David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
The Nation, 7/16/06

The beneficiaries of Mexico's privatization landrush are worried.

With an election approaching and popular discontent at record levels, President Vicente Fox, a former Coca Cola executive, promised that his economic reforms would continue protecting them. Beneficiaries like the Villareal family, whose Grupo Villacero owns the huge Sicartsa steel mill in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan. They were small metal merchants when former President Carlos Salinas virtually gave them the plant for a tenth of its real value in 1992, making them instant billionaires. Or the Larreas. They got Mexico's two great copper mines, making their Grupo Mexico one of the worlds largest mining companies.

But Mexico's superrich aren't the only ones with a lot to lose. In mid-June Ford Corporation, already one of Mexico's largest employers, announced it would invest $9 billion more, while moving to close 14 US plants and lay off tens of thousands of workers.

Unions in Mexican mines and mill are determined to roll back the conservative wave of the past decade. Last April steel workers stopped work at Sicartsa, and have occupied it since then in a planton, or tent city. Although Michoacan's leftwing governor wouldn't send in troops to dislodge them, local police beholden to the Villareals made an unsuccessful try on April 20, shooting and killing two workers. Meanwhile, miners belonging to the same union in Sonora have shut down Grupo Mexico's two mines copper mines, one of them for three months.

Ensuring the continuation of a favorable investment climate requires control of an increasingly angry workforce, and the old methods no longer work. Mexican employers themselves are discarding the social contract, in which unions had a place at the table so long as they didn't upset it. Now corporations like Grupo Mexico and Grupo Villacero want no unions at all.

Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, head of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, says, "They think we're like a cancer, and should be exterminated. This is no longer a country that can be called a democracy." Urrutia is one of the main reasons why Fox and his corporate friends look at labor with new eyes. His father was head of the miners' union before him, a corporatist leader in the old style, with a reputation for cooperation. Gomez Urrutia is different.

Fox pushed hard to reform the country's labor laws, at the behest of the World Bank. Mexican labor law gives workers rights far in advance of US legislation, which Fox seeks to emulate. In a Mexican strike, all work must stop and strikebreaking is illegal. Mexcian law gives workers the right to healthcare and housing, protects job security, mandates strict hours of work, and imposes severance pay for laid off employees. Gomez helped to bring even conservative unions into a coalition that finally spiked Fox's proposals to gut those rights.

Fox liked it even less when the miners union helped kill his proposal to tax workers' benefits. But hell broke loose when 65 miners died on February 19, in a huge explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in the northern state of Coahuila.

Horrified by the deaths, the union found that workers on the second shift had complained of high concentrations of explosive methane gas in the shafts the evening before the accident. "They told us that welding was still going on, even after the failure of some electrical equipment," he charges. At 2:20AM, after the start of the third shift, the gas ignited in a huge fireball.

Of the 65 who were killed, 40 didn't actually work directly for Grupo Mexico, the mine's owner. Instead, they were employed by the network of small, private contractors who supply personnel to large industrial employers throughout Mexico. One of those subcontracted employees, Gomez says, quit three days before the accident, after being required to weld while there were high concentrations of methane. "He said his supervisor told him, 'If you don't like it, leave.'"

A union worker can refuse, and a labor/management safety committee will back him or her up. But contract workers have no union or safety committee. Unions say employers push them harder to take more risks, and pay them less. At Pasta de Conchos, subcontracted coal miners were getting 90 pesos a day (about $9) working 10-12 hours, well beyond the legal 8-hour limit.

Two days after the explosion, Gomez Urrutia accused the Secretary of Labor and Grupo Mexico of "industrial homicide." Corruption charges were made against him less than a week later, and Labor Secretary Francisco Xavier Salazar Sáenz, with support from Grupo Villacero and Grupo Mexico, appointed an expelled leader to replace him. Salazar owns two companies that supply chemicals to Grupo Mexico's zinc refinery in San Luis Potosi.

Contract employment is a new phenomenon in Mexico, a product of privatization. When the Cananea and Nacozari copper mines and the Sicartsa mill belonged to the government, all workers became permanent employees after probation. But when Sicartsa was sold to the Villareals, they put half the workforce on 89-day contracts. Mexican law stipulates that workers receive labor protections after 90 days.

