Mexico: Betrayal in electrical workers union

From the Jan.-Feb. 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Mexico: Betrayal in electrical workers union

Mexico City–In October 2009, Mexican President Felipe Calderón ordered the destruction of the publicly owned City Light and Power Company, and with it the destruction of the union. The union members, men and women, were informed only by watching television, where we heard that troops would stealthily be occupying our workplaces.

I had been working with City Light and Power–a company with a 150-year history–for about 15 years, before Calderón destroyed it. I had previously worked 12 years as a service worker with the Mexican Electricians Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, SME), so together I’ve worked in the industry about 27 years as a union worker.

There was a highly contested election in the union. In our statutes it says that every worker has the right to join with other workers to form groups to discuss internal union politics, and that is what we did. There was a split between the union president Martín Esparza and Alejandro Muñoz, who tapped most into the feelings of those of us who were fed up with corruption. We rank-and-file workers said, “Enough is enough,” and went with Muñoz.

We went before the governmental Board of Conciliation and Arbitration to question the legality and transparency of the union election. We used legal means, and the government took advantage of this in their coup of Oct. 11 when they took over City Light and Power.

Some of the women workers got together the next day at the union hall as soon as we heard, and we were there all day and night. There were meetings and assemblies, with the leaders of both currents of the split debating the way forward. During this internal struggle, Muñoz–who had always said, “When our jobs and our union are at risk, we have to form a united front”–went back on his word.

The two leaders went their separate ways. The way I see it, Muñoz ended up driving about half of the members to accept a severance deal with the government. It’s not just by chance that about 15,000 workers took the deal within the first month.

Now there are only about 12,000 of us, down from 45,000. About three-fourths of us are gone. Some of this is purely because we lost our jobs so quickly. One day we said to each other “See you Monday,” and then the work disappeared. Others left the union and said, “I’m not sticking around, because it’s not clear where this movement is going.”

In the first few days the response of some of the workers was very energetic and militant. We demonstrated at all the buildings, we blocked entrances so nobody could leave or enter. But those who went in the split with Muñoz said, “No, we have to negotiate with the government, they’re offering cooperation, money, etc.”

Those of us who remained in the resistance were led by Martín Esparza who, it is true, probably half of the 45,000 union members suspected of being corrupt. But he stayed on, and over that nine-month period gained recognition because he’s been at the forefront of the struggle. He has continued with the struggle, although the government doesn’t recognize him as the legitimate and legal representative of the union.

They are taking advantage of the fact that many of us who are still fighting for the union don’t trust Martín to be the leader, to continue for a second term. Whether he is recognized as the Secretary General or not, the most important thing is that he’s leading the resistance and that he’s stayed with that perspective, that direction.

The true motive of the government coup is to eliminate the union; it’s a cornerstone of their privatization project. But after nine months, a solid number of workers are still resisting. Those of us who are still fighting, think differently. We’re going to the general population and telling them that this isn’t just an attack on the electricians’ union, but an attack on the working class.

This experience has transformed our thinking of this as just a union problem. Now we see it as a problem inherent in the system. Continuing the resistance and not accepting the government severance has created a new type of worker through a leap of working class consciousness. This is the type of transformation we’ve gone through for more than a year.

–Woman electrical worker, SME

(Translated from Spanish by Brown Douglass)

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