“Take Back What Belongs to Us!”: Marcos Previews the Other Message of May 1st
The Zapatista Subcomandante Makes a Prosecutor’s Case that Workers Have a Right to Expropriate the Means of Production
By Al Giordano
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Mexico City
April 30, 2006
MEXICO CITY, APRIL 29, 2006: As in other lands, the union movement in Mexico has been sold out by corrupt leaders, repressed by a violent state, and filleted — that is to say, left without a spine — by reformers that have reduced worker power to fighting for larger crumbs, or to defending to maintain the size of those crumbs from the owner’s table. In Mexico City, on Saturday, April 29, Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos made a prosecutor’s plea to workers and labor leaders to forget about the crumbs, to throw over that table, and to start anew.
In the Union Hall of the National Union of Uniroyal Workers, Marcos spoke to more than a thousand — and listened, one by one, to more than a hundred of them — mineworkers, soft drink bottlers, tire makers, municipal, state and federal employees, industrial and sweatshop workers and others who came from the Mexican Southeast, from Tijuana and from so many other provinces and cities to the nation’s capital. Here, at the First National Workers’ Gathering, a stone’s throw from Mexico City’s largest cemetery, they discussed how to remake the workers’ movement from below into an anti-capitalist force. “The fight against the market and for a fair salary is fundamental, but it is not enough,” said the Zapatista spokesman. “We are asking you, respectfully, at this meeting to decide to fight with us to destroy the capitalists and take back, now, the means of production.”
These were not empty words coming from the military chief of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) that fought the 1994 insurrection that seized — and still holds today — hundreds of farming plantations that are now owned collectively by the campesinos that work the land. The indigenous rebels of Chiapas kicked out the bosses and their foremen, not just on the farm, but in all aspects of daily life. They took back what few schools and health clinics dotted their regions, and in twelve years they have constructed — without accepting a peso from any government agency — their own education and health care systems, along with their own local governments, free of political parties or paid functionaries, a task thought impossible twelve years ago, and still thought impossible by those to whom the Commercial Media hasn’t shared the news.
His message to the workers’ meeting on Saturday cuts to the grain of the Zapatista “Other Campaign.” At the epicenter of the brushfire to come is the spark of Urban Zapatismo, by industrial workers and others, to unite their pain and rage with that of the rural and indigenous farmers to build a “national civil and peaceful rebellion to end the capitalist system.”
The remarks by “Delegate Zero” came two days before “The Great American Boycott” by Mexican and other immigrants that will surprise the world and especially conventional wisdom north of the border in the United States. It is the closest thing to a General Strike that the U.S. has seen in many decades, if ever. And as millions march and boycott work and school up North on Monday, Marcos, these workers, and all the other sectors of the Zapatista Other Campaign will assemble at noon at the doors of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City — in solidarity with the Mexicans and others on the Other Side — to begin an “Other Workers’ March” to the Mexican National Palace.
The Prosecutor from Below
In a land — Mexico — where the public sees that organized criminals, corrupt law enforcers and mega-millionaires take with impunity what they want, when they want it, from anyone and everyone who has less, there is no illusion that a so-called “state of law” or “justice system” can or will right the wrongs. On Saturday, Marcos made a prosecutor’s case against capitalism and its governments, and pleaded to the jury — on Saturday it was the urban workers — to deliver the death sentence: the “expropriation of the means of production” so that, like what occurs on Zapatista farmlands today in Chiapas, those of us who do the work will own our jobs and earn the true value of our labor.
Wielding the evidence reported by the Center of Multi-Disciplinary Analysis at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM, in its Spanish initials), the Subcomandante-Prosecutor referred to the “canasta básica,” or “basic breadbasket,” that is needed by a family of five to meet its weekly needs for food, transportation, energy and water. He explained how, today in 2006, a person must work 47 hours plus 47 minutes per week to earn the 288 pesos (almost 30 dollars) necessary to pay those bills — not including the extra hours she and he must work to pay the rent, medicine, health care, schooling, clothing, shoes or anything else that the family needs.
