico was finally given an opening created by divisions within the union. But despite the odds against them and the fact that they were seemingly fighting a losing battle, the SME resisted the onslaught of the Mexican Leviathan until the very end.
SME was founded on December 14, 1914, just as the campesino armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata entered Mexico City. The SME was founded by a large group of workers from the Mexican Light and Power Company Limited, then a Canadian company based in Toronto and present in Mexico since 1903. Later, when Venustiano Carranza aimed to organize the working class into “Red Battalions” to combat Villa and Zapata, the SME declined to participate, presumably because their very first members were campesinos from Necaxa, Puebla. SME never lost its campesino origins, which remained an essential factor in its continued resistance. In states such as Hidalgo, Puebla, Michoacán, Morelos, Mexico State, and even in Mexico City, thousands of families of electrical workers maintained their campesino roots and continued working the land. Such strong campesino continuity meant that when left without work, the electricians were welcomed back home by their families, and even returned to cultivate their parcels of land.
Recently celebrating its centennial, SME has been a pillar in workers’ struggles throughout the last century. In 1916, SME led the first general strike in Mexico City. In 1935, working with other union and social organizations it formed the Committee for Defense of the Proletariat. And in 1936, SME helped found the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the workers’ center that they then abandoned the following year because of signs of bureaucratization under the control of Fidel Velázquez, eternal director of the center until his death in 1997. For decades, SME led the fight for the nationalization of the electrical industry, which was finally achieved in 1960. And from the 1990s on, SME has fought against the growing privatization of electricity, begun by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari through a reform—some say of dubious constitutionality—of the Law of Public Service of Electric Energy in 1992. In 1999, SME defeated the constitutional reform proposed by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León to privatize electricity and months later tabled another privatizing initiative of President Vicente Fox.
At the time of Calderón’s coup, LyFC, the state company that employed many members of SME, operated in the geographical center of the country: Mexico City, Puebla, Morelos, Hidalgo, and Mexico State. It generated a large portion of Mexico’s GDP, provided a little more than six million users with electricity, and was a strategic node in the national electric system.
On Saturday October 10, 2009, under the dark of night and with the Mexican national team’s soccer match providing distraction, the government violently took over more than 400 work centers of LyFC: electricity generation plants, electricity substations, distribution centers, administrative offices, foreign branches, and agencies. Like many of Mexico’s criminal gangs, they used an armed operation that involved thousands of members of the Mexican army dressed up as federal police. At gunpoint, thousands of night-shift workers were forced to abandon their worksites, without any documentation or explanation provided for what was going on. An hour later, just after midnight, Calderón sent out orders that loaned all the seized electricity goods to the other state company, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) to guarantee the continuity of the public service of electric energy in the area attended by LyFC. Several hours later, in the early hours of Sunday October 11, the Calderón administration published the Decree of the Extinction of Central Light, alleging million-dollar losses and a financially unsustainable labor liability, concluding that SME was not suitable for public interest and the national economy.
In reality, the Calderón government had prepared for the coup against SME since 2008, taking advantage of internal conflict in an SME election in which the union’s secretary general and 12 of 26 positions on the central committee were at stake. Calderón’s administration gave political and economic support to a group led by Secretary of the Treasury, Alejandro Muñoz. However, in a close electoral contest, the acting Secretary General, Martín Esparza Flores, won by a slim margin of 352 votes in a union with a membership of more than 66,000 and universal right to vote. After the loss by Calderón’s preferred candidate, the labor authorities, led by Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano Alarcón, declined to recognize Martín Esparza as the winner and thus left the union without any recognized leadership.
SME demanded legislative action in response to the midnight takeover of LyFC, asking the Chamber of Deputies to open a constitutional challenge. The PRI and PAN representatives had the necessary majority to refuse to open such a challenge, but they did not. Several months later some prominent members of the PRI publicly acknowledged that, at the time, they had given their endorsement for Calderón to carry out the coup. With a submissive Congress, Calderón’s administration did not have to work very hard to impose the decision to extinguish LyFC, in seeming violation of article 73 section 10 that grants Congress the legislative faculties for all actions relating to electrical energy.
Ignoring the claims and protests of SME and despite the support of a minority group of left and center-left representatives, the National Congress failed to make use of its constitutional powers and left the case in the hands of judicial power to rule against the electrical workers of SME.
