By Manuel Pérez-Rocha
Workers in the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas – SME) have begun a hunger strike for social justice, peace and dignified employment. In their words, “six months of an illegal decree are not going to shut us up.” In effect, the conflict that Felipe Calderón, who as the self-appointed “Employment President”, began with his authoritarian and unconstitutional decree to shut down the Central Power and Light Company (Luz y Fuerza del Centro) continues. Calderón forced out 43,720 workers and left defenseless 22,256 retirees of one of Mexico’s oldest and most democratic unions.
Far from being an act of desperation, the electricians will be celebrating on May 1st with this strike which comes in addition to other actions and some favorable results for workers. First, as José Antonio Almazán explained to La Jornada, 18,010 workers from the bulk of those dismissed have rejected their dismissal. Another 12,000 workers whose contracts were not renewed as promised have added to this number. Therefore, some 30,000 SME workers are continuing the struggle. Second, the Federal Conciliation and Arbitrage Board has stepped back in its decision to ignore the SME directive, whereby the government has been unable to decapitate the union. Third, last March 24th, Mexico’s Supreme Court “decided to reassert its original jurisdiction to hear and resolve the complaint put forward by the Mexican Electrician’s Union (SME) and its members,” and fourth, the breaking of alliances between the parties on the right – PRI and PAN – opens the possibility for new actions at the congressional level.
The SME is supported internationally by trade unions, NGOs and social movements who’ve joined in filing an application for interim relief at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), complaints at the International Labor Organization (ILO) about employment conditions, and even at the U.S. Labor Department for violations of NAFTA’s labor side agreement. These processes are ongoing and mark the Mexican government as the guilty party for the fragile state of law in the country.
The SME case is not an isolated one. The Mexican government also finds itself in a faceoff for its actions against the mining union and specifically the Cananea miners, whose union is – along with that of the SME – the next oldest union in the country. The miners who were dismissed for their demands regarding safety and health conditions on the job refuse to leave the mine and have threatened to destroy it if they are forcibly removed.
Recently the Center for Labor Reflection and Action (Centro de Acción y Reflexión Laboral – CEREAL) presented its report on violations of labor rights in Mexico during 2009, titled “State Workplace Violence.” In addition to the many cases of violence against workers, it explains how unemployment increased dramatically in Mexico in 2009, how thousands of businesses have closed, how real salaries and purchasing power continue to plummet, and how 65% of Mexican workers have no access to social security. In contrast, further analysis explains the absolute economic injustice prevalent in the country. According to the World Bank itself, wealth in Mexico has been concentrated even further. In 2008, the richest 10% in Mexico received 41.3% of total income, compared to 2004 when it received 35.4%. Contrast that to 2008 when the 10% poorest received 1.2% as compared to 1.5% in 2004. In 2009, the trend continued as tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses went bankrupt while a handful of corporations and foreign banks amassed fortunes worth billions of dollars. It’s no coincidence that the richest man in the world is a Mexican.
Thus, the SME’s struggle, now converted into a hunger strike, is a struggle against the historic injustice that is worsening daily in the country, particularly under the present government. Those of us who stand for a Mexico in which constitutional order is re-established along with respect for human rights, and one in which we might change the Failed State course for the Mexican people, stand united with the SME.
Manuel Perez Rocha is a Research Associate with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and a member of the Executive Board of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (Red Mexicana de Acción Frente al Libre Comercio.)