Hardscrabble holidays for Mexico’s underclass
By John Ross / The Rag Blog / December 21, 2009
MEXICO CITY — The Christmas season is in full flower in this monster megalopolis. “The World’s Tallest Christmas Tree” (dixit Mayor Marcelo Ebrard) which looks suspiciously like a huge bottle of Pepsi Cola (the sponsor of this Xmas kitsch) towers over the elegant Paseo de la Reforma. Ice skaters pirouette on the great rink that floors the Tiananmen-sized Zocalo plaza — at the heart of the Mexican body politic, Zamboni machines now rule. There is even a dollop of snow on the surrounding volcanoes.
As is traditional, the government has shut down until after January 6, the Day of the Kings, and hordes of glassy-eyed shoppers stampede through the downtown streets. Ersatz Santa Clauses cadge coins on the corners of the Centro Historico and each evening neighborhood Marias and Joses knock on doors pleading for posada, a safe place for Mary to birth the Christ child. The pilgrims are treated to ponche (high-octane alcohol splashed with fruit punch) and piñatas stuffed with candy to the delight of sugar-crazed moppets.
Navidad should be a moment of respite in the hardscrabble lives of the vast majority of Mexicans (80%) who live in and around the poverty line but in a year where the underclass, trapped in a seemingly bottomless downturn has suffered grievously, the holiday season has become a cruel hoax.
The hoax is even crueler for 42,000 members of the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME) who two months ago were pushed out of their workplaces at the Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC), the state-subsidized enterprise that supplied electricity to Mexico City and five surrounding states. Under orders from President Felipe Calderon, the company was dissolved. Military police continues to occupy the installations.
For the union and the combative social movement that accompanies it, the coup d’grace may have come December 11, two months to the day of the takeover, when the Conciliation and Labor Arbitration Court denied the SME’s request for an injunction to reverse the shutdown. Judge Guillermina Coutino, a young and malleable jurist in her first year on the bench, ruled that the executive branch was in its rights to close down a government enterprise if it imperiled the national economy.
By 2009, Luz y Fuerza del Centro, decapitalized by zero investment during the administration of the past four neo-liberal Mexican presidents, was turning increasingly negative numbers. Calderon argued that the shortfall was costing the federal government billions of pesos in subsidies that could be better used to alleviate the suffering of 26,000,000 Mexicans living in extreme poverty.
One reason why LFC was running so deep in the red: the company was forced to buy its electricity from the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) at exorbitant prices – 35 to 40% of CFE electricity is now generated by the private sector, particularly transnationals like the Spanish Iberdrola, despite constitutional prohibitions that restricts energy generation to the state. With the shuttering of Luz y Fuerza, energy distribution in Mexico City and adjoining states will be overseen by the CFE.
Despite Calderon’s insistence that he had no option but to close down LFC, many observers see this slight of hand as a pretext for privatization and the installation of a fiber optics network on the old Luz y Fuerza lines to be contracted with W Communications, another Madrid-based transnational fronted here by two former Mexican energy secretaries — Calderon himself is an ex-energy secretary.
The denial of the union’s request for an amparo (injunction) was a critical wound for the SME, which seemed to have put all its eggs in the legal basket and was delusionally confident that the takeover would be deemed an unconstitutional exercise of Calderon’s authority. SME lawyers vowed to appeal the turndown to an unsympathetic Supreme Court.
The union has been further weakened, perhaps mortally so, by the voluntary liquidation of more than half its members — 27,000 out of 42,000 workers, 61% of the membership, have caved in to Calderon’s entreaties to cash out. Despite sugar-coated comeons by hardnosed labor secretary Javier Lozano that liquidated workers would be re-contracted by the CFE, only 3% of the ex-SME members have been signed on — those who have are forced to abandon the SME and affiliate with a company union, the SUTERN, whose charro (sell-out) leaders have a baleful track record in defending workers’ rights.