Marcos compared the staggering cost of living today with that in 1987 (on the eve of Mexico’s slide into a US-imposed “free market” economic system), when the “basic breadbasket” cost six pesos and 86 centavos (about seven dollars) per week. The masked prosecutor argued that, nineteen years ago, “the minimum wage paid 94 percent (of the basic breadbasket) and today it pays only sixteen percent. More than five minimum-wage salaries are needed today to be able to live decently. And that supposes that there is no need to pay rent, that nobody gets sick, that it is not necessary to buy clothes or shoes, and that the worker doesn’t need to have any fun or to acquire any culture.”
As in other parts of Mexico since he began this six-month tour on January 1, Delegate Zero’s presence brought forward the volunteer testimony of eyewitnesses to the crime that has been committed against most of humanity: a crime he calls capitalism. (During his fifteen-minute speech to the workers’ gathering, Marcos used the words, “Capitalism,” the “Capitalist system” or other variations of the C-word 36 times, causing headaches, no doubt, for any Commercial Media reporter prohibited from use of the word.)
One of those whistleblowers who came to speak his word to Marcos and the assembled workers is Javier Cortés, a soft-drink bottler for the Bonafant company in Querétaro, who testified on Saturday that a worker in his factory earns 83 pesos (about eight dollars) a day, reporting at 8 a.m. and working until “nobody knows.” The worker earns less than a dollar an hour. The factory, Cortés noted, churns out 6,000 bottles of refreshment per hour and that each worker produces “256 pesos of product” per shift. “The owner makes a profit of two pesos per bottle,” he noted. “What a huge difference it makes to be of the class of the owner compared to being in the working class!”
What Marcos has accomplished already in the first four months of the Zapatista “Other Campaign” is to connect the dots in the chain of exploitation: he has received, and given national and international voice to, the stories of the farmers and workers in the sugar refineries that supply the soft-drink factories, of the farmers and ranchers whose water is stolen to make the refreshments, of the truck drivers who deliver the product, of the street vendors that sell it, and of the consumers who, when quenching their thirst on a hot day, see their own hard-earned money go the owners of the company. “We have already seen a lot of suffering and pain everywhere and we have found many rebel hearts ready to rise up against the oppression, against the capitalist system,” he said.
The Sickle’s Argument to the Hammer
“We, the Zapatista men and women, have explained how we see the world,” said Marcos in a reference to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, that began, last year, this Other Campaign. “We said that under capitalism, there are those who have, and those who do not. There are those who give orders, and those who obey. There are those who have banks, factories, large businesses, lands, money, and there are those who don’t have anything more than their capacity to work. In sum, there are those who possess and there are those of us, the men and women who are dispossessed, who have nothing. We explained then that those that have the money and things have them because they stole them, they looted them, and they took them away from others.”
“The wealthy and powerful are that way because they took away the wealth from others,” Marcos continued, “because they exploit those who work in the cities, in the countryside, in the mountains, in the rivers, under the earth, on the sea. We also see that capitalism turns everything into product and organizes all of society to make merchandise so that it will be bought and sold. Thus, we, the Zapatista men and women, see that the guilty party for our pain and disgrace is the system, the capitalist system. We understand that capitalism is the enemy and that we will not be able to live in peace and dignity until this system and all that it sustains is destroyed.”
Although speaking to industrial workers, Marcos also made an essentially environmental case against capitalism, from the point of view of the rural indigenous that he represents:
“We saw that this capitalist system is taking the land, the water, the forest, the air, the mountain, the rivers, the seas, from us to turn them into product. We saw that this system wants to annihilate us as Indian peoples because we, men and women, are the guardians of the earth and we don’t agree with the capitalists’ way of wanting to make product out of everything, even out of our history. And we see that with their motive of having a lot of money, the capitalists destroy our nature, they kill it, and we see that if the land that we care for dies, we will also die.”
In the case made to the workers, Marcos took aim at the “nucleus” of capitalism; “its most capitalist part… the production of merchandise.” Noting that there is where the women and men who are workers are found, he said that, “merchandise doesn’t just need to be produced. It also needs those who carry and transport it, those who sell it and those who collect.” Sharing his observations based on four months of receiving testimony, Marcos concluded that, “the majority of people are living with a lot of pain and sadness.”
But “the most important part for the capitalists,” he said, involves the industrial workers. “They are those who can hit the capitalist where it hurts most and who can do away with him once and for all because, if not, he will return to do his evil.”
