The Electrical Workers Union versus President Calderon: Class, Struggle, Repression and the Rise of Narco-Power

By James Petras | 28 July 2010

“We are confronting a monster; a force that ridicules, deceives and wants to destroy us”.


– Miguel Angel Ibara, member of the

Mexican Electrical Workers Union, (SME)

on the 80th day of a hunger strike.

(La Jornada July 18, 2010).



There is a direct relation between the rise of criminal gangs, the deepening of neo-liberalism and the repression of social movements and trade unions.

Mexican President Calderon’s firing of over 44,000 unionized electrical workers is the latest in a series of repressive acts which have shattered the social fabric of society. The denial of meaningful, well remunerated employment and the criminalization of legitimate trade unions like the Mexican Electrical Union (SME) has led to mass immigration and to an increasing number of young people joining the drug gangs. State repression and electoral corruption has prevented Mexican workers from redressing their grievances through legal channels and has aided and abetted the rise of a parallel narco-state which controls vast regions of the country and which recruits young men and women seeking to escape poverty.


MexicoCityNationalCivilStrike-Val_Inco_1 On November 11, 2009, hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, intellectuals and students heeded the call of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) and the National Assembly of Popular Resistance by participating in a national day of action. The aim behind the National Day of Action was to mobilize unconditional support for the 44,000 electrical workers thrown onto the street without any consideration during the October 11 forced liquidation of the Fuerza y Luz del Centro, the state enterprise responsible for providing electricity to Mexico City.


Over the past 25 years, Mexico has regressed socially, economically and politically as a result of the neo-liberal offensive, which began with the stolen election of 1988 in which Carlos Salinas robbed Cuahtemoc Cardenas of the presidency. Subsequently, Salinas signed the free trade agreement, NAFTA, which led to the bankruptcy of over 10 million Mexican farmers, peasants and small urban retail shop owners, driving many to immigrate, others to join social movements and some to revolt as was the case with EZLN. Over 10 million Mexicans emigrated since NAFTA.

State repression and the forced isolation of the EZLN, in Chiapas and other rural movements in Guerrero, Michoacan and elsewhere, the denial of rural justice, forced may peasants to flee to the urban slums where some eventually became members of the emerging narco-gangs.

By the turn of the new millennium Mexico’s experiment with neo-liberal “reforms” deepened the systemic crises – inequalities widened, the economy stagnated and poverty increased. As a result, millions of Mexicans fled across the border into North America or joined popular movements attempting to change the system.

Two powerful social and political movements emerged, which sought to reverse Mexico’s slide into political decay and social disintegration. On the political front Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Presidential candidate of a broad citizens coalition, led millions to an electoral victory in 2006 – only to be denied through massive voting fraud perpertrated by supporters of Calderon. The second force, a coalition of trade unions and social movements, led by SME, fought to preserve the public social security system and state ownership of the electrical system from privatization and exploitation by the voracious predator foreign and domestic capitalist class.

Mass mobilizations involving hundreds of thousands marched in Mexico City and throughout the provinces, while millions of consumers expressed their solidarity, as did all of the major trade unions in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.


luz_y_fuerza_mexicocity_10-13-09-2_1 In the middle of the night on October 11, 2009, President Felipe Calderon sent six thousand soldiers and militarized Federal Police to take over state power company Luz y Fuerza installations in Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Puebla, Morelos, and Hidalgo. Immediately following the takeover, Calderon issued an executive order closing Luz y Fuerza.


What was at stake was not merely the jobs of the unionized electrical workers and the social security system but one of the most effective social movements defending a social safety net for the working class.

By attacking SME and the social security system, one of the last major social institutions providing social cohesion, Caldera and the judicial system were further denying Mexicans legal political and social instruments through which they could aspire to defend their living standards.

By destroying the social net via the privatization of public programs and institutions, by repressing vital social movements like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the teachers and trade unions in Oaxaca and the SME in Mexico City, the Mexican State is effectively denying hope for improvement via democratic political processes.

Neoliberal stagnation, state repression of democratic popular movements and the repeated theft of electoral victories by peoples movements in 1987 and 2006 has led to widespread and profound disillusion with politics as usual. Even more ominously it has turned thousands of Mexican youth into enemies of the state, and toward membership in the numerous violent narco-gangs. The Mexican states’ rejection of peaceful electoral changes and its repression and denial of the rights of social movements like the SME has left few outlets for the mass frustrations which are percolating under the surface of society.

In the last four years over 25,000 police, soldiers, civilians and narco members have been assassinated in every region of the country. Despite Calderon’s militarization of the country, the 40,000 soldiers in the streets have failed to prevent the escalation of violence, clearly demonstrating the failure of the repressive option to end violence and prevent the disintegration of Mexico into a ‘failed state’.

The recovery and reconstruction of Mexico, begins with strengthening the social fabric of Mexican society – the promotion of the urban and social movements and in particular the mass democratic trade unions like the SME.

These movements and trade unions are the essential building blocks for the transformation of Mexican society: the end of neo-liberalism, the repudiation of NAFTA and the reconstruction of a powerful public sector under workers control. To fight the twin evils of the corrupt militarized neo-liberal state and the violent parallel narco-state, which currently exploit and terrorize the country, a new mass based political-social movement which combines the solidarity of the trade unions like the SME and the popular appeal of political leaders like Lopez Obrador must coalesce and offer a radical program of national reconstruction and social justice. The alternative is the further disintegration of the Mexican state and the descent into a condition of unending generalized violence, where the rich live in armed fortresses and the poor are subject to the violent depredations of the military and the narco terrorists.


James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He is the author of 62 books published in 29 languages, and over 560 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles in nonprofessional journals such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, Partisan Review, TempsModerne, Le Monde Diplomatique, and his commentary is widely carried on the internet. His publishers have included Random House, John Wiley, Westview, Routledge, Macmillan, Verso, Zed Books and Pluto Books. He is winner of the Career of Distinguished Service Award from the American Sociological Association’s Marxist Sociology Section, the Robert Kenny Award for Best Book, 2002, and the Best Dissertation, Western Political Science Association in 1968. His most recent titles include Unmasking Globalization: Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century (2001); co-author The Dynamics of Social Change in Latin America (2000), System in Crisis (2003), co-author Social Movements and State Power (2003), co-author Empire With Imperialism (2005), co-author)Multinationals on Trial (2006).


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