On a recent Sunday morning in Mexico City’s Alameda Park, fists pumped in the air as 300 voices proclaimed in unison: “I won’t pay until the union workers return!” At similar gatherings throughout the capital city in January and February, neighbors and consumers have organized “strike committees” and pledged to withhold payment on their electric bills, in solidarity with the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME).
The SME’s 44,000 members were summarily dismissed in October when President Felipe Calderón forcibly liquidated the state-owned Central Light and Power Company (LFC), serving Mexico City and four surrounding states, and merged its operations into the larger Federal Electrical Commission (CFE). The union and its supporters viewed the move as an effort to disband the SME, a combative, energetic, and highly independent union that has been in the forefront of working-class struggles in Mexico for almost a century. (For NACLA coverage of the SME-Calderón conflict, see the recent updates by Dan LaBotz and Todd Miller.)
In addition to winning a living wage and economic security for its members through strong collective-bargaining contracts, the SME has a history of solidarity with popular organizations and social movements. In the 1980s, the union helped earthquake victims rebuild Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods and shut off power to the city in support of striking university students. In the 1990s, the SME installed power lines for Zapatista communities in the Chiapas jungle. The union has been in the forefront of the contemporary struggle against privatization of Mexico’s energy resources and has allied with peasant leagues, student activists, poor people’s organizations, and other independent trade unions.
The SME strongly supported Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the 2006 presidential race—a reality not lost on Calderón. Today López Obrador’s grassroots supporters are mobilizing in force for the No Pague! (Don’t Pay!) campaign. (One such group sponsored the Alameda rally). According to journalist John Ross, a longtime observer of Mexican politics, López Obrador has basically turned his field organization over to the SME.
The union has recently experienced substantial setbacks, including an adverse court ruling and the government’s rejection of a mediation offer from a group of distinguished “notables.” Sixty-two percent of workers formerly employed by the LFC state power company have accepted the government’s severance package, making the company’s extinction a virtual certainty. This has encouraged the SME to diversify its strategies and refocus its demands to appeal to a broader popular constituency.
The No Pague campaign has three demands: emergency rehiring (at least on a temporary basis) of the 18,000 SME workers who have not accepted termination; a freeze on electricity rates and restoration of pensioner subsidies; and a halt to privatization of energy resources. According to the leaflet distributed in the Alameda, former LFC customers have no legal contract with CFE, and therefore no obligation to pay for its services. The SME promises technical and legal assistance to restore power for anyone whose service is cut off.
The demand for emergency rehiring taps into widespread community discontent with the quality of service provided by the CFE since the LFC’s liquidation. Transformer explosions, shutdowns, and prolonged blackouts have become commonplace, especially in Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods. In the Mexico City borough of Azcapotzalco, frustrated citizens have protested with road blockades; elsewhere, neighbors have resorted to high-risk self-help tactics in attempting to restore their own electricity. Businesses, including 550 manufacturing companies in an industrial zone north of the city, are seeking compensation for extensive losses.
The problem, according to SME leader Martín Esparza, is an aging infrastructure crippled by decades of public disinvestment, compounded now by the incompetence of CFE’s bare-bones workforce. Much of the repair work is now outsourced to private contractors, with low-wage, non-union workers trucked in from other states and living in heavily guarded camps. The replacement workers frequently lack training, safety equipment, and even uniforms. According to Esparza, downtown Mexico City is an “electrical time bomb” waiting to explode.
The SME’s demand for a freeze on electric rates resonates with consumers who have seen their payments more than double since October. As a case in point, Agustín Guerrero Castillo, a federal PRD deputy from Mexico City, reports that his new five-day bill from CFE is as high as his last bimonthly bill from LFC. Meanwhile, LFC pensioners complain that their free electricity quota (700 kilowatts bimonthly) has disappeared. The SME has filed more than 3,000 complaints with the federal prosecutor for consumer protection; to date, none have been adjudicated.
As the SME argues in its documentary Y se hizo la luz! (And Then There Was Light!), LFC’s high costs and inefficient operations—the alleged rationale for its liquidation—are not due to the union but to the increasing privatization of electric power. Prevented from generating its own electricity, LFC was forced to buy power from CFE at the exorbitant prices charged to CFE by its private producers, including transnational corporations. LFC then sold electricity at a discounted price to consumers, and even more cheaply to businesses, suffering huge losses, which were subsidized by the federal government. Many businesses and government institutions—including certain luxury hotels, newspapers, and Los Pinos, the Mexican White House—were exempt from paying for electricity.
Now the government wants to develop and privatize a lucrative fiberoptics network on the lines formerly owned by LFC, providing cable TV, Internet, and phone services. Six hundred and eighty two miles of this network have already been installed, at public expense. A 30-year concession for the “triple play” connection has been granted to WL Communications, a Spanish firm controlled by two former federal energy secretaries. The only obstacle to this scheme is the SME, which argues that LFC as a public company should provide telecommunications services directly, reinvesting its profits for the benefit of electrical workers and consumers.
A few days before the Alameda rally, the PRD’s Guerrero pledged that all federal PRD deputies were committed to the No Pague campaign. In the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, SME leaders burned their electric bills in front of the National Palace. The daily paper La Jornada reported the theft of 4,000 electric bills from post offices in the state of Hidalgo.
In the Alameda, a woman whose cap identified her as a member of Las Adelitas (a corps of feisty López Obrador supporters named after the legendary women’s brigade in the Mexican Revolution) assured me there will be massive consumer civil disobedience, although she was less certain about its outcome. With 44,000 workers and 22,000 pensioners, she said, everyone has family or friends who are suffering. “It’s the least we can do, for a just cause,” she said.
Emily Achtenberg is a NACLA Research Associate and an urban planner who researches urban social movements in Latin America.