The Polemic Over the May Day Marches
Every May 1st, in Mexico as in most of the world, workers march through the streets. May 1 is, in fact, the most celebrated holiday on earth, crossing borders of religion, language and timekeeping like no other day on the calendar. It is celebrated everywhere except the country where it gained its status as a worker’s day: the United States of America (May Day as workers’ day was born from a massacre of workers in Chicago). That’s where the “unions” that sold out long ago acquiesced to change Workers’ Day from May First to a Labor Day in September.
The “unions” up north are still doing what they can to enforce the imposed amnesia. Even the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with so many Mexican-American members, has joined other pillars of Church and State in waddling away from the immigrants’ rights movement and the Great American Boycott that will slam-dunk on Monday from California to New York Island. But none of that institutional gamesmanship matters. The United States will live its first taste in a long, long time of what a General Strike looks like on Monday, and it will be Mexicans and Mexican-Americans leading El Norte back to authenticity.
South of the Border, the never-ending battle between above and below is also playing itself out on May Day. The institutional unions are marching early in the day to the space in front of the National Palace known as the Zócalo. For the first time in years they are being joined by the movement’s liberals; those unions and union leaders that have historically dissented, to varying degrees, from the institutionalists. Their march will occur in a super-heated backdrop of the tragedy of the collapse of the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila (death toll: 65) and of recent state violence against mine and steelworkers in Michoacan that took over a steel mill (see John Ross’ story, “100 Years After the Mexican Labor Movement Was Born, Miners’ Blood Once Again Stains the Nation,” Narco News, April 28). It is expected to be, according to the daily La Jornada, “the largest mobilization” on May First in recent decades, “without precedent.”
But the Zapatista Other Campaign is marching to a different drummer, and along a different path: heading first to the U.S. Embassy as the official unions go to the Zócalo, and then, hours later, marching to the same Zócalo after the union bosses have left.
During Saturday’s National Workers’ Gathering, many speakers touched upon the mineworkers’ conflict in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan, a port city named for the Mexican President who nationalized the petroleum industry. There is, no doubt, inspiration — and evidence toward Marcos’ argument about the possibilities for expropriation of factories — to be found in the fact that 500 mine and steelworkers repelled 800 heavily armed riot cops to retake control of the Sicartsa steel mill there. Their demand, though, is not worker ownership of the means of production, or even directly related to working conditions or salary.
The strike by the mine and steelworkers seeks to resolve a more narrow dispute: it opposes the federal government’s imposition of one dubious union leader over another, Napoleon Gómez Urrutia, repeatedly called a “charro” during Saturday’s workers’ gathering. (A loose translation of “charro” would be “lone cowboy,” a kind of ranch hand that goes off alone to become the right-hand man of the hacienda owner against the interests of the other cowhands.) The Mexican daily newspapers and TV news are flooded with violent images from the combat between police and workers at that steel mill. And added to the tumultuous mix is that the grandson of the Mexican hero for whom the city is named, today governor of Michoacan, Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, of the “center-left” Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), is on the sacred cow hamburger grill as it was one of his police officials caught on camera giving the order for police to shoot at the occupying workers. Two deaths, and dozens of injuries, ensued.
María Luisa Martínez Sánchez, widow of one of the 65 coalminers who died in Coahuila — the tragedy that created the context for the conflict in Michoacán and for Monday’s official May Day march — sat next to Marcos on the Union Hall stage as one worker denounced the charro leaders for using the mine and steelworkers as “cannon fodder” in a dispute over power between individuals.
But even the specter of state violence and death — and the corresponding media spectacle that swarms from Coahuila to Michoacán and Monday’s workers’ march in Mexico — was overshadowed by a single concept during Saturday’s workers’ gathering: that of expropriation of workplaces. One by one, the workers took the microphone and gave answer to Marcos’ question: Yes, we want to take back the means of production. And each time the Zapatista Subcomandante mentioned expropriation, his comments were received with shouts of “Duro! Duro!” (“Harder! Harder!”).
The last commentator of the workers’ gathering was a student from the Prepa 2 high school in Mexico City, Antonio Escalante, who mentioned the necessity — in addition to taking back the means of production — of taking back the means of communication: the media, and its installations. “¡Duro!” responds your correspondent. See y’all in the streets on Monday.
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