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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers.
President Calderon's seizure of a state-owned electric company has led to a surge of on-the-job deaths and injuries.
Carlos de Buen, one of Mexico’s leading labor lawyers, who has worked for the SME as well as many other unions and employers, believes the president targeted LyFC, and above all its workers, in an attempt to increase his own legitimacy after his narrow 2006 presidential victory.
Although he never provided proof, losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party, alleged electoral fraud and launched a wave of national protests.
Calderon needed to stamp his authority on the nation, de Buen believes, and cutting an unpopular labor union down to size was a good way to begin.
“'If you want to play at being an independent union,'” de Buen says, imitating Calderon having an imaginary conversation with the SME. “'Well with me, it’s not going to work.' And in the process, he was also able to send a powerful message that in Mexico, business does not have to worry about strong unions.”
Calderon’s motives and timing remain the subject of speculation for other reasons too. Mexico’s presidential administrations had wanted to fold LyFC into the CFE since at least the President Carlos Salinas era, between 1988 and 1994.
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And a dispute over the hotly contested 2009 election of SME general secretary Martin Esparza Flores shortly before the closure of LyFC, saw Esparza’s defeated opponent accuse him of rigging the result, including assigning votes to deceased union members.
In response, the SME re-held the elections in 2010 and Esparza Flores won an overwhelming victory that even Calderon recognized.
Graciela Bensusan, a political scientist at Mexico City’s Autonomous Metropolitan University, says the union misplayed its hand, allowing Calderon to enjoy popular support in delivering the death blow to LyFC’s unionized workers.
“The SME committed many errors. They thought the government would not be able to repress them,” Bensusan says.
“And they never worked out how to communicate with Luz y Fuerza del Centro’s customers, to explain to them that that poor quality service was not the fault of the workers but of the company.
“They lost the debate because of that. They never found an answer to the narrative that they were privileged or overpaid workers.”
The result has been devastating well outside the ranks of the SME.
Esparza Flores, now the union’s leader, says that pay and conditions, including workplace safety, have taken a huge hit among the thousands workers who have replaced SME members.
They have been drafted in by an armada of private sub-contractors now working for the CFE to cover LyFC’s huge workload, including 38 percent of Mexico’s electricity demand and 32 percent of its GDP.
Esparza Flores claims there have been 32 deaths in the last 24 months, compared to an average of one or two a year previously. “Those are the ones we have heard about,” he adds. “I am sure there are more but the CFE doesn’t make the details public.”
And there have been many more accidents, he claims, including horror stories of workers without training or equipment being electrocuted by high voltage cables and losing all four limbs and even their genitals.
Meanwhile, those workers are thought to earn less than half their SME predecessors, according to information gathered by the union. The CFE did not respond to GlobalPost’s requests for comment.
The union is taking its case to Mexico’s Supreme Court, alleging a list of irregularities in the dissolution of LyFC and the firings of its 44,000 employers.
These include the fact that the presidential decree authorizing the police operation is dated October 11, 2009, the day after it actually took place.
“This struggle is about much more than just our members,” Esparza tells me in his office in downtown Mexico City, above the crowded soup kitchen where SME members receive free meals.
“It is about what kind of economy and what kind of society Mexico is. What this country needs is more good jobs, and more independent unions, not less. If you have good jobs with good salaries you increase internal demand.”
With president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI by its Spanish initials) due to take office in December, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel for workers.
Although the details remain vague, Pena Nieto has talked about “liberalizing” Mexico’s labor market – a term that many labor experts believe will mean further eroding workers’ rights.
“The government is betting on an economic model based on holding down wages,” Esparza says. “There is no mystery why there is so much violence and crime in Mexico. There are no good jobs.”
This report was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.