Violating the most fundamental norms of due process, Calderón’s government warned the Federal Labor Board about the cancellation of the collective work contract. In response, SME submitted a protection claim against this arbitrary decision and immediately presented a demand before the labor tribunals for unjustified dismissal, demanding a replacement employer.
Despite all the evidence presented by SME, Mexico’s Supreme Court decreed on July 5, 2010 that the extinction of Central Light and Power was constitutional and legal. However, the Supreme Court declined to rule on a replacement employer or unjustified dismissal, leaving those issues in the hands of the labor authorities. Taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Calderón, on August 30, 2010, the Federal Labor Board acted in favor of the government, accepting the termination of the collective contract and with that the cessation of collective labor relations.
The labor issue and that of the replacement employer were finally resolved on September 13, 2012 in favor of SME. The Second Appellate Court on labor matters of the first circuit recognized the violations alleged by SME and in an unusual manner overturned the Labor Board’s ruling and recognized the CFE as substitute employer. However, the Calderón government appealed to the Labor Board, which, violating its own previous decision to leave the labor issue and demand for substitute employer in other hands, resolved that there was no place for a substitute employer. In the face of this aberrant decision, the SME appealed, as a final option, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presenting a complaint on May 24, 2013 for the violation of due process and human rights.
During this long, intricate, and complex process, up against all the power of the state and its legislative and judicial institutions, SME remained committed. In a historic general assembly, SME agreed to begin a long struggle of civic and peaceful resistance, using everything in its power, rejecting the settlements offered by the government. The government responded by demonizing the SME through a widespread TV, radio, and print media campaign, while simultaneously offering a second contract for those who had already settled, including juicy additional bonuses. By combining slander and bonuses, in about five months, the Calderón government reached settlements with about 28,000 former members of SME. The contract promises were never fulfilled, however, and only some 3,000 electrical workers who signed actually received employment in electric companies contracted with CFE.
Despite this, a core group of 15,000 electrical workers, with the support of around 10,000 retirees, resolved to battle until the end. The government response was overwhelming. They jailed dozens of SME electricians and opened hundreds of judicial proceedings. To survive, the resistance has resorted to everything: asking for donations in the streets, selling food on the park benches, doing electric work in houses and contracting in the informal economy as traveling salespeople or domestic workers. But due to the blacklists the federal government has circulated among the businesses of the Mexican oligarchy and their own offices, the SME electricians have been consistently shut out of the formal economy.
The SME’s historic battle of resistance has included hundreds of mobilizations, sit-ins, blockades, hunger strikes, meetings in public plazas, and massive leafleting. Currently, given internal contradictions among the oligarchy, the SME finds itself negotiating with the Secretary of Governance for an end to the conflict, in the midst of Mexico’s already complex social, political, and economic situation. The government has agreed to provide retirement benefits to 1,400 SME workers who were part of the resistance. Further negotiations will consider the reinsertion into the labor force of some 14,000 workers who have resisted since the October 2009 coup, but this step depends upon the approval of various privatizing initiatives to deliver capital to the petroleum and electricity industries.
While governor of Mexico State, Enrique Peña Nieto endorsed the decision of Felipe Calderón to extinguish LyFC, but today the president does not want to inherit the SME conflict on top of newer conflicts such as that with the teachers’ union. In the midst of an economic crisis without exit, he will be forced to resolve the conflict with SME. The union’s negotiations with the current government move on this sea of contradictions. The privatization is meant to be imposed through a constitutional reform, and the return to work will be given in very precarious conditions— itself the result of the privatization of the entire electricity production chain (generation, transformation, transmission, distribution, and commercialization). We do not trust the current government. We trust in our own strengths, in the alliances we have built with other social movements, and in the construction of a social bloc of the oppressed and exploited. But in this we are sure. We will regain our jobs, we will guarantee the survival of our SME, and then will come the fight to topple the tyranny and advance the construction of a Mexico with liberty, justice, and democracy.
José Antonio Almazán González, an electrician and union activist since 1976, has held various elected positions in the SME, and currently is Sub-Secretary of Retirees. He was an advisor to the EZLN in the dialogues of San Andrés in 1996 and a member of the Mexican Congress from 2006 to 2009. Translated by Naomi Glassman.
Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Spring issue: "Mexico: The State Against the Working Class"