December 2009  

Popular Front Diverts Workers into Legalistic Dead-End

Life and Death Struggle for
Independent Unions in Mexico

SME electrical workers demonstrate outside headquarters of Central Light and Power (LyFC) company
during national work stoppage, November 11.
(Photo: David Rodríguez/El Universal

The Mexican government headed by President Felipe Calderón of the clerical-rightist National Action Party (PAN) launched a war on labor that is likely to be the key battle for the existence of unions independent of government control. Just before midnight on Saturday, October 10, the federal government sent more than 5,000 police and army troops to seize the generating plants and other installations of the state-owned Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC) electrical power company. An hour later, the president issued a decree liquidating the company and firing all 44,000 employees belonging to the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). The draconian measure also affects another 20,000 retired electrical workers. Earlier in the week, Labor Secretary Javier Lozano officially refused to recognize the elected leader of the SME, Martín Esparza. Rumors spread that the government intended to destroy the SME and prepare the way to privatize electrical energy. Then Calderón called out the federales (army and police) and the battle was joined.

This arbitrary act of force set off a firestorm. Thousands of electrical workers rushed to the SME union hall in the center of Mexico City; at 3 a.m. there were 10,000 gathered. As union leaders denounced the government’s action over and over, militant unionists cried out, “Enough pep talk. We need a plan of action!” By Sunday morning there were 30,000 workers marching in the streets of the capital, including many members of other independent unions and students, chanting “Aquí se ve, la fuerza del SME” (Here you see the power of the SME). By October 15, when the SME called a mass protest, well over 300,000 poured into the streets and crowded into the Zócalo, the capital’s main plaza. One of the most popular slogans was, “Si no hay solución, habrá revolución” (if we don’t get a solution, there will be a revolution). When the union called a “national work stoppage” a month later, on November 11, at least 200,000 joined marches all over the capital. The government arrested 10 unarmed electrical workers, accusing them of trying to murder heavily armed cops.

For the last two months, the struggle over the fate of the SME has been the central issue in Mexico, even eclipsing Calderón’s much publicized “war on drug trafficking.” The government set up centers to dole out severance pay to LyFC workers, but only a minority of the employees came (many of them office workers). Tens of thousands of electrical workers have held daily marches, often joined by other unions, including the dissident teachers of the CNTE (National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers), university workers, students and peasants. Repeatedly in union assemblies, workers have demanded strike action. Yet the SME leadership has looked to the courts and the national Congress for salvation. A call on Congress to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s action, a request by the union to the Supreme Court for an amparo (temporary injunction) holding off the liquidation of LyFC, tens of thousands of individual requests for amparos: all have been turned down, as was entirely predictable.

Faced with a solid wall of rejection by the state, the union leaders have sought refuge in the arms of a “popular front” tying the workers organizations organizationally and politically to the bourgeois nationalist opposition. This includes the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Party of Labor (PT), and the Broad Progressive Front (FAP) of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known by his initials, AMLO. López Obrador was the PRD’s presidential candidate in the 2006 elections, which the PAN candidate Calderón “won” by massive electoral fraud, a realm in which Mexico’s capitalist rulers are world champions. In response, AMLO called huge marches and meetings of over a million people in the capital and organized a giant sit-in that occupied Mexico City’s main avenue, Reforma, for six weeks. But these “forceful” actions only served to divert the mass anger into impotent pressure tactics. 

Now the cause of the electrical workers has been added to the AMLO popular front. As in the past, union leaders have been quite inventive in coming up with new “coalitions” to siphon off worker militancy. A few days after the October 15 march, at a mass assembly in the SME union hall, a National Front of Popular Resistance was announced, with representatives of the PRD, PT and even Mexico’s long-time state party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), on the stage. Following the “national work stoppage” of November 11, a second popular-front organization was announced, the National Movement for Progressive, Democratic and Left Unity. This “movement” is tasked with calling a new constituent congress that would supposedly put an end to poverty, injustice and marginalization, according to López Obrador. Yet nothing short of a socialist revolution can achieve these goals.

