Mexico: Tactics and strategy in the struggle to defend the SME

The struggle of Mexican workers in defense of the Mexican Electricians Union (SME) has become one where at stake is not just this single union, but the position of the entire Mexican labor movement. It poses questions that go well beyond the realms of the Electricians’ Union. Here Ruben Rivera explains what is required to fight back and push the whole movement forward.

The struggle of Mexican workers in defense of the Mexican Electricians Union (SME) is basically the struggle for the defense of the entire organized labor movement, against the ferocious onslaught of the most anti-working class government in living memory since Porfirio Díaz, more than 100 years ago. Workers' organizations are the patrimony of the entire working class and the hope that a society other than the current one is possible. Its destruction would reduce the worker to be simple fodder for exploitation. Of course this is practically impossible, but despite this the stubbornness of the bourgeoisie to atomize the working class increases day by day.

Defending the interests of workers in unions is an egregious sin for the bourgeoisie, especially in times of crisis, when they intend to pass the weight of all the burdens to get out of the economic debacle to the workers. The spread of fascism in Europe was due largely to a situation of despair of the bourgeoisie at the impasse of capitalism in the 1930s and the real possibility that the proletariat could have come to power.

Of course the basis for the development of a fascist movement (1) are absent today; however, the need to destroy the organized labor movement remains an aspect that the bourgeoisie longs for, especially when there have been more than 9 years of right-wing governments and the implementation of their program has gone through enormous difficulties. One example was the reform of PEMEX, which was certainly a step backward for workers but in no way meets the desires and greed of the bourgeoisie. The application of brute force as a form of government and the criminalization of social protests are clear signs of the government's intention to move towards a police state under the framework of constant media terrorism.

The masses proved on October 15th that they are ready “for anything.” Photo by Frecuencias Populares.The masses proved on October 15th that they are ready “for anything.” Photo by Frecuencias Populares. Of course we do not doubt that many trade unions are functional for the bourgeois state, however the slightest possibility that they become instruments of struggle by workers, makes the bourgeoisie view them with suspicion, unless, as in the case of white or yellow unionism, they are a mere facade to prevent workers from forming a real union.

It is a most absurd contradiction that at a time when labor productivity has never been greater, the bourgeoisie attempt to extend the working day and its intensity beyond human limits. The Stock Exchange, a reflection of the mood of the bourgeoisie, overflows with profits when a firm lays off workers or eliminates a collective bargaining agreement; but when an employer gives some rises above the average or a strike is won, immediately shares drop.

In general the capitalist state tends naturally towards authoritarianism and employs all levers of government as a means to impose its program and world view on the whole population, but it appears to be a law that when it feels most insecure of its system it adopts special measures to compensate for this lack of confidence.

Administrators of the bourgeoisie in the State, especially those coming directly from the ranks of private businesses, tend to try to reproduce the logic of capitalist enterprise. The decisions of a company belong to its board of directors; employees and workers are executors and only have two destinies: one to comply with the wishes of the employers and thus gradually be locked in as faithful overseers, or the other is to be fired when he they are a nuisance to the interests of employers; this is the ideal state for the bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie accept the rules of formal democracy only when it feels its control of the population is such that there is no risk that an intruder will sneak in to some important position. However, to ensure that this does not happen it establishes a series of benchmarks for the engagement of the citizens who act as a filter. The more one goes up in the power structure, the stronger the conditioning to live and think as bourgeois, and to defend the regime of private property. The only way to avoid this "legal corruption" is to be firmly convinced that an alternative is possible and to be firmly linked and controlled by the living movement of workers through their traditional organizations, parties and unions. An authentic socialist aims not to integrate into the system, but to destroy it. A real revolutionary vision is not only a guarantee to avoid falling into the song of the sirens of the bourgeois lifestyle but also to avoid the view that this reality is the only one possible and that change is not an option.

Bourgeois ideology is based on the belief that essentially nothing has changed in social relationships since the existence of humankind. The conditions of exploitation make equality under the law a kind of carrot to keep workers to keep going for but never being able to reach their goal. In this context many labor leaders that start with the static idea of things imposed by bourgeois ideology cannot believe that a distinct society is possible, they seek to maintain their relations with the bourgeoisie in a margin of cordiality which allows for coexistence. These days they are even willing to give up something rather than lose everything.

