July 1999 

In Face of Threats to UNAM Strike

Mexico: Worker-Student
Defense Guards Formed

Workers defense guards of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) at the National University,
July 1999. Banner reads: “The Electrical Workers Support the Demands of the University Students for
Free Education.”
(Photo: SME)

The student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), now in its 90th day, is convulsing the Mexican capital. President Ernesto Zedillo has denounced the strike as a "brutal aggression" and demanded that the students "return" the huge campus which they continue to occupy. Threats of police and even military invasion of the university have been rife. Simultaneously new evidence has become available about how the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of hundreds of student strikers was ordered straight from the presidential palace. Everyone is aware of the possibility of a "new ’68." But this time key sectors of the labor movement have begun to mobilize to defend the students. Worker-student defense brigades have been formed including members of the university workers union (STUNAM), and beginning on July 15 the powerful Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) has dispatched squads of its members to stand guard against a possible attack by the authorities. Other unions have indicated their support. The prospect of facing organized workers contingents can give Mexico’s capitalist rulers pause, as such a confrontation could have unpredictable consequences. 

As we write, several hundred SME and STUNAM workers are participating daily in round-the-clock defense guards together with students, thousands of whom have occupied university installations for the last three months. The SME-STUNAM-student brigades began at the School of Philosophy and Literature, one of the largest components of the sprawling Ciudad Universitaria (CU), and have since been established at a number of UNAM schools, including Cuautitlán, Iztacala, Aragón and other campuses. This is an extremely significant development in the class struggle, whose importance extends beyond Mexico. The Grupo Internacionalista/League for the Fourth International has played a key role in initiating and helping organize the worker-student defense guards, as part of its struggle to extend the student strike to key sectors of the working class which has the power to take on the Mexican bourgeoisie and its imperialist patrons. 

The UNAM student strike has been front-page news in the country’s leading papers almost daily for the last three months. All wings of the ruling class want to find some way to put an end to the occupation of the largest university in Latin America, with some 270,000 students on 38 campuses. Following the directives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the ruling party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which has run Mexico uninterruptedly for the last 70 years, wants to crush this knot of resistance to its policies of wholesale privatization and gutting of public higher education. The bourgeois-nationalist opposition party, the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a leading presidential candidate and head of the Federal District government, has for some time now sought to put an end to such wrenching social turbulence in the capital. But the strike continues. 

For the last two weeks, a charade has been carried out in the Palacio de Minería in downtown Mexico City where flunkies of the UNAM rector and representatives of the students’ Strike General Council (CGH) have been discussing ground rules for "dialogue." On Thursday, July 15, the administration issued a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, refusing to discuss the strikers’ six-point set of demands and insisting that they turn over the UNAM campus forthwith – i.e., abandon the strike. In the aftermath, reports have circulated that an assault on the occupied university is increasingly likely.

The UNAM rector, Francisco Barnés de Castro, a veteran PRI bureaucrat, last March ordered the imposition of a hefty tuition in the guise of drastically increased student "fees," carrying out a commitment of the Mexican government to the World Bank. Barnés has refused to talk to students or other opponents of this measure that would in effect abolish free public higher education, instead issuing a series of deadlines, ultimatums and decrees by the dutiful University Council. The council had declared that student strikers had to turn over the campuses by July 7 "or else." But the deadline came and went. Instead, the first workers defense brigades appeared at the CU.

The Grupo Internacionalista has been agitating from the outset for extending the strike to include the SME, dissident teachers of the CNTE and other sectors, while calling for a break from the popular front around PRD leader Cárdenas which has tied militant workers as well as peasants and students to this wing of the bourgeoisie. The GI introduced motions concretizing this perspective in meetings of colleges, schools and the Strike General Council (see the 23 June GI leaflet, "UNAM Strike at the Crossroads, Mobilize the Working Class to Win!"). On July 2, the assembly of the College of Philosophy passed a GI-introduced motion calling for, among other points: "1. Organize a worker-student defense to defend pickets and protect the strike. Request the active participation of the union movement, and in particular of its most combative sectors." A Liaison Commission was named, including a militant of the Grupo Internacionalista, to establish contact with the unions.

Contact was established with the STUNAM, SME, CNTE and other unions. Already on June 1, Grupo Internacionalista supporters had attended a meeting of the union of workers of the Metropolitan University (SITUAM). At the invitation of SITUAM workers, a GI spokesman urged that union to strike in support of the UNAM struggle. In a near unanimous vote, the union decided to stage a one-day solidarity strike the next day. On July 2, the three Metropolitan University campuses were solidly shut down, with picket lines of dozens of workers. The GI organized a bus load of students from the UNAM to go to the campus at Xochimilco; the bus drivers union SUTAUR-100, whose 17,000 members were fired by Zedillo in a brutal union-busting attack in 1995, dispatched a bus to transport them. Striking SITUAM workers and the UNAM students marched from the Xochimilco campus to Preparatory School No. 5, also on strike, in a show of solidarity. In the afternoon, representatives of the SME, STUNAM, SITUAM and CNTE addressed a demonstration of some 5,000 in downtown Mexico City declaring their support for the UNAM strike.

