Last Saturday night, October 10, several thousand Mexican government agents and police stormed into the headquarters and a hundred substations of the publicly owned electric utility, Luz Y Fuerza. They fired the workers, replacing them on the spot with workers brought in from another utility. On orders from Mexican President Felipe Calderón, they disbanded the company and thereby abolished its union. The government claimed that it acted because the company -- run by the government's own appointees -- was "inefficient."
Calderón's action was probably illegal, but its rationale -- echoed by most of the US media -- was absurd. If efficiency is the issue, you start by firing the managers you had hired, not the guys who climb the poles and hook up the lines. It was as if the US government, without warning or much legal authority, had suddenly sent thousands of National Guard troops to take over the Tennessee Valley Authority and replace its workers with people from Duke Power on the grounds that the TVA had run a deficit.
The obvious motive here was not efficiency; it was to break the electrical workers union. In the months leading up to the seizure, the Mexican government had arbitrarily nullified the re-election of the union's president, frozen the union's assets and tried to impose its own candidate as leader. The union president's transgression? He had publicly opposed Calderón's plan to privatize the industry.
The attack on the electrical workers is part of a ruthless and systematic campaign by the Mexican plutocracy to destroy any efforts to establish independent trade unions that might represent employees, rather than employers' interests.
This war against Mexican workers has long been sanctioned by the 15 year old North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA provided extraordinary protections and new legal rights for US, Mexican and Canadian corporations. Workers got nothing but some vague "side agreements" that even staunch supporters of NAFTA admit is meaningless.
In Mexico, that left the majority of unions under the control of business-dominated governments dedicated to maintaining low wages while they enjoy unfettered access to the US market. They have been spectacularly successful. A dozen years after NAFTA, Mexican manufacturing workers' productivity had risen over 75 percent, their real wages dropped three percent.
Mexican workers have no right to elect their own union leaders democratically, who in any case must be "certified" by the government. So the leaders tend to be the corrupt cronies of corrupt government officials. Union contracts rationalizing exploitation are routinely dictated by management and enforced by government agencies. Workers have no right to a copy of their contract. Those who ask too many questions are threatened, fired, often beaten and sometimes murdered.
During their primary campaigns last year, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton acknowledged the problem. Both unequivocally pledged to renegotiate NAFTA in order to add worker protections. Obama could not have been clearer:
I will make sure that we renegotiate, I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. ...I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take that time to try to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we'll have core labor and environmental standards in the agreement.
Trade unionists, environmentalists and human rights activists cheered. The business press sputtered "protectionism." The Mexican government -- unnerved by even a hint that the US might opt out of NAFTA -- said it was willing to talk. But the campaign contributors in the US corporate suites who profit from underpaid Mexican labor shrugged. Democratic fundraisers assured them that neither candidate meant what they said. When a Canadian official leaked that he'd been told the same thing by Obama's chief economist, the campaign issued outraged denials at the slur against their man's integrity.
But the cynical Big Money was right. Once elected, the new President and his new Secretary of State quickly backtracked. In April, US trade representative Ron Kirk, former mayor of Dallas, confirmed it: the "change" administration had no intention of changing NAFTA.
This broken promise hardly made a ripple in US politics. But it sent a strong message south of the border; Calderón was free to continue suppressing workers' rights. Obama, like George Bush, would look the other way.
Still, the human spirit is hard to kill. Throughout the Mexico, brave people are struggling against huge odds to nurture "green shoots" of trade union independence and democracy. And the Mexican government is just as dedicated to crushing them. A few more recent examples:
• The president of the miners and metalworkers union -- who publicly complained that the government had refused to respond to evidence of unsafe conditions that led to a mine disaster than killed 65 miners -- has been driven into exile in Canada. Union funds have been confiscated by the government, other leaders been jailed and heavily armed police drove striking miners and their families out of their homes. Four union activists have been killed by the police. The mine owner, Grupo Mexico is one of the country's largest enterprises and very close to the government.
• The leader of a the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Monterrey who had been exposing abuses by Mexican labor contractors furnishing workers to US agribusiness was murdered in Monterrey. The government, refusing to consider that the crime was connected to his work, is still "investigating."
• Groups of teachers who have dissented from the national union leadership have been set upon and beaten by thugs. The notoriously corrupt leader of the national union is a major supporter of the conservative government.
• An independent union at a Corona glass bottling plant was deposed by the government after he successfully negotiated a decent contract. Hundreds of union workers were fired and an new election for leaders chosen by the company was staged, holding workers captive inside the plant, which was surrounded by Federal police. The chief shareholder in the parent company, Grupo Modelo, is the wife of the man who had been George Bush's ambassador to Mexico.
The message is clear: get in the way of the business oligarch's profits and the full power of the state will come crashing down on your head. As one prominent journalist noted the morning after the attack on the electrical workers, for the government "to attempt to solve by violence a problem that the government itself created brings us back to the darkest days of authoritarianism." Ironically, NAFTA was sold to the US Congress as a way of ending authoritarian rule in Mexico.
This is not just Mexico's problem. A ton of evidence shows that suppression of wages and decent working conditions in Mexico undercuts the bargaining power of workers on the US side of the border as well. So unless NAFTA is renegotiated to add strong and enforceable protections for workers and their institutions, it will continue to be an instrument for generating exploitation, further inequality and continued pressure to migrate north.
That's the point that both Barack and Hillary made last year as they campaigned for votes in the primaries. So, we know they know. All we can conclude is that they don't care.