David Bacon Stories & Photographs


David Bacon
The Nation, web edition, 1/25/08

The Mexican city of Cananea, site of one of the world's largest copper mines, is moving toward a virtual state of siege after fighting swept through the streets between police and strikers more than a week ago. The attack on the Mexican miners' union, followed by a massive police occupation of the mine and surrounding town, has sparked a growing uproar among the country's workers and unions. More than 25,000 miners across Mexico walked off the job for a day on January 16 in protest. Six days later, 1,500 teachers, electrical and telephone workers, and farmers marched on the Mexico City office of Labor Secretary Javier Lozano Alarcon to demand that the government withdraw police from the struck mine.

Francisco Hernandez Juarez, head of the National Union of Workers (UNT), Mexico's independent union federation, not only condemned government moves to break the miners' strike but accused the administration of President Felipe Calderón of unilaterally implementing its proposals for labor law reform, which would effectively eliminate the right to strike. A statement by the Authentic Labor Front, which belongs to the UNT, said, "The government is trying to intimidate us into accepting its labor law reform." Deputies from the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party also denounced the government plan.

Meanwhile, on January 18, more than 600 women began blockading Cananea's forty schools, picketing in below-zero weather, to protest the police occupation of the mine and the town. Almost all students and teachers supported the action, and even the Sonora state secretary of education admitted that the schools had been closed.

Cananea is a tiny town in the Sonora mountains, just fifty miles south of the US border. Since June 30 of last year, the union there, Section 65 of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, has been on strike over extreme health and safety dangers. On January 11 the federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JNCA) declared the mine strike illegal. Under current Mexican law, if a strike is legal, the company may not make any effort to operate the mine or make reprisals against the strikers. If the strike is declared illegal, however, the company can begin operations and fire any striker who refuses to return to work.

As the JNCA was announcing its decision, 700 agents of the Sonora state police and the Federal Preventative Police entered the mine and took control of the premises. Cananea erupted into street fighting between miners and police, in which twenty people were injured--several seriously--and five strikers were reported missing. "They dropped tear gas bombs on us from helicopters," said Jesus Verdugo, chair of the union's strike committee. "Dozens of us were beaten."

Grupo Mexico, the mine's owner, then claimed that 410 workers went to work the following day, out of about 1,300 strikers. Verdugo and union spokesperson Carlos Pavon Campos deny this. "They brought about twenty people in from outside and kept them locked up inside the mine," Pavon told Mexican reporters. "They're seeking to provoke a confrontation between the workers." According to union lawyer Juan Rivero Legorreta, however, the company has begun sending notices to workers saying they will be fired if they don't go back to work.

The board's move was the latest of many similar efforts by the federal government to force strikers back to work, and it had ruled the strike illegal from the very beginning. Those moves had been blocked by injunctions obtained by the union in Mexican federal court. After the JNCA announced its latest declaration January 11, the union again went before a judge in Mexico City the following day. Maximo Ariel Torres Quevedo, Sixth District Judge for Labor Matters, again barred the JNCA from declaring the strike illegal. But in a highly unusual decision he went on to declare that Grupo Mexico could restart operations anyway, using either strikebreakers or strikers who "voluntarily" returned to work.

Labor Secretary Alarcon, who oversees the Mexican labor board, immediately greeted the second part of the judge's decision. "The Cananea mine can keep its doors open to any worker who wants to go back to work," he said. The decision "makes the normal operation of the mine possible." On January 22 Judge Torres reiterated the same decision.

Allowing a company to operate during a strike and recruit strikebreakers under police protection would be a drastic change in the labor law that has governed Mexico since the 1930s. It would make Mexican law much more like that in the United States, where companies legally recruit strikebreakers under police protection and operate during strikes. Adopting the US model is part of labor law reform proposals made by the past administration of conservative President Vicente Fox on the recommendation of the World Bank. Calderón, Fox's successor, has vowed to move those proposals forward, although neither president has been able to win the votes for adoption in the federal Chamber of Deputies. If the judge's decision stands, the government and the right-wing National Action Party will have accomplished by legal fiat what they have been unable to win legislatively.

The JNCA action seeks to end the longest-running defiance of government labor policy in Mexico in decades. Grupo Mexico, one of the largest mining corporations in the world, is owned by the wealthy family of German Larrea, who was one of the largest contributors to President Calderón's 2006 election campaign.

Breaking the strike in Cananea would have economic and political repercussions, not just in Mexico but in the United States as well. In two previous strikes at Cananea and its sister mine in Nacozari, in 1998 and 2005 respectively, more than 2,000 miners lost their jobs. Most of them, unable to find other work in the tiny mining communities of northern Sonora, crossed the border into the United States as undocumented workers in order to survive.

Grupo Mexico has extensive ties with US corporations. It became owner of two mines and a smelter in Arizona when it bought the bankrupt American Smelting and Refining Company. The union in those US mines, the United Steelworkers of America, has actively supported the Cananea strikers. Grupo Mexico's chief financial officer, J. Eduardo Gonzalez, is a former executive of Kimberley Clark de Mexico, the Mexican subsidiary of the US-based paper corporation Kimberley Clark. That company was founded by the family of Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, one of the most vociferous opponents of Mexican immigration to the United States. Grupo Mexico's board of directors also shared a member, Tellez Kuenzler, with the board of the Carlyle Group (which included former President George H.W. Bush); Kuenzler resigned to become Secretary of Communications and Transport in the Calderón administration after the 2006 election.