However, let us not forget that we are in crisis, the main characteristic of this period is that under conditions of social unrest there are no mechanisms to buy social peace, no reforms to offer and therefore the reformist leaders who manage the state become implementers of right-wing programs, layoffs, budget cuts, etc. On the other hand, for those within the unions that call themselves democratic, a crossroads is reached, from which there are only two ways one can go: either submit to the will of the bosses and become enemies of their constituencies, as Valdemar Gutierrez, leader of the Social Security Union and federal deputy for the PAN; or confront the employers and the government, as happened with the leadership of the Mexican Electricians Union.

The choice is not easy, if the leader submits to the wishes of the employers and the government, there is no limit to his or her downfall, each time more and more evidence of their loyalty will be required, to the point of annulling themselves completely.

In the case that he or she confronts the bosses he or she must assume that the battle taking place is not a question of defense of a group distinct from the entire working class, because if he or she is placed in the dilemma of accepting conditions to benefit their group at the expense of abandoning a fight in which the future of workers depends on, he or she may be capable of sacrificing a great victory all for a few crumbs that later the employer could easily take away.

The movement now needs to take the next step and call a general strike. Photo by Frecuencia Populares.The movement now needs to take the next step and call a general strike. Photo by Frecuencia Populares. Of course there are always conflicts in these strategic bets. On their part the bourgeoisie have a plan to end the crisis at the expense of workers and that means eliminating any legal safeguard in order to set piecework and freedom to hire and fire as the axis of labor relations. For the bourgeoisie labor-management relations should be strictly a problem of the individual and they should have the freedom to break them when one of the parties, especially the employers, decides to do so. The trade union should thus only function as an agency to convince workers that they must obey.

Therefore, the aim of the closure of Luz y Fuerza is to destroy the union and its collective bargaining agreement. For the bourgeoisie it is unfair for a worker to live in conditions other than those of mere survival, it is immoral that workers there are proud of their conditions and that these have allowed them and their families to live with sufficient health care, education, recreation and food. They need to inculcate into the proletariat a state of absolute uncertainty about their future, in which “the elasticity of demand for labor" is such that wages are pushed down to the bare minimum possible.

The scope of the conflict seems absurd with the media frenzy proclaiming that workers are guilty of having a good collective agreement, but for the workers the outlook is the exact opposite. Most bourgeois intellectuals like the ones howling like wolves against the SME earn tens of thousands of pesos a month, and have amenities that are much better than the best paid workers could ever dream of. But for these wolves their own situation is justified in that they are not workers but employees subject to the master's trust, so-called “intellectuals” that deserve to live "like gods". And to continue doing so they must continue to proclaim war against the workers. For them if a worker lives well he is filthy and corrupt, if an intellectual or bourgeois lives comfortably it is a patriotic necessity.

In short it is class hatred which they try to impose on the minds of the whole population. It is especially directed at all layers of the under-employed and middle class sectors that are undergoing a process of accelerated impoverishment for which they are offered a scapegoat for all their evils: the workers, especially those organized in trade unions. Despite this, the government's aim is not to organize and launch these sectors against organized labor, but to get enough goodwill to launch an attack from the State in order to subdue all unions.

However, we will not tire of repeating the point that it is one thing what the bourgeoisie seeks and encourages and quite another what results they can actually achieve due to class conflict that erupts in the single workplace to the more generalized movement of the working class as a whole. The strength of the working class lies in the movement, organized in its parties, in unions, in its cooperatives, and different associations in different forms created to defend its rights.

We are referring here to the millions of individuals and families from the big cities down to the smallest village. Every one of these organisms, large and small, are there to address a social need, from wage labor, to the struggle for land, to the struggle for decent housing, education and of course for power in the form of political organization. There would be no force in the country capable of resisting a joint action of workers' organizations towards a common goal, and in this conglomerate there are key organizations, i.e. elements that are mainstays for the possibility of the proletariat to act as a class. It is these organizations that the bourgeoisie seeks to eliminate as they do not want a common ground. For this reason it has launched a relentless battle against the PRD, even though many of its leaders are burning with the desire to be recognized as "decent people".

The first step that workers could take in the process of unification of class struggle would be a united mobilization defending a right they consider irrevocable and theirs by right. Hence the strategy of the workers can and should aim at building a united front in the defense of these rights, in the form of defending their organizations and their economic gains. This implies trade unions and collective agreements. Of course, unified mobilizations are important, in fact they are generally a starting point from which to assess the potential forces of the workers and in many cases may contribute to deterring the bourgeoisie from launching this or that attack. They are important even to combat the incessant media campaign of terror on television and radio, to show that we are not alone and that, of course, we are infinitely and morally superior to our adversaries the bourgeoisie, since workers are willing to give all for the cause of our class, while the bourgeois are entrenched in their positions of power and are unable to mobilize more than policemen and soldiers, and even these act only because they are paid.

