“…with their fists in the air they chanted in condemnation against the government on all its levels, since the ‘representatives of the people’ have decided to govern in the interests of the business elite, defending at all costs a capitalist republic where basic principals have been exchanged for a dictatorship of business, the freedom to trade, and equality in the levels of slavery for the workers.” — La Resistencia (magazine of the SME), Ao 2, No. 16., page 1.
As you walk through the Zócalo (the main plaza) in Mexico City, your eyes are met with a bustling scene. There are tourists, venders, and Mexicans going about their daily lives. However, as you look closer, your eyes are drawn to a small village of tents set up around the base of a huge Mexican flag; a huge symbol of a black and red fist surrounded by lightening bolts is painted on the ground, and banners declare, “We workers did not cause the economic crisis in this country,” and “Electric subsidies should be for the people, not for the rich.”
The Sindicato Mexicano de Electristas (Mexican Union of Electricians), or SME, has been continuously occupying the Zócalo for over a year. This show of resistance results from a struggle between the SME and the Mexican federal government that has been ongoing for over 18 months. As a result of this struggle, one of the largest public providers of electricity in Mexico, Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC) has been liquidated by the Mexican government, and over 44,000 workers represented by the SME have lost their jobs.
The current struggle over electrical power has deep roots in the Mexican Revolution and the slow erosion of nationalized services in the face of neoliberal forces such as the IMF and World Bank.
The industrialization of the electrical industry in Mexico began in the late 19th century, with a few small generating plants and limited access to electricity for the vast majority of the population. In 1903 one of the electrical companies, Mexican Light and Power (MLP), obtained the rights to exploit three rivers, including Necaxa, for hydro-electrical power. MLP soon became one of the largest providers of electrical power in Mexico, extending its monopoly over much of central Mexico. Although MLP counted on modern technology and an enormous workforce, it was notorious for the exploitation of workers.
Out of these conditions, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electristas, or SME, was born in December 1914. The SME claimed that instead of seeking to build alliances with the government, they were seeking only to improve the working conditions and salaries of the workers. They represented electrical workers from the MLP, telephone workers, private electricians, and streetcar workers; their original demands included higher wages, eight-hour workdays, extra pay for extra work, and the disbanding of private security forces in the electrical companies.
The SME quickly proved itself to be a viable working-class union, winning many of its major demands in a series of strikes in 1915 and 1916.
Meanwhile, the Mexican Revolution was in full swing. Although the new Mexican Constitution of 1917 provided protections for peasants’ land rights; eliminated monopolies on water and mineral resources; mandated work hours and a minimum wage; granted workers the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike; and limited the role of the church, it would take over two decades to be fully implemented.
In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, bourgeois politicians took advantage of the political and social chaos and implemented a capitalist economic system and virtual political dictatorship under the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), which lasted until the end of the 20th century. Although social reforms and concessions were made by subsequent Mexican presidents, and many of the provisions of the Mexican constitution were eventually implemented, these reforms were not allowed to interfere with the overall functioning of the capitalist economic system.
The Mexican government followed the example of the nationalization of the oil industry (which took place in 1938) by gradually nationalizing parts of the electrical system over the next several decades. But it was not until 1960 that the government acquired the vast majority of Mexican Light and Power (MLP), along with another major power company.
They formalized the nationalization by modifying Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution to state that it was the exclusive right of the government to provide electrical services to the public.
The name of Mexican Light and Power was changed to Companía de Luz y Fuerza del Centro, (Central Light and Power Company), or CLFC, in 1963, and later to simply Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LFC). In 1975 the Ley del Servicio Público de Energía Eléctrica (Law of the Public Service of Electrical Energy), or LSPEE, declared the LFC and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE, Federal Electricity Commission) as the suppliers of electricity to the public. The LFC provided electricity to the central portions of the country around Mexico City, and the CFE to most of the rest of the country.
Although electrical production and public access to electricity increased during the 1970s, Mexico defaulted on its external debt in 1982, leading to tight fiscal controls, a decreased role of the state in the local economy, and increasing integration into the world economy.
These external pressures increased in the 1990s as Mexico opened its borders to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and experienced the peso crisis of 1994-1995. Mexico was coming under increasing pressures from the World Bank and IMF to privatize its national industries and implement an increasingly neoliberal economic system. The Mexican Constitution soon came under attack, and in 1992 the LSPEE was modified to allow private participation in the electrical system under certain circumstances.
During this time period, the Comisión Federal de Electricidad wanted the SME to merge into one big union covering all electrical workers, the Sindicato Único de Trabajadores Electristas de la República Mexicana, or SUTERM (Only Union of Electrical Workers in the Mexican Republic). The SME refused to join this blanket union, citing corruption among the SUTERM leadership and the unclear expulsion of democratic leader Rafael Galván.
On Oct. 11, 2009, the LFC was dissolved by the government, and electrical services were transferred to the CFE. At the same time, over 44,000 workers represented by the SME were fired by the Mexican government, which claimed they were providing “insufficient services” and that their salaries were too high. The SME subsequently proved that all their workers’ salaries equaled less than 15% of their total budget, and that while the high level officials of the LFC received a salary of 150,000 pesos a year, the salary of a unionized electrical worker was only 6000 pesos a year.
Since Oct. 11, 2009, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electristas has launched a public campaign against the liquidation of the LFC and the firing of its unionized workers, claiming that this is a violation of the Mexican Constitution. The SME has also spoken out strongly against the increasing privatization of the Mexican electrical system. They claim that 50% of the installed electrical capacity of CFE now belongs to Iberdrola (a Spanish company) and other foreign capital companies.
The SME states in a mini-pamphlet they hand out to the general public, “There exist in the country more than 70 million poor people; many working-class people make less than $59.82 [pesos] (about $5) a day; the prices of gasoline, electricity, gas, and other energy resources are very high and are raised every month; we have twelve multimillionaires….
“When the Luz y Fuerza del Centro was liquidated on Oct. 11, 2009, this assured that ‘to continue maintaining the company, it would have been necessary to disproportionately raise the electrical tariffs or constantly increase taxes.’ However, the service that CFE provides is always getting worse and electricity is more expensive every day.”
In fact, the SME notes that, for example, while 500 kw of electricity cost $461 pesos in 2000, it now costs $2143 pesos. Electrical subsidies that the Mexican government was previously paying to families are now being eliminated. The SME also reports that many families have had their electric meters taken away, only to be replaced by “prepaid” meters, another ploy to hide the privatization of the electrical system and the increased cost of electricity to the average Mexican family.
The SME has kept up a strong public struggle, engaging in mass marches on a national level, a national strike on March 16, 2010, and a hunger strike. During the national strike, union workers experienced retaliation from the Mexican police and were forced to retreat from the LFC installations that they had occupied.
The strike was supported by human rights representatives and more than 300 organizations around the world. On Jan. 30, 2010, more than 200 workers occupied the Zócalo of Mexico City to pressure the government to listen to their demands and re-install the 44,000 workers who were fired. They have been camped there on a permanent basis ever since, publicizing their struggle and talking with anyone who is willing to listen.
Although the Mexican government has done their best to discredit the SME in public opinion through a national media smear campaign, the electrical union has remained steadfast. Said General Secretary Martin Esperanza when the SME first occupied the Zócalo, “The federal government threatens to break the movement of the SME, but today we will maintain our unity, from today we will maintain a permanent camp in the Zócalo until the problems of the working class are resolved.”
To learn more about the SME and their history and struggle, visit their website at http://www.sme.org.mx (website in Spanish).
> The article above was written by Lisa Luinenberg and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.