It's no accident that the Mexican government, following the dictates of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and transnational corporations, waited so long to try to privatize the country's electric utility industry. They've been privatizing for a decade: telephones, railways, the steel industry, the banks and some 1100 state owned operations, but they've held off on electricity because to sell off this precious state asset they'll have to go to war with one of the country's oldest, most democratic, and militant unions, the SME (Mexican Electrical Workers Union). At stake in the war are thousands of jobs, one of the country's best union contracts and the SME's existance. On the government's side, the stakes are its neoliberal program and future privatizations and perhaps control of the labor movement.
The Zedillo government is rushing to push through the Constitutional changes necessary to privatize electricity before next year's Presidential campaign and a possible backlash. The government's propaganda campaign to terrify the public into acceptance claims that only private investment can save the utilities, that without money from the sale, the government budget for health and education will be insufficient. The head of the Mexican Chamber of Industries warned that without privatization there will be blackouts and "the majority of Mexicans will be condemned to live in the shadows."
Not so says the SME and many experts. "The industry could be self-financing if it weren't for the government's policy of disinvestment," says Josť Luis Hernandez of the SME.. "What they really want to do is enrich some of their favorites by selling it off at deflated prices. The main result will be higher electric bills."
Hector de la Cueva of Mexico City's Center for Labor Research and Consulting says the so-called crisis in the electrical utilities was manufactured by the government. "Until 1982 there was sustained growth. Then neoliberal policies cut budgets and increased subsidies to big capital. The 'crisis' is a mask for inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption and, above all, a policy of giving rates below cost to the one percent of the users who consume 70% of the energy."
On May Day thousands of SME members marched past the National Palace where Zedillo lives wearing t-shirts which said "Zedillo, we may be ignorant, but we don't sell our country out." Rosendo Flores, SME General Secreatry, has made the main issue national sovereignty. Alluding to the European, Canadian and U.S. energy companies lying in wait for privatization, he says, "our country does not have a price, and the Mexican Constitution is not for sale." This theme resonates among thousands of Mexicans who not only see public ownership as a fruit of the revolution and a source of national pride, but also in this era of free trade understand that privatization means control by foreign multinational corporations and loss of ability to regulate the national economy. De la Cueva puts it this way: "NAFTA is part of an international constitution that puts locks on local action."
The forces lining up on each side are formidable. Zedillo and his international allies are counting on votes of his party, the PRI, and the pro-corporate PAN in Congress, and also on the other larger "official" electrical workers union, the SUTERM (Sole Union of Electrical Workers of Mexico) led by CTM head Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine. They represent workers of the Federal Electric Commission (CFE).
On the other side, the SME, with 34,500 active members and 10,000 retirees at the government's Light and Power Company which serves central Mexico, is building a coalition of unions that have broken away from government domination: principally those in the National Workers Union (UNT) and FESEBES (Goods & Services Union). At the founding meeting of the National Front Against Privatization of the Electrical Industry on February 26, seventy organizations were present. They included non-governmental and student groups, representatives for all three major parties, and later the Zapatistas.
They're organizing like crazy, sending retirees into working class neighborhoods to hold mini-rallies and pass out literature. By March they had gathered 2,300,000 signatures on petitions against privatization which they turned into Congress and held a rally of 100,000 which spilled out of Mexico City's central square, the Zocalo.
All this pressure has caused cracks in Zedillo's coalition with defections from the PRI and PAN and even SUTERM is seeing increasing numbers of its own members who look at the thousands of unemployed rail workers who got sacked because of privatization and demand that Alcaine change his position. Thousands have jointed the anti-privatization demonstrations, and they've shouted down Alcaine at public meetings. With demonstrations practically every day, even blocking the entrances to Congress, the two opposition parties, the social democratic PRD and the PAN announced in late march that they would put off the vote on privatization until September.
Whether the SME's strategy succeeds in stopping privatization depends on two things: the willingness demonstrated numerous times before of the government to use violence to achieve its ends and the level of solidarity the movement can build. The SME knows that to prevent violence it will be important to have international support. To build that they are calling an international forum against privatization of the utilities in Mexico City in August and will be inviting US and Canadian utility unions. With deregulation of electrical generation and distribution proceeding in the US and the possible pitting of US and Mexican workers against each other in a new deregulated, privatized industry, it makes real sense for North American labor to build solidarity.
Material for this article was drawn from Mexico Labor News 3/2/99 and 4/2/99; CILAS, Correo Laboral #1; and interviews with Josť Luis Hernandez of the SME and Hector de la Cueva of CILAS.