No doubt the October 15th mobilisation, perhaps of half a million people, instilled courage and confidence to continue fighting, while forcing the government to open a negotiation table to buy time. However, a march, as important as it may be is not enough. The bourgeoisie knows that the masses cannot remain on the streets permanently and that if the demonstrations are not followed by actions, these will eventually diminish and things may return to normal. Hence, the need for the movement to seriously advance towards a general strike. Of course there are obstacles. The SME was born in the same kind of struggles which led to a general strike in 1916. However, only such a step would move things forward from strength in numbers to strength in action.

We reiterate the point that the government's strategic objective in trying to destroy the SME is only a first step towards a general offensive against all unions. They have no reason to change their mind, no matter how important or massive one demonstration may be. Under such circumstances they will try "dialogue" as a means of demobilizing and exhausting the workers, while waiting for the date of November 14th (the date on which the first offer of tempting severance pay expires for those that are prepared to surrender) to more and more weaken numerically the resistance.

By contrast the strategic goal of workers in this phase of struggle is the defense of the unions and collective agreements, that's what is at stake in the defense of the SME. In this context it is fundamental to break with the logic of the government, a necessity that was raised by the leaders of the SME and the UNT and move towards the organization of a national strike, and this must be done in the coming weeks, without losing a single day.

The first step is to call for a general strike of 24 hours. Of course the assembly of all trade union organizations should develop a joint list of demands and launch the first 24-hour general strike within the next two weeks. The strike, of course, implies the suspension of work but also actions such as roadblocks by all urban movement organizations and by peasants' organizations, the suspension of all educational activities (CNTE, students, the public sector, anti ISSSTE Law activists.) All these sectors have already struck separately in the past months and years and there is no repressive force that can prevent them from doing so again. The difference is that now they would be striking together simultaneously, the same day at the same time.

Obviously such an action would lead to the organized workers taking a position. In fact organizations like the subway workers, despite being one of the most controlled unions, have expressed their solidarity with the SME and certainly enough pressure would generate within its ranks for it to participate in one way or another.

The participation of the movement led by AMLO and the PRD would not be a negligible element. As we have noted elsewhere, one of the great weaknesses of all the trade union movements has been their local or regional character. Except for the miners, we have had no struggles in recent years that have spread to every state. The call to participate in the 24-hour strike would imply distributing tasks to the nearly 3 million members of the legitimate government. This would, of course, require convening assemblies at the municipal and state level in order to distribute the tasks.

All this mentioned above requires the willingness of leaders to intervene. The masses proved on October 15th that they are ready “for anything.” We should, however, remember that the whole of employer-controlled trade unions in the initial phase would be very difficult to involve, not because workers in these organizations are sympathetic to the government but because they generally do not consider it possible to fight and beat the government. But once the movement has been unleashed they will surely be under great pressure from the workers to intervene in united actions such as a nationwide strike.

No doubt, despite the willingness of the masses, the main obstacle the movement faces is the skepticism of its own leaders, but these should be reminded that this is not just any struggle, what is at stake is not this or that clause but the very existence of trade unionism. This challenge must be accepted for what it is, an unprecedented historical event, or they should be prepared to take the consequences. We cannot separate this struggle from that against the counter-reforms to the Federal Labor Law already announced. A defeat of the SME would pave the way for the destruction of many of the safeguards that are left to the workers. If such a change in the law should be allowed to go through it would mean a return of the workers to the conditions under Porfirio Diaz.

On the contrary, a victory would mean the collapse of the State's plans. The strength of the working class would create for future struggles wholly favorable conditions and in the context of a capitalist crisis we would have all the conditions for an authentic social transformation. Make no mistake about it: we are facing either the greatest of victories or one of the toughest defeats. However, we can win and we must do everything to win. It depends on organization and the desire to win. In the unity and decisiveness of the working class lies victory.

  • Long live the SME!
  • Long live the urban and rural workers!
  • United and organized we will win!


(1) As you know, fascism was originally developed as a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. Today's bourgeoisie is afraid of such movements that in many cases can become uncontrollable. They prefer methodical action of its repressive state apparatus. However, as in the past, it does require intense fanatical media propaganda against workers and their movements.