In Cananea, workers struck against the Larreas in 1998 over workforce cuts. When they lost, 800 people were blacklisted, and many displaced miners left for Arizona, 50 miles north. "I had no alternative," says Jorge Mendoza, now an undocumented worker in Phoenix. "I really didn't want to leave, but I went a year without being able to find work."

When Gomez Urrutia was elected union general secretary in 2001, he began to push back hard. Taking advantage of world record copper prices, he won 6-8% wage increases, twice those dictated by government austerity policies. He forced open the doors of the elite Technological Institute of Monterrey, where 700 workers and their children now study. He won better housing. So when Labor Secretary Salazar tried to replace him, workers reelected him twice, and then struck the Nacozari pit and the Sicartsa mill. And when work stopped at Cananea, on the hundred-year anniversary of the uprising there that started the Mexican Revolution, miners announced they too wouldn't resume work until Gomez was reinstated.

Most Mexican unions say the charges against Gomez are bogus, and have organized huge demonstrations to protest, knowing that the government has done the same to other unions that challenged its policies. Francisco Hernandez Juarez, head of the National Union of Workers, threatened a general strike June 28 if Gomez was not reinstated.

In the meantime, however, Gomez and his family fled Mexico. Interviewed by phone from a secret location in Canada, he said he and his wife received many death threats. Leaders of the United Steel Workers, which represents US copper miners, urged him to leave Mexico until his safety could be guaranteed. The two unions formed a strategic alliance last year, but their ties go back much further. Copper miners come from the same families on both sides of the border. In the cold war era, the leftwing Mine Mill union, now part of USW, supported Mexican copper strikes. That tradition was renewed in 1998, when union caravans from Arizona brought food and help to Cananea.

"Grupo Mexico now owns mines on the US side, so we're facing the same employers," explains Gerry Fernandez, USW International Director. "We're directly affected by the Mexican government's attack on the mineros, and we're going to defend them."

The miners aren't Mexico's only labor rebels. Oaxaca's education workers were occupying the central square of their state capital for three weeks when they too were attacked.
Teachers were demanding not just higher salaries, or a more progressive school curriculum, although they want those too. They and other Oaxacan activists sought an end to state violence and violations of human rights so serious that Amnesty International investigated the administration of Governor Ulisses Ruiz a year ago, after scores had been jailed.

Oaxaca’s Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers is the most militant teachers union in Mexico, battling the conservative state government for years. Conflict had become so bitter that one demonstration during the planton brought out 120,000 educators and supporters – the largest in Oaxacan history at that time.

Then, on June 14 at 4 in the morning, helicopters bombarded sleeping teachers and their children with tear gas shells. Hundreds of police charged into their tents. Within minutes, scores had been beaten. What had been a protest over wages was transformed into a movement to throw Ruiz out.

Ruiz belongs to Mexico's old governing party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, while Vicente Fox heads the rightwing National Action Party. But both parties support the reforms that have created Mexico's new billionaires. Three days before the Oaxaca confrontation, Ruiz promised the state's business owners that he would use the "mano dura," or heavy hand, to put down protest.

As the country heads for the polls, Mexicans face a clear choice. Images of violence on national TV from Oaxaca and Michoacan dovetail with corporate-funded commercials for Fox's would-be successor, Felipe Calderon, predicting chaos if Mexico changes direction.

But while Fox was trying to seize control of the miners, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, candidate of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution, outlined his labor policy on a campaign swing through Sonora, where miners are striking Cananea and Nacozari. "We will promote respect for union democracy," he told reporters, "and there will be no intervention in the life of the unions. Workers can freely elect their own leaders."

Mexico has traveled so far down the road of neoliberal transformation that union democracy alone cannot reverse its course. But the ability of workers to control their unions is the key to electing leaders willing to challenge corporations and the government policies protecting them. Despite their weakened state, unions are still a powerful force. And rank-and-file miners and teachers have been willing to face repression and violence to defend their leaders who demand a change in direction.

Regardless of who is elected on July 2, this demand for change will continue. Echoing Tom Joad, Cananea miners leader Francisco Hernandez told Reuters. "Wherever there is a miner, there is a person fighting for labor rights and social justice." And in Oaxaca, on the day after the bloody confrontation, over 300,000 people marched through the city to defend their embattled teachers.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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