Have you been following the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME)’s 10-year fight to take back their electricity factories and turn them into worker cooperatives? We are excited and honored to have two leaders of SME as our keynote speakers at our symposium – Humberto Montes de Oca and Martín Esparza.
Get an in-depth background from a NACLA article “The Rebirth of Mexico’s Electrical Workers,” or read our summary (below) if you’re short on time.
Read a summary of the SME recovered factories:
The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) is the oldest democratic union in Mexico, formed in 1914 by workers from the power company Compania Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyF). LyF was founded in Canada 1898 and granted a government concession to generate, transmit, distribute, and sell electricity in central Mexico. However, Mexican workers found they were being paid less than the company’s Canadian and American workers and organized to create a union. Ongoing mobilization around better wages and working conditions during and after SME’s formation helped the union negotiate a seminal labor contract that not only ensured SME’s independence from the government but set a precedent for electrical workers across Mexico and Latin America and situated the union at the forefront of the progressive left.
SME’s progessive politics placed it in stark opposition to a growing wave of corporate-led, government-backed neoliberal reforms in the 1990s. SME had pushed for nationalization of the electricity industry in the 1960s, and the Mexican government eventually bought 90 percent of LyF’s shares, turning it into a state-owned and operated power company. At the same time, the government implemented other regulations making the Mexican government the sole legal electricity provider in the country. But in the 1990s, the government began a series of privatization reforms, opening the sector to foreign electricity generators and halting investment in LyF’s infrastructure and modernization. In response to the increasing resistance to these reforms by SME along with mass mobilization on the left, in 2009 Felipe Calderón’s administration refused to recognize the re-election of SME’s General Secretary Martín Esparza, declared both LyF and SME non-existent, and ordered the army and police to occupy LyF facilities. The government seized $80 million in union funds and fired all 44,000 workers. 28,000 accepted the government’s offer of severance pay, while more than 16,000 refused the payment and declared themselves to be “in resistance”.
SME’s subsequent mobilization drew supporters from across the Mexican left and general public and included hunger strikes, a national strike, a Day of Indignation, and a solidarity campaign with unions and labor federations. The government and police response was violent but by 2016, the SME had negotiated a settlement with the government in which the government agreed that the union could organize a cooperative and take over LyF’s former generation plants, offices, and other worksites to compensate for the $80 million of union funds taken in 2009.
Approximately 1,400 former workers are currently receiving some income from the new cooperative. Workers are slowly rebuilding their workplace and livelihoods through the provision of 500 different services, including cleaning offices, building generation stations, running generation plants, running a dining hall, and making uniforms. Eventually, SME hopes all of its remaining 15,000 workers will be able to return to work in the electrical sector.