Older workers were bamboozled into liquidating by Calderon’s promises that they would be first in line for fast food franchises in which to invest their pay-out checks but the cheapest buy-in was reportedly 190.000 pesos to sell ready-made tacos (tacos de canasta) in the street.
In 1914, at the height of the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa and the great Zapata occupying the capital, the city’s electricity workers struck the transnational Canadian Light & Power Company, paralyzing trolley car transit over demands for the recognition of a union. The SME was born into social turmoil and has not been a stranger to struggle in its near-century on the march. Always a bastion of working class solidarity, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas has traditionally sent tens of thousands of its workers into the streets to back up citizens’ demands for justice from a government once described as a “perfect dictatorship.”
In 2006, the SME incurred Felipe Calderon’s undying wrath when it backed leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the presidential race the right-winger was later dubiously awarded, and urged its members to vote for AMLO. Retribution is one of the subtexts of Calderon’s takeover of Luz y Fuerza del Centro.
Since the October putsch, those SME members who line up with firebrand secretary general Jorge Esparza have mounted nonviolent civil resistance 24-7. Three mass mobilizations have drummed out nearly a million marchers. On October 15, just four days after Calderon’s takeover, a quarter of a million incensed citizens filled the Zocalo. On November 11th, the SME spearheaded another huge turnout that was billed as a national strike — telephone workers shut down Information services for an hour but no other work stoppages were reported.
Although the “strike” was supported by some public employees unions and unions representing workers at former government enterprises grouped together in the National Union of Workers or UNT, it was pointedly ignored by pro-government unions like the Education Workers (SNTE), with 1.3 million members the largest labor organization in Latin America whose leader Elba Esther Gordillo, the virtual czarina of public education, is a Calderon crony. Nonetheless, dissident teachers have provided bulwark back up for the SME.
A third public outpouring December 4, a symbolic takeover of the capital to commemorate the day Zapata and Villa rode into Mexico City (Mexico will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its revolution in 2010) brought out tens of thousands of supporters who marched into the center of the city from the four cardinal directions and tied traffic in knots all day and all night. Indignant at the biased reporting of Televisa, the nation’s television kingpin — Calderon runs spots on primetime news urging SME members to go scab and accept liquidation — workers staged a rare nighttime march on the communication conglomerate’s headquarters to demand airtime. A tense standoff ensued and was only resolved when the SME’s Esparza offered to buy time to present the workers’ side of the story.
The militancy of the SME rank and file has been unrelenting. Eleven electricistas were jailed for a week after they blocked the federal highway from Queretero into the city. Fifteen workers endured a 17-day hunger strike in front of the CFE offices demanding reinstatement. Two women hunger strikers, Cielo Fuentes and Monica Jimenez, are fourth generation SMErs who remember being rocked to sleep at union meetings when they were babies.
Ex-LFC workers shake cans in the subway and on the buses to keep their families fed. Many workers’ families have been forced to sell in the street to make ends meet. “There’s not enough corn in Mexico to supply all the new quesadilla makers Calderon has created,” one union member joked.
On December 12, the day Mexico sets aside to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Aztec nation’s patron saint, Samuel Ruiz, the liberationist Bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, conducted Mass at the union hall, imploring the Dark Madonna to help the workers get their jobs back and condemning the corruption of the mal gobierno (bad government.)
As the movement enters into its third month with no resolution in sight, the Virgin of Guadalupe may be one of the few assets the SME can rely on.
International support for the embattled union has not been spectacular. U.S. and Canadian labor federations have made perfunctory pilgrimages to Mexico City in solidarity. Stan Gacek, speaking for Richard Trumpka, the new AFL-CIO chieftain, accused the Calderon government of violating the terms of the labor side-agreements signed along with NAFTA in 1994 and offered to take the matter to the U.N.’s World Labor Organization (OIT by its Spanish initials.) Calderon’s vituperative labor secretary Lozano responded that the North Americans “know nothing about Mexican labor laws” and accused Gacek of interfering in Mexico’s internal politics, a charge that could have gotten the AFL-CIO rep booted out of the country under Article 33 of the Constitution.