The Grupo Internacionalista, Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International, has played an active role in the struggle to defend the electrical workers, and all workers, against the government’s brutal anti-labor offensive. The GI has put out a number of leaflets and articles, distributed and sold by the thousands to demonstrators, calling to prepare a general strike in central Mexico, the area serviced by the dissolved electrical power company. It has fought in Mexico’s National University (UNAM) and in college preparatory schools for work stoppages in support of the electrical workers. The Comité de Lucha Proletaria (Proletarian Struggle Committee), a trade-union tendency associated with the GI, has agitated among telephone workers and in Mexico City’s Metropolitan University (UAM) for union action in defense of the SME, including electing strike committees. And the GI has insistently emphasized the need to break with the PRD and the AMLO popular front of class collaboration, and begin the construction of a revolutionary workers party fighting for a workers and peasants government.

The Struggle Against Corporatist Control of Labor in Mexico

The Mexican president wants to imitate Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 and Margaret Thatcher’s victory over the British coal miners union in 1985. He is going after the electrical workers union because it is the most powerful workers union in the country that is independent of direct government control. To grasp the importance of this key struggle, it is necessary to understand the role that corporate state control of labor has played over the last three-quarters of a century. In fact, the Electrical Workers is the oldest trade-union in the country, founded in the middle of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. In taking on the SME, the capitalist government, with the backing of every major employers’ association in the country, is trying to destroy the workers movement as a whole. To defeat this war on labor will require a corresponding mobilization of the power of the working class.

Most so-called unions in Mexico are part of the CTM and other federations that for decades have been part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which under different names ruled the country from 1929 to 2000, and is still in power in a number of states. First as the PNR (National Revolutionary Party) formed by Plutarco Elías Calles (El Jefe), then renamed as the PRM (Party of the Mexican Revolution) by General Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930s, and then as the PRI, this “party” was the political apparatus of state power. In the heyday of the priato (PRI rule), Mexico was a one-party state, in which the “PRI-government” expressed the fusion of party and state. PRI operatives moved seamlessly between government ministries, party offices, state-owned industries and the “unions” which were one of the main components of the regime. Rather than workers organizations, these were organs of state control of labor, modeled on Mussolini’s fascist Italy (from which Mexico took its labor law). The corporatist labor bodies were formally a sector of the state party and along with similar organizations of peasants, women, students, youth, military officers, architects, musicians, etc. organized the whole of society.

A key reason for the existence of this elaborate structure is Mexico’s proximity to the United States. The 2,000-mile border is the longest land frontier, by far, between a poverty-stricken semi-colonial country of the so-called “Third World” and a “First World” imperialist power. Thus, after robbing Mexico of half of its territory in the 19th century, U.S. rulers from the early 20th century on have paid close attention to keeping a lid on socially turbulent Mexico, whether by invasion (during the Mexican Revolution) or by closely supervising its government. During the anti-Soviet Cold War, the U.S. intervened to get the Mexican state to take over unions and drive out communists. To give an appearance of “democracy,” it was decided to allow some “opposition” parties, known as palero parties, financed and controlled by the PRI-government. By the 1970s, this system was decaying, and the government began setting up alternative labor federations such as the CT, still controlled by the PRI. A decade after the 1968 massacre of a student rebellion, it instituted a political “opening,” even including some “far-left” organizations, all financed by a raft of state subsidies, to ensure that they didn’t get “out of hand.”

But as the imperialists launched a worldwide offensive against labor unions and the Soviet Union in the 1980s in the name of “free markets,” Mexico’s heavily state-owned economy became an anomaly. Again under pressure from the U.S., successive PRI presidents privatized 80 percent of the state enterprises, and along with this ripped up the system of social benefits (housing, health care, retirement, subsidized food, etc.) which it had set up to pacify the powerful working class, and to compensate for low wages (which made Mexican labor “competitive” on the world market). In 1988, the PRI barely squeaked by through blatant fraud, in which the electoral computer system “broke down,” depriving left-nationalist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the presidency. Cárdenas together with other ex-PRI politicians went on to form the Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose apparatus was staffed with ex-members of leftist groups, particularly the now-defunct Communist Party. And as unions began to escape from the PRI/CTM, they were politically tied to the PRD through multiple popular-front coalitions.

