Mexican Electrical Workers Change Strategy in Face of Government Intransigence

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) celebrated its 95th anniversary on December 14 with cultural events and pledges to continue to fight for the jobs of its members. But now, two months since President Felipe Calderón's liquidation of the state-owned Central Light and Power Company (Luz y Fuerza del Centro), seizure of the facilities, and firing of the 44,000 workers, and faced with the government's intransigence, the union has been forced to change its strategy.

Dan La Botz

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) celebrated its 95th anniversary on December 14 with cultural events and pledges to continue to fight for the jobs of its members. But now, two months since President Felipe Calderón's liquidation of the state-owned Central Light and Power Company (Luz y Fuerza del Centro), seizure of the facilities, and firing of the 44,000 workers, and faced with the government's intransigence, the union has been forced to change its strategy.

While previously demanding the that the liquidation of the company be halted and that all workers returned to their jobs, the union now seeks mediation and negotiation with the government, asking that the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE), the state-owned successor company to Luz y Fuerza, hire 20,000 workers who have not accepted their termination and severance pay.

The latest blow against the union was the ruling on December 11 by Federal Judge Guillermina Coutiño Mata, which denied the Mexican Electrical Workers Union's petition for an injunction (amparo) to stop the liquidation of Luz y Fuerza. The judge declared that President Felipe Calderón had acted in accordance with the law when he liquidated the company because of what he said was its inefficiency and high cost, because in doing so he was putting the collective economic interests of all Mexicans ahead of the individual interests of the employees.

Both parties have ten days to appeal the judge's ruling, and the union plans to appeal to the next level, a tribunal where the case will be heard by a panel of judges. Union attorney Nestor de Buen says that from there the case will go to the Mexican Supreme Court where he believes the matter will likely be decided. Judge Coutiño Mata did not rule on claims that the government had violated some labor laws, saying that those complaints would be heard by the proper authority, which is the Federal Labor Board (JFCA).

Union leader Martín Esparza told workers that despite the ruling the SME would continue to engage in powerful peaceful actions. "We remain firm," said Esparza. "We are a peaceful citizens' movement with great power, with clear demands, and with ingenuity. We will continue with our national and our international alliances."

The SME has been strongly supported by several Mexican unions as well as by other unions from around the world. Last week a delegation of U.S. and Canadian labor union leaders visited Mexico to show their solidarity with fired electrical workers of Luz y Fuerza and to tell Mexican President Felipe Calderón it was not too late to negotiate a just resolution to this crisis. The delegation was led by Hassan Yussef, secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labor Confederation (CLC), and by Stanley Gacek, associate director of the International Department of the AFL-CIO. The group included the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada, the United Steel Workers (USW), which represents workers in both the Canada and the United States, and the Utility Workers Union and the independent United Electrical Workers Union, which represent U.S. workers.

The U.S.-Canadian trade union delegation expressed its solidarity with the SME members and their families and criticized the Mexican government for violating its own constitution and laws, for violating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for failing to live up to the standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO), as well as for human rights violations.

Upon the return of the delegation, USW President Leo Gerard sent a letter to the Mexican ambassador to the United States in which he states: "After this fact-finding mission, the USW is more convinced than ever that the Mexican government has acted outside the bounds of the Mexican Constitution and Labor Laws as well as ILO Convention 87 in carrying out the unilateral action of liquidating LyF [Luz y Fuerza]; firing all 44,000 employees of LyF; and effectively dissolving the SME union by this mass firing, by the interference in the SME internal elections and by the freezing of SME assets." The delegation's report and recommendations are expected later this week.

Meanwhile, the United Electrical Workers (UE), Grassroots Global Justice, and other organizations continue to promote the email campaign and to encourage the personal delivery of letters to Mexican consulates. As we go to press we are aware of visits to consulates in Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago and Boston. While international labor solidarity raises the morale of Mexican workers, it has not yet been able to move the Mexican government.(For information about sending an email or delivering a letter to the Mexican consulate, click here.)

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union and its members certainly face a darkening horizon. Time alone has taken its toll. After two months, the government's liquidation of the company appears to be a fait accompli. The Federal Electrical Commission and its loyal Sole Union of Electrical Workers (SUTERM), supported by hundreds of military electricians, moved in, took over the facilities and have successfully operated them now for two months, providing electricity to Mexico City and several surrounding states with only some occasional blackouts in limited areas. Some 62% of the 44,000 workers have accepted their terminations and severance pay and gone on to seek other jobs.

Although the union won an injunction in its case challenging the decree liquidating the company, that was recently overturned, and the union's legal and political strategy has been unsuccessful: the case filed by the Mexico City legislature was thrown out by the Supreme Court for lack of standing and the union's attempt to get the Mexican legislature to challenge the president's action as unconstitutional lacked sufficient support to move forward.

While the union has led impressive mass demonstration and work stoppages, with the holiday season now underway, it is unlikely that it will be able to carry out another mass action until the Christmas season ends on Three Kings Day, January 6.

Finally, as if all of that were not enough, the Mexican Labor Board (JFCA) declared on December 2 that Martín Esparza was not the general secretary of the union because his election has been fraudulent. Esparza has called for new union elections without the participation of the 62% of the workers who have accepted their severance pay.

While in the courts and in the legislature the SME continues to call for a reversal of the government's decision to liquidate the company, its new practical bargaining position represents a strategic retreat. The union now seeks to represent only 20,000 of the total of 44,000 former Light and Power workers and it does not seek to return them to their old jobs, but rather find them a place with the new employer, the Federal Electrical Commission. At the same time, it argues that the SME should represent those workers in their dealings with the new employer. While the Mexican Supreme Court has ruled that more than one union may legally represent workers within a single bargaining unit, that demand will surely be opposed by both the rival SUTERM, which now represents all workers in that company and the Mexican government.

The SME is seeking to have a group of "notables," that is, of prominent public persons, mediate in talks with the Mexican government. The notables are José Narro, rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM); Enrique Villa, director of Mexican Polytechnic Institute; together with leaders of two of country's major political parties, Carlos Navarrete of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Gustavo Madero of the National Action Party (PAN). That group met with union leaders Martín Esparza and Humbero Montes de Oca to hear their proposal. Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano Alarcón has said that in any meeting with the notables the government would not discuss any proposal to reverse the liquidation of the Light and Power Company. So far, the parties have not agreed to mediation, nor have the notables agreed to mediate.

As part of its turn to mediation, the SME ended the hunger strike being carried out by ten women and five men in front of the Federal Electrical Commission on December 9. The 15 hunger strikers had taken water, honey and saline solution for 17 days in protest of the government actions. The union said, however, that while it was ending the hunger strike it was not ending its sit-in there.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist. He edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Resource Center of the Americas.

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