Lozano, who has engaged in a long-standing personal feud with the SME’s Esparza, refusing even to validate the union leader’s re-election last spring, has reason to gloat these days. Not only have the electricistas lost their last, best chance for redress with the denial of the injunction but the Conciliation and Arbitration Court also nullified the SME secretary-general’s victory by 300 votes over union treasurer Alejandro Munoz (who has since turned government stooge) and declared the elections null and void. Lozano also accuses the SME of sabotaging the electricity grid after major blackouts in Mexico City and surrounding states plunged the region into darkness.
As labor secretary, Lozano, a Calderon unconditional, has repeatedly lashed out at unions that reject the government’s privatization plans. His never-ending vendetta against Mine and Metal Workers’ union boss Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, now in self-exile in Canada, continues to trouble the industry — miners have been on strike at Cananea in Sonora, the world’s eighth largest copper pit and in Taxco Guerrero and Sombrerete Zacatecas for two years. This week, the miners’ union sent urgent alerts to its locals to be on guard against a Calderon takeover during Christmas week.
Like the electricistas, for many postal workers this is going to be a miserable Christmas. Nearly 3,000 were fired for the holiday season, a moment of maximum volume, and forced to sign off on liquidations far below those guaranteed by law. Meanwhile, the Mexican postal service, always untrustworthy, has undergone a costly makeover — logos and uniforms are now lime green and raspberry sherbet instead of the drab national colors — but service is just as abysmal. The makeover suggests that Calderon is sprucing up the postal service for sale to the highest bidder — DHL is frequently mentioned.
The SME celebrated the 95th anniversary of its founding December 14, 1914, in times that were no less treacherous than they are today, with militant speeches and half-hearted fiesta. A few thousand gathered at the well-worn union hall downtown. Members’ kids competed in potato sack races and rowdy troubadours sang songs of past peoples’ struggles. Workers’ wives dished out homemade tamales and rummaged through piles of old clothes collected by the civil society, looking for warm coats for their kids.
The walls of the SME offices were plastered with hand-scrawled cardboard signs calling Calderon every kind of creep on the books and the floor littered with old leaflets and tamale husks. Every once in a while, exuberant chants – “Aqui Se Ve La Fuerza del SME!” and “Lucha, Lucha, Lucha No Dejan de Luchar!” — would burst forth from the auditorium where proletarian performers serenaded the faithful. But despite the samples of enthusiasm, exhaustion stalked the room.
The next day, the SME announced that it was suspending resistance activities until the holiday season was done with after January 6. Until then, the movement will be immobilized. Whether there will be enough energy to rekindle the struggle remains to be tested.
Can social movements still modify egregious government policies? The SME has carried out months of wall-to-wall fightback and is increasingly ignored by the public and the government. Millions marched after Calderon stole the 2006 election from Lopez Obrador and three years later Calderon is still very much the president. A survey of conflicts during 2008 done by Bishop Ruiz’s non-government think tank SERAPAZ is revealing.Sixty four percent of the conflicts under review went unrecognized by public authorities. In 31% of the incidents, security forces waded in to disperse the protests. Only 4.6% of these conflicts resulted in dialogue or mediation.
Such a dismal success rate indicates that nonviolent civil resistance is not very efficient at sparking change, a conclusion that must bring holiday cheer to those who advocate the armed option.
[John Ross’s new cult classic El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your independent bookseller — “(El Monstruo) is addictive!” complains the Ft. Worth Star Tribune. Ross will be launching a monster book tour from sea to stinking sea February-May. Suggestions for venues will be cheerfully accepted at email@example.com. The author extends his best wishes to readers for their viable survival in 2010.]