Mexico: have electrical workers won their two-year struggle?

Leaders of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) reached an agreement with Mexico’s federal government on Sept. 13 that ended a sit-in the unionists had been holding in Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zócalo, since March. In exchange for stopping the protest, the union received a pledge that the authorities would negotiate a way for some 16,720 laid-off members to return to work. The government also agreed to free up union funds worth 21 million pesos (about $1.6 million) that it had frozen and to review the cases of SME members arrested in the two years of struggle between the authorities and the unionists.

The SME members packed up their tents and belongings and vacated the plaza in time for maintenance crews to begin preparing for Mexican Independence Day celebrations, which are traditionally held there on Sept. 15 and 16. Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon, the head of the government of the Federal District (DF, Mexico City), thanked the union for “freeing” the Zócalo. Union leaders said Ebrard, who is seeking the nomination of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for the 2012 presidential election, was key to the negotiations.

The face-off between the government and the SME, one of the country’s largest independent unions, began the night of Oct. 10, 2009, when Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa abruptly liquidated the government-owned Central Light and Power Company (LFC) and terminated some 44,000 employees. About 27,280 workers accepted the government’s severance package, but the others followed the union leadership’s strategy, which combined negotiations with militant protests, including a 90-day hunger strike last year and joint actions with other unions. SME general secretary Martín Esparza Flores and his slate easily won reelection in a vote last June by the remaining active union members and the retirees. Meanwhile, residents of the central area of Mexico that had been served by the LFC complained about frequent blackouts and high electricity bills after the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) took on LFC’s customers.

The respected labor law expert Néstor de Buen wrote on Sept. 18 that Esparza had had a “notable success” in winning the Sept. 13 agreement with the government. Esparza himself was more cautious. The government has agreed to hold weekly meetings to resolve the employment issue by Nov. 30, but it has yet to start rehiring the laid-off workers. At the Zócalo on Sept. 13 Esparza told union members that the accord was part of the struggle, but that pressure from the workers was still necessary. He said the SME leaders didn’t have confidence in the government; instead, they trusted the members’ capacity for mobilizing. (La Jornada, Mexico, Sept. 14, Sept. 18; Mexican Labor News & Analysis, August 2011)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 18.

See our last posts on Mexico and the labor struggle.