International Tribunal on Trade Union Freedom Condemns Mexican Presidency


In Mexico City on October 28, the International Tribunal on Trade Union Freedom (October 26, 2009-May 1, 2010) concluded its first of two public sessions with a scathing preliminary report that condemned President Felipe Calderón for his violent union-busting measures since taking office after his questionable 2006 election.  The Tribunal had been organized in prior months by more than 30 social and civil organizations of Mexico and other countries.  It heard public testimonies by representatives of 16 trade unions under attack in Mexico’s privatization race to the bottom.

The Tribunal is composed of some twenty prominent labor law and human rights experts, including award-winning journalists, authors, and spokespeople for peace, more than half of them from other parts of the Americas and Europe, including this reporter.  Two members unable to attend were Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and noted Uruguayan author and journalist Eduardo Galeano, expected to participate in the second public session scheduled for late April, 2010.

As noted in Mexico’s press, this reporter addressed the inauguration of the Tribunal along with Senator Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, Mexico’s premier human rights champion and four-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, Mexico’s two-time national journalism award holder.  They explained that the Tribunal represents the exercise of “citizens’ justice,” historically the first such tribunal in the world dealing with labor.  It follows in the footsteps of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal against the U.S. War in Vietnam and subsequent civil society tribunals that have acted as “the conscience of humanity” in cases like the U.S. military/terrorist interventions in Nicaragua during the 1980s and in the Cuban Revolution over the past fifty years.  Its reports and decisions go to all the relevant national and international institutions overseeing workers’ rights and human rights, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Human Rights Council, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  The Tribunal’s presence thus breaks the isolation from international public scrutiny that recent repressive Mexican governments have enjoyed.

Mexico City is being shaken by an angry popular response to President Calderón’s sending of army troops and federal police on October 10 to seize the para-state enterprise “Luz y Fuerza del Centro” (LFC), responsible for central Mexico’s complex electrical grid.  The swift midnight action, aimed at destroying the independent electrical workers’ union (SME), for 95 years organized labor’s most consistent independent force for democracy and workers’ rights, instantly laid off more than 44,000 workers in a single blow.  It thereby advanced the privatization of Mexico’s lucrative energy sector, as well as its extensive fiber optic network to be sold to national and foreign telecommunications monopolies.

Calderón and the corporate mass media have sought to justify the military action, followed by a presidential decree the next day, with the claim that LFC’s “economic inefficiency” stemmed from SME workers’ high wages and benefits won in the course of decades of struggle.  However, LFC’s lack of profitability derived from the state’s own extension of free energy to central Mexico’s largest industries, along with LFC purchases of energy at exorbitant prices from the Federal Commission of Electricity.  The seizure of LFC’s energy plants was unconstitutional and illegal in many respects, including its lack of prior approval by the national Congress responsible for any changes in the energy sector (Article 26 of the Constitution).

On October 15, some 350,000 to a million or more people marched in support of the SME to the Zócalo, Mexico City’s historic central square.  The day-long demonstration included many middle-class families squeezed by education and wage cutbacks and layoffs and “citizens’ brigades” that back Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the person most people believe won the 2006 election.

Then, on October 24, a National Assembly of Popular Resistance took place at the union hall of the SME.  The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) was invited to send a representative, but none appeared.  An overflow crowd of thousands spilled out into the streets, as scores of speakers, including this reporter, and worker, peasant, teacher, student, and other organizations engaged in a discussion of future actions.  The popular sentiment was for an immediate general strike, as collective shouts of “Strike!” and “No pasarán” filled the air.  SME leader Martín Esparza had to intervene to calm angry workers and win a resolution to form a “national front of struggle” to help plan an eventual legal strike, which requires several weeks’ advance notice to the government, or — quicker and easier — a series of “paros” (work stoppages, walkouts, wildcats).  One such paro, a “National Civic Day of Resistance,” took place on October 30, endorsed by some 20 worker, student, teacher, and peasant organizations representing more than six million people.  A mass general assembly of popular resistance on November 5 discussed future plans.  Another paro was held on November 11.

However, there are many divisions among progressive forces.  The SME itself divided when the government many weeks earlier refused to “tomar nota” (officially recognize) Esparza’s leadership after the candidate it supported had lost a democratic election.  That rival candidate now supports President Calderón’s union-busting decree.

In this turbulent atmosphere, marked by frequent blackouts because of scabs’ inability to run the CFE grid, the International Tribunal conducted its hearings.  Its short but hard hitting preliminary report said the Tribunal was “surprised and even scandalized by the gravity of [labor law] violations and violence taking place against Mexican workers.”  Noting violations of the ILO’s conventions 87 and 98, the Mexican Constitution’s Article 123, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights’ guarantees of workers’ rights to a job, to organize unions, and to negotiate collective contracts, it stated: “Even more we are deeply concerned about the violation of civil and human rights accompanying the violation of trade union freedom.”  It concluded that in Mexico there existed a “rupture in the rule of law” and an “institutionalization of violence against autonomous workers’ movements . . . including the criminalization of social protests and their leaders.”  The Tribunal also condemned “restrictions on freedom of speech” and the “abuse by some of the mass media in twisting the facts, the truth . . . [in] the brutal media campaign against the SME and its contract.”  It concluded with a call for:

  • abrogation of the presidential decree and the reopening of the LFC
  • immediate withdrawal of army troops and federal police from electrical plants
  • immediate reinstallation of SME workers under the existing collective contract
  • a social dialogue committee to consider alternatives in tune with the Constitution and international norms.

The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the official launching of the Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of the cry for national independence from Spain.  In both instances, then as today, an economic crisis preceded the revolutionary events, and people’s fears of the authorities were dissipating as fast as their rage was rising.  From April 28 through April 30, the International Tribunal on Trade Union Freedom will hold its second public session, and on May 1st it will deliver its decision at the annual May Day rally in the Zócalo.

James D. Cockcroft is rofessor via Internet at State University of New York.  He is author of Mexico’s Hope among numerous other publications.  Visit his Web site at <>.

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