On the night of October 10, a joint force of military and police personnel, looking like a SWAT team on the verge of a major drug bust, surrounded hundreds of buildings in and around Mexico City. Equipped with shields, helmets, and billy clubs ready to strike, they waited for a coordinated signal, and then hopped the walls and seized the buildings. The buildings in question belonged not to one of Mexico's big-time crime syndicates, but to Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Central Light and Power), the public power company that for decades has provided electricity to millions of people in the most populated part of the center of the country, including over 25 million people in the Mexico City area. Later that night, around midnight, President Felipe Calderón issued a presidential decree liquidating the company. Unless the liquidation is reversed, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the public electricity company that covers the rest of the country, will have absorbed Luz y Fuerza.
Luz y Fuerza del Centro is the employer of some 44,000 workers, most of whom belong to one of the most feisty, democratic and independent unions in Mexico, The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). Just like that, amidst the worst economic crisis Mexico has suffered since 1930s, 44,000 workers no longer had jobs. Eliminating the SME means eliminating "one of the few independent and democratic unions that remain in Mexico," says Ben Davis of the AFL-CIO's Mexico Solidarity Center.
By contrast, while the SME has traditionally been a painful thorn in the administration's side, especially in its successful resistance to the privatization of the energy sector, the Sole Union of Electrical Workers of the Mexican Republic (SUTERM), which represents workers of the CFE, has traditionally been submissive and under tight government control. Now all electrical workers in the country will be under this one union, the SUTERM, a union that is also known not to resist but to push for the privatization of the energy sector.
The Calderón administration has taken a step back to a tactic of the long authoritarian rule of the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in order to take a giant step forward into Mexico's militarized free market future. What has now changed is that the administration has one of the largest security budgets in Mexico's history at its disposal, resources that are justified to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. Along with the steadily rising security budget there has been an increasing and systematic repression of social movements, communities defending their natural resources, and independent unions, especially since Calderón took office in 2006.
The strike against Luz y Fuerza was very possibly reinforced by funds from the Mérida Initiative, the billion-dollar military aid package from the United States to Mexico. Though justified to help Mexico fight the drug war, the Merida Initiative fits into a larger geopolitical strategy, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The SPP, created in a 2005 meeting of the U.S., Mexican and Canadian heads of state, is an initiative that promotes deeper security, economic, and energy integration among the three countries. Although there is some question as to whether the SPP still actively functions under that name, Marco Antonio Velázquez of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC) stressed in an interview that the use of a military and police operation against the SME is a clear indication that its "policies are still in place."
In this militarized surprise attack against Luz y Fuerza and its militant union, President Calderón's much-touted war on organized crime has morphed into a war against organized workers. Few people who follow Mexican politics believe that the seizure of the company was motivated by its "inefficiency," as Calderón claimed on the night of the takeover. More credible is the belief that it was about removing a union that was antagonistic to both authoritarian control and huge neoliberal economic plans to reform the energy sector. "It has to do with the goal of reaching 'energy integration' in North America, which is one of the principal goals of the SPP," says RMALC's Velázquez, "The Presidential decree had the purpose of eliminating an obstacle, the SME, to gain trust of foreign investors."
"Inefficiency they say," a former Luz y Fuerza worker told me, responding to Calderón's accusation as if he himself were being blamed for it. "It wasn't us running the plants. It wasn't us deciding how much would be invested. We just worked with what we had." Domingo Aguilar, an officer of the SME, says the government had not invested in Luz y Fuerza for over 30 years. "The government stopped investing to strangle us little by little. Our machinery is practically the same as it was 100 years ago when we started." The lack of investment, say many critics, was apparently meant to squeeze the company out of existence, to follow multinational demands that the energy sector be privatized.
In an interview, the AFL-CIO's Davis stressed to me that, contrary to what the government says, "the move to the CFE is clearly a move to privatization." For years the CFE has been increasingly moving in the direction of privatization, and concessions to private, primarily foreign companies skyrocketed during the Fox administration (2000-2006). Private companies such as Iberdrola, Union Fonesa, Intergen, GE-Bechtel, and Mitsubishi already have over 30% of the contracts to sell energy to the CFE. The final goal of the Calderón administration, according to the SME, is that by 2012, these private companies control "58% of the installed capacity of energy generation in Mexico, making electricity privatization a forgone conclusion."
While the Obama administration has continued to applaud the Calderón administration for its "valiant" fight against organized crime, it has said nothing about the use of security forces to dismantle Luz y Fuerza. When President Obama was on campaign in 2008 he explicitly mentioned the importance of strong independent unions in all three countries when he promised to renegotiate NAFTA. Since then, many say he has backed away from this promise, under the pressure of larger business interests. This body blow against unionized workers in Mexico is a clear indication that instead of heading in the direction of this promised renegotiation of NAFTA, there is an uncomfortable trend toward keeping the most undemocratic form of NAFTA in place, one that depends on military force, under the geopolitical rubric of the SPP.
This trend could have its blowback. Mexican journalist Luis Hernández says that "this is very far from being a mere dispute between the SME and the federal government. It has become now a key point in the class struggle in the country." A march of over 250,000 in Mexico City sent up flares of this possibility on October 15. Other unions, student groups, and members of civil society joined in the march that poured into Mexico City's center square. "Solution or Revolution!" yelled the marchers, calling the military/police raid and shut-down of Luz y Fuerza plants unconstitutional.
Labor historian Dan LaBotz has called the current situation a "watershed moment." If this is truly a watershed moment Mexico's security forces are ready, and they are backed by resources from the Merida Initiative. Since Calderón took office in 2006 the size of the federal police force has grown from 15,000 to 40,000 operatives, while soldiers routinely patrol the streets in major cities. Even today the police stand guard at the Luz y Fuerza plants, eerily symbolic of this new militarized economy.
But resistance is growing. On November 11 tens of thousands of people marched into the center of Mexico City. The general secretary of the SME, Martin Esparza, said to the crowd: "One month ago the buildings of Luz y Fuerza were seized in an assault, at night, as if by bandits, like cowards, and they made their decree. They thought they were going to annihilate us, but here is the conscience of more than 100 years of history of the SME movement." The SME is pushing for a full-fledged national strike as the next step in the struggle to save the public power company and its independent union.
Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate.