A headline on an article posted in October 2009 at the Dollars and Sense website reads, “Calderon busts Mexican Electrical Workers Union.” The only problem with the headline is that it’s not true. Mexican President Felipe Calderon tried but failed to bust the union, known by its Spanish acronym SME. After a two-year struggle, the government finally agreed to recognize the union that it tried to kill one Sunday morning two years ago.
When workers of the Central Light and Power company arrived for the first shift on October 11, 2009, they were greeted by armed and masked federal police, who told them to go home. The public utility that provided electricity to Mexico City and other parts of Central Mexico had been dissolved by a presidential order. They no longer had jobs, and the union that represented them no longer existed.
They would eventually learn that the work they did would be taken over by the Federal Electricity Commission, which provided electricity to the parts of Mexico not covered by Central Light and Power, and that they were eligible for severance pay.
When the company was dissolved 45,000 SME members lost their jobs. Most of its members took the severance pay and moved on, but 16,000 decided to fight for their jobs. During the next two years, SME held demonstrations, rallied its members and supporters, sought redress through the court system, built coalitions at home and abroad and continued the fight for its members’ jobs any way it could.
Last month, the perseverance of the union and its members paid off. The government finally agreed to recognize the union and its elected leadership, allow the union access to funds that the government froze when it dissolved the company, and negotiate with the union for the return to work of all members who did not take severance pay.
The tide began to turn for the union about six months ago when SME members began occupying Mexico City’s Zocalo, Mexico’s national plaza. SME was joined by other organizations, like Los Mineros (the miners and metal workers union) and dozens of other groups representing workers, farmers and poor people.
During the occupation, SME managed to hold elections for union officers. The turnout was high, and the union leadership was re-elected by a substantial margin, making it difficult for the government to hold to its claim that the union did not represent the workers.
At the beginning of September, things got tense. September 16, Mexico’s Independence Day, was approaching, and the annual celebration was scheduled to take place at the Zocalo, a public space highly symbolic of the country’s national identity. More people arrived at the Zocalo to support SME members. Their numbers grew to about 50,000, and it appeared that the national celebration would be interrupted by the occupation.
As September 16 approached, the Army took up positions nearby, but the occupiers held their ground.
Finally on September 13, Martin Esparza, SME general secretary, announced that the union had reached an agreement with the Secretary of the Interior that would allow the national celebration to proceed without incident. The government agreed to recognize SME, give the union access to the $1.5 million in union funds frozen by the government, and by November 30, complete negotiations that will allow union members to return to work. The government also agreed to negotiate with SME over retirement benefits, social security, union dues, and the release of 12 SME members imprisoned for union activity during the two-year struggle. SME calls these members political prisoners.
The Calderon government said that it closed Central Light and Power because it was inefficient. The union says that the closure was aimed at curtailing SME’s power. SME has been an effective opponent of Calderon’s economic policies that seek to deregulate business, privatize government assets, including the public utility that generates electricity, and concentrate the nation’s wealth in hands of a favored few.