That evening, workers from the Central Library at the UNAM invited a spokesman of the Grupo Internacionalista to attend the their union meeting to present arguments for STUNAM joining the strike and for the formation of worker-student defense guards. The call was well-received, and on Monday, July 5, GI supporters led a brigade of UNAM students and STUNAM workers to an installation of the Central Power and Light company to talk with the SME workers about forming worker-student defense brigades. The following day, while the leaders of the Strike Committee (CGH) were meeting with the administration representatives, a group of workers and students gathered at the School of Philosophy to discuss the possibility of forming joint defense brigades. 

On July 7, the day of Barnés’ "deadline," a meeting of the STUNAM’s General Representatives Council was held to discuss what to do. At the workers’ invitation, the GI representative spoke to the council urging them to join the strike, form worker-student defense guards and remove campus cops from the union. The Council voted to form defense brigades, declaring that campus workers would give up their vacations (scheduled to begin on July 9), and "call[ing] on all workers and union delegates to organize solidarity guards with the strike movement." In the afternoon a "human chain" of 600-1,000 students, campus workers and parents was set up in front of the main entrance to CU on Insurgentes Avenue. That night reports circulated of movements of Mexican Army units from outlying areas into Military Camp No. 1, the staging ground for the 1968 massacre. But the rumored attack never came.

The bourgeoisie was livid. Excelsior (7 July), the authoritative pro-government paper, denounced "student violence" by "minority groups, manipulated with obscure aims," and complained bitterly about the union’s intention to "set up guards and protect the strikers, in the face of concerns that the university authorities and the Federal Government are preparing a ‘violent outcome’ to the problem." A couple of days later Excelsior vituperated against "ultraleftists" who were out to "destroy the UNAM," but also reported a growing body of (bourgeois) "reluctance to using the police force" against the strikers. Simultaneously, the federal government announced the transfer of an entire Military Police brigade of some 5,000 MPs to the newly formed Federal Preventive Police. This brigade is the same one whose members executed youths in death squad style in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Mexico City in 1997. Now these infamous killers will be used to "armor" the regime against perceived threats as next year’s presidential elections approach. Their first target could be the UNAM strikers.

The Grupo Internacionalista continued to push for strengthening the defense guards, in particular approaching the electrical workers union. On June 15, GI supporters went to SME headquarters to again urge union leaders to dispatch workers to join in defense brigades at the struck campuses. The students received a positive response, and that afternoon several dozen SME members, including the union’s Central Committee (executive board), went out to the School of Philosophy at Ciudad Universitaria where they put up a banner declaring, "The SME Supports the Students on Strike at UNAM." The electrical workers were enthusiastically greeted by students and by a delegation of a dozen STUNAM workers who had been participating in defense activities. A welcoming meeting included remarks from the SME, other students and the GI, which stressed that the formation of worker-student defense guards pointed to the need for a joint strike against the government’s privatization offensive.

Since July 15, worker-student defense brigades have spread to a number of UNAM campuses and installations. In addition to the danger of a police or military assault, there is the threat of attack by porros (hired thugs), which university authorities have used in the past. Close to 400 SME members have been participating daily in the defense guards organized on rotating eight-hour shifts. Additional unions have indicated interest in joining the brigades. The SME and other "independent" unions (in contrast to the PRI’s corporatist labor fronts) have often talked solidarity, while in fact subordinating the workers to Cárdenas and the popular front. Today effective action in support of the UNAM strike runs directly up against this class-collaborationist front, and requires a revolutionary leadership capable of waging sharp class struggle. The formation of worker-student defense guards is an important step. Leon Trotsky, in the Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International, underlined:

"Scabs and private gunmen in factory plants are the basic nuclei of the fascist army. Strike pickets are the basic nuclei of the proletarian army. This is our point of departure. In connection with every strike and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers’groups for self-defense." 
As the Grupo Internacionalista has repeatedly stressed, the formation of worker-student defense guards and the struggle to extend the UNAM student strike to key sectors of the labor movement are part of  a strategy to mobilize the working class in struggle against all sectors of the capitalist ruling class. Where the CGH and union leaders seek to pressure Cárdenas to pressure the PRI, seeking a treacherous "dialogue" with the bourgeoisie, the GI has warned against this trap and called instead to rely on the power of the proletariat. The GI has insisted on the need for the working class and oppressed to break with the Cárdenas popular front and forge a revolutionary workers party. Where student and union leaders appeal to Mexican nationalism, posing the struggle in terms of defending "national sovereignty," the GI has emphasized the need for an internationalist struggle against this capitalist (not just "neo-liberal") offensive against workers and students from the Southern Cone of South America to Europe, an offensive emanating from the centers of imperialism. It can only be defeated through socialist revolution extending to the imperialist heartland in the U.S., where Mexican and other immigrant workers form an important and growing sector of the proletariat. 

Mobilize the working class to win the UNAM strike!
Break with the Cárdenas popular front – forge a revolutionary workers party!

– 19 July 1999

To contact the Grupo Internacionalista and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com