First published in America Latina Community Newspaper March 2010.
On the night of October 10th, 2009, a joint force of military and police hopped the walls and seized the buildings of Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Central Light and Power). Luz y Fuerza is the public company which has provided electricity to 25 million people for decades in Mexico City and surrounding areas in the center of the country. A few hours later the Electrical Workers Union (SME) in charge of Luz Y Fuerza, one of Mexico’s most independent, democratic, and militant was abruptly liquidated by decree in the middle of the night.
Simultaneously, 44,000 workers, most of whom belonged to the SME, amidst one of the worst economic crises in Mexican history, were put out of work. Mexico, along with Colombia and Peru, is one of the countries in Latin American most adherent to Washington’s wishes, and this decree is right in line with the neoliberal policies of the PAN (National Action Party) government of Felipe Calderon and predecessor Vincente Fox. This brazen neoliberal attack to overtake a public resource by military force, was quite simply a move to replace a democratic, progressive union, with a bureaucratic, conservative one, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) which for years has made gradual moves towards privatization. In Latin America there is a strong history of neoliberal policies leading to mass privatization to go along with mainly U.S. brokered free trade agreements.
In Mexico, a country where unions are notably strong and represent significant political leverage, the SME has a rich history of community involvement and solidarity with popular organizations and social movements, and for years has generated challenges for right-wing governments. Amongst other initiatives and campaigns, the SME installed power lines for Zapatista communities in the jungle state of Chiapas in the 1990s, in the 1980s they helped earthquake victims with rebuilding efforts in the working-class communities of Mexico City, and shut off power in the city in support of striking university students. They have also done various other types of solidarity work with campesino organizations and student groups, and have exchanged reciprocal support with the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).
But even aside from its extracurricular solidarity work, the SME’s biggest crime may have been simply being a fully democratic, effective union, winning living wages and job security for its employees through strong collective-bargaining negotiations, resisting privatization, and not being aligned with the ruling political class.
Now nearly five months removed from the initial events the people of Mexico City have decided to fight back. As early as January and February a campaign has been launched in the capital entitled the No Pague!, Do Not Pay!, where consumers have pledged to withhold payment on their electrical bills until the 18,000 or so SME workers who have not accepted severance packages are rehired. Secondly the campaign demands a freeze on electricity rates, and lastly and very importantly, a halt to the privatization of all energy resources. Typically public services after privatization tend to see ludicrous price hikes and a significant drop off in consistency and quality of service. This has definitely been the case since the takeover of Luz Y Fuerza, especially with service and repairs neglected in working-class neighborhoods, and consumers have no contract legally binding them to payment of services with the CFE. Rates have more than doubled since October under CFE management.
Customarily, the justification or pretext for the takeover of public companies such as this one, is that they allegedly suffer from inefficient management or production, and the aims are clear; to charge more for services, and to maximize returns by outsourcing to private contractors staffed by low-wage, non-union workers, which is also the case with Luz Y Fuerza which is now being dissected in similar fashion.
What has transpired in Mexico City with this generous, progressive, and benevolent union is not a minor occurrence that can be allowed to be forgotten quickly or easily, it is a very blatant and serious violation on the democratic rights of workers and families. As much as the resistance efforts in Mexico, it is also the responsibility of the Latin American Solidarity and Labor community here in Canada to make sure that the truth is revealed about the agenda, and values of the ruling politicians in Mexico City.