The PRD became a significant electoral force with its appeals for “democracy,” and when the right-wing clericalist National Action Party won the 2000 presidential elections, it was partly because PRD supporters figured the PAN was better placed to oust the stifling PRI machine. But once in office, the PAN presidents did anything but further democratic rights. On the contrary, both Vicente Fox and his successor Calderón have maintained control of a number of key corporatist “unions,” notably the teachers (SNTE) and oil workers (STPRM), while militarizing the country. Mexico used to have a relatively small army by Latin American standards, since social control was maintained by the PRI’s all-encompassing corporatist apparatus and its elaborate social welfare programs. Now that that system has broken down, state-owned companies are auctioned off, social security programs are eliminated, and in their place there is heightened repression: less carrot and more stick. So today even unions linked to the PRD are seen as an obstacle to the privatization offensive.

Break with the Popular Front – Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Calderón is out to break the SME in order to finish the job of dismantling the “Old Mexico” of corporatist labor control and state bureaucracy and replacing it with a “brave new world” in which businessmen reign supreme. The government is pursuing a broad reactionary program, including a tax on food and medicine, introduction of electronic identity cards, attacks on peasant organizations (not just the Zapatistas) and writing into state constitutions an absolute ban on abortions. And just as the right-wing’s watchword of “democracy” is a mask for unbridled police power, the free-marketeers’ markets are hardly free. Mexico’s economy today is dominated by a few politically powerful conglomerates which obtained their holdings by favors from the PRI and PAN rulers. Thus the struggle to defend the SME could become the spearhead for a broader working-class offensive against the capitalist assault. But by placing it under a popular front, as the SME leaders are doing together with López Obrador and the PRD, they are guaranteeing that the struggle will not challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie. This is a ticket for defeat.

The Grupo Internacionalista has been known for its insistence that the corporatist “unions” are not workers organizations but instruments of control of labor by the capitalist state, which actively intervenes to dictate union policies and name (or veto) union leaders. The GI calls for full independence of the unions from the state, not some vague kind of “autonomy” which would include some degree of government control. Although the SME is a formally independent union, it is still under the thumb of Mexico’s labor law. An important aspect of the current battle is the presence of a corporatist electrical workers “union,” the SUTERM, in the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), which has supplied workers to scab on the SME by repairing damaged LyFC power lines. The Grupo Espartaquista (GEM), which used to hold the Trotskyist position of fighting for trade-union independence until it expelled the founders of the GI in 1996, today claims that the corporatist labor bodies are workers organizations. A GEM leaflet lamely called on SUTERM members not to scab, while ignoring the fact that the “union” itself was born from effort by the state to squelch independent action by electrical workers in the 1970s.*

Since their appeals to the courts and Congress failed, the SME leaders are reduced to begging for “dialogue,” which the government keeps postponing, and in any case says it won’t withdraw its decree. So today the SME leadership and the AMLO/PRD popular front are trying to divert the electrical workers’ struggle into political theater in the streets. The first was a symbolic “takeover” of the capital on December 5, the anniversary of the historic entry into Mexico City by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. While occasionally mouthing the words “general strike,” the focus is on “building a new social movement” aiming toward the 2012 presidential election. In these circumstances, the most combative electrical workers are beginning to question the strategy of their leadership. Particularly now it is crucial to underline the need not just for “new” or more “militant” leaders but for a class-struggle leadership that breaks with the politics of bourgeois nationalism and the popular front to fight for a revolutionary workers party built on a program of proletarian internationalism.

After three failed bourgeois revolutions, the “social transformation” of Mexico that will eliminate poverty, exploitation and social oppression will not be a replay of the peasant struggles of the past but a workers revolution, supported by the peasants and the millions of poor who have been thrown off their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the North where they can form a human bridge to the working class in the imperialist heartland.

* This one leaflet was the extent of the GEM’s intervention in the electrical workers struggle, from which it has been largely absent, as it also was during the 1999-2000 UNAM student strike. In both cases, this appears to be linked to an internal political crisis over just how abstentionist from the class struggle it should be.

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