Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Unions Take Over Mexico City to Support Electricians

Thousands of unionists and supporters shut down Mexico City during morning rush hour on Friday. They were protesting President Felipe Calderon's recent decision to unilaterally close the government-owned Luz y Fuerza del Centro electricity company. In the middle of the night this past October 10-11, Calderon sent thousands of soldiers and militarized Federal Police to take over Luz y Fuerza buildings and fire its workers. Thousands of Federal Police continue to occupy the power company buildings.

Specifically, the unionists who took to the streets on Friday turned out to support the Mexican Union of Electric Workers (SME), the union that represents Luz y Fuerza workers, in their demand that the Calderon administration negotiate with the union. They want to negotiate the reinstatement of SME's 44,000 workers and continued pensions for its 22,000 retirees.

Unions, civic associations, peasant organizations, student groups, and neighborhood associations from across the country traveled to Mexico City to support the SME as it took over Mexico City. Some unions, such as those from Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, Queretaro, and Zacatecas, arrived in a caravan that snaked through several states over a period of three days, holding rallies and picking up more supporters along the way.

The unionists and their supporters blocked the four main entrances into Mexico City for hours on Friday morning. After holding their blockades for between one and two hours, they marched to the center of the city converging in Revolution Plaza. Along the way, they picked up other contingents of unionists and students who were blockading key intersections within the city.

The SME and its supporters held a rally in Revolution Plaza, but the number of marchers far exceeded the plaza's capacity. By the time the contingent from Oaxaca and Chiapas arrived at Revolution Plaza, for example, they could not enter. Instead, they flooded the streets around the Plaza.

During the marches and rally, some rank-and-file unionists drove off reporters and camera crews from Mexico's corporate media with chants of "Que se ve la fuerza del SME!" ("Here you can see the power of the SME!"). The SME and its supporters have been extremely critical of the corporate media's pro-government/anti-union slant in its coverage of the Luz y Fuerza closure.

After being chased away by unionists, some camera crews returned to the rally without their press credentials in an attempt to slip in unnoticed. Rank-and-file workers recognized them and chased them out of the area. While there was no official rule in place prohibiting the corporate media's coverage of the event (at least one corporate media camera crew managed to film the rally) the incidents do reflect the rage rank-and-file workers feel about how the corporate media has portrayed them.

On the other hand, unionists received independent media with open arms and went out of their way to facilitate interviews with union spokespeople.

National Support

One of the most striking aspects of Friday's mobilization was the broad national support for the SME. Some states, such as Oaxaca, sent thousands of union members to participate in the takeover of the nation's capital.

Unions from other states, however, were unable to send large delegations due to labor disputes in their own regions. Between 50-70 people came from San Luis Potosi, for example. Those 50-70 people, however, represented at least ten different unions.

Guadalupe Cervantes came to the mobilization as part of a two-person delegation from the San Luis Potosi Independent Union of State Government Workers. She explains that her union couldn't spare more members. "We're in planton [round-the-clock picket]. At this moment we're suffering repression at the hands of the state government. However, even though our presence here is small, we had to come support the SME. It is very important to support the SME because this is all part of a plan to do away with unions. If the government can do something like this to the SME, what will it do to the rest of the unions?"

A representative from the Glassworkers Union in San Luis Potosi reports that his union is in a similar situation. "Former US Ambassador Tony Garza's wife owns the factory where we bottled beer for Grupo Modelo. We've been locked out for nearly two years." He says that the state government collaborated with Grupo Modelo's union busting and attempted to impose government-controled leadership on the union, which celebrated its first democratic union election in 2006. Despite his union's dire situation, he says they had to send a delegation to take over Mexico City in solidarity with the SME. "The government can't do this to the SME. It has such a long history of struggle."

Countless small delegations such as these added one or two thousand people to the approximately 5,000-person human blockade that shut down the eastern entrance to the city. The blockade at the eastern entrance appears to be one of the smaller ones that occurred on Friday.

One of the largest non-SME delegations that participated in Friday's blockades was the contingent from Mexico City's National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Students and unionized professors and other university workers came out to support the SME. UNAM students remember that the SME supported them in their successful 1999 student strike against tuition increases. "Yesterday it was the UNAM, and today it's the SME" is a commonly heard phrase on the UNAM campus and at SME events.

Women's Hunger Strike

Meanwhile, on Friday ten female SME members entered their twelfth day of hunger strike outside of a Luz y Fuerza administrative building downtown. The women are consuming only water.

Narco News spoke with Monica Jimenez Acosta, the coordinator of Women Electricians in Resistance on her eleventh day of hunger strike. She explains that she is the third generation of electricians in her family. When Felipe Calderon used the Federal Police and the military to fire SME members, they didn't just put Jimenez out of work; her brothers, sisters, cousins, and uncles also lost their jobs on that fateful night. Jimenez, a single mother, used her MX$8,000 (US$630) monthly salary to support herself and her daughter. She worked at Luz y Fuerza for ten years.

Jimenez says that the women decided to hunger strike because they felt that the government has gone too far. "They threw us into the street as if we were criminals." She explains that the Women Electricians in Resistance sought an audience with political parties, federal agencies, and the Calderon administration. The government's response? "They kicked us and beat us with billy clubs. And they told us, 'Why don't you sell junk food at traffic lights? Why don't you set up a stand to sell telephones or quesadillas? If you've got a husband in Luz y Fuerza, why doesn't he take construction classes, and you can cut hair? If you like the night life, why don't you learn to mix drinks and work in a bar?' This is complete and utter cynicism. It's a lack of respect. Why don't they make their mothers work those jobs?"

Jimenez explains that over one hundred female SME members signed up to hunger strike, but that after medical screenings and other considerations, it was decided that eleven women would go without food. However, their round-the-clock picket has the support of hundreds of people at any given time. Those people guard the camp and keep the women's spirits up with visits from clergy who lead prayers for the swift re-opening of Luz y Fuerza and mariachis who serenade the hunger strikers on their birthdays.

Thus far the SME has not announced what its next move will be as it continues to pressure the Calderon administration into negotiations. However, SME's suddenly unemployed members are keeping themselves busy. A commission of SME workers recently returned from Europe where they rallied support in several countries. SME workers have reached out to non-labor organizations, they've traveled the country to tell their story, and they hold regular events in Mexico City such as movie screenings, panel discussions, and speaking engagements in universities.

Source: This article originally appeared in Narco News on December 4, 2009

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