Grupo Mexico has been at war with the Mexican miners' union for more than three years. In 2001 Napoleon Gomez Urrutia was elected the union's president; he soon became a high-profile opponent of government economic policy, fighting its effort to weaken labor law and privatize the national pension system. Taking advantage of high world copper prices, Gomez negotiated wage increases much higher than the limits the government sought to impose in its effort to attract foreign investment.

On February 19, 2005, sixty-five miners died in a huge explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in the northern state of Coahuila. That mine belonged to Grupo Mexico's subsidiary, Industrial Minera Mexico (IMMSA). The union found that workers on the second shift had complained of high concentrations of explosive methane gas in the shafts before the accident. "They told us that welding was still going on, even after the failure of some electrical equipment," Gomez charged.

Two days after the explosion, Gomez accused the secretary of labor and Grupo Mexico of "industrial homicide." Then-President Vicente Fox filed corruption charges against Gomez less than a week later, and then-Labor Secretary Francisco Xavier Salazar Saenz appointed Elias Morales to replace Gomez as union president. Morales had been expelled from the union for his close relationship with the company. Gomez fled to Canada to avoid arrest, where the United Steelworkers gave him sanctuary, and where he remains. While in exile, he was twice re-elected president of the union, although Grupo Mexico and the government refused to recognize him.

A July 2006 report by the National Human Rights Commission found that the local office of the federal labor ministry responsible for inspecting Pasta de Conchos had "clear knowledge" before the accident of the conditions that would set off the explosion. In 2004 labor safety inspectors had found forty-eight health and safety violations in the mine, including oil and gas leaks, missing safety devices and broken lighting. Although Grupo Mexico was given an order to fix the illegal conditions, no compliance inspection was carried out until February 7, twelve days before the explosion.

Only two bodies were ever recovered, and Grupo Mexico abandoned recovery efforts last year. The widows of the dead miners have launched a high-profile national campaign demanding that the government cancel the company's mining concession. Elvira Martinez, one of the campaign's leaders, called IMMSA "a socially irresponsible enterprise and a danger to Mexico."

The Cananea strikers say conditions in their mine also threaten their lives and health. Rock dust in the enclosed part of the huge complex, called the concentrator, is so deep that it rises up over workers' boots. "When the mine is running," says Victoriano Carrillo, a member of the mine's health and safety commission, "you can't even see more than a few feet in front of you."

Mine dust is more than just uncomfortable or inconvenient. It's deadly. Superfine particles lodge in the lungs, and miners who breathe rock dust year after year suffer a variety of lung diseases, including silicosis. "We know what's safe and what's not," one miner charged, "but they never want us to spend time fixing problems--just get the production out. If we tried to stop the line for safety problems, we would lose our jobs."

Cananea miners charge that the vacuum apparatus that is supposed to suck dust from the complex has been disconnected and inoperable for two years. In an effort to weaken the union, they say, Grupo Mexico eliminated the jobs of workers who were in charge of maintaining it, and brought in a private, nonunion contractor to do the work. When the union objected, the company disconnected the dust collectors.

In October a delegation of health and safety experts from Mexico and the United States visited the Cananea mine and did preliminary health screening on sixty-eight of the 1,300 strikers. "We documented appalling working conditions in the open-pit mine and processing plants where workers are exposed to high levels of airborne silica, which can cause fatal diseases like silicosis and lung cancer," according to Garrett Brown, a California health and safety inspector and director of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Network. "Ironically, the Mexican Labor Department's own safety inspectors found the same hazards in an April 2007 inspection of the facility and issued a laundry list of seventy-two 'corrective actions,' including fixing the cranes' brakes and reassembling the dust collectors. None of the mandated corrections, many of which had also been identified in previous inspections, had been completed by the time the workers went on strike over health and safety issues on July 29."

According to Grupo Mexico, the strikers are supporters of Gomez and are striking to pressure the company and government into reinstating him. But breaking the strike in Cananea would allow the company and government to install a company union at the mine, as they have at many others over the past two years. In November 2006 the JNCA, under the control of Calderón and the National Action Party, gave legal status to a new miners' union, the National Union of Workers in the Exploration, Exploitation and Benefit of Mines.

The new union is headed by Francisco Gamez, a former contractor for Grupo Mexico who once worked at Cananea. The federal labor board set up elections to allow it to take over representation rights in eight mines. The Center for Labor Action and Reflection (CEREAL), a human rights organization based in Mexico City, claims the election process was manipulated to get rid of the old miners' union. Fifteen workers were fired before one vote at a San Luis Potosi mine, CEREAL says. In Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, miners on the first and second shifts were locked inside the coal mine for a day before balloting began, while 300 federal, state and municipal police surrounded the mine entrance.

At Nacozari, where 1,500 workers were fired for striking in 2006, more than 900 were denied voting rights. Workers brought in to replace the fired miners were told they would be fired themselves, evicted from company housing and sent back to southern Mexico if the company union didn't win the vote there. Rita Marcela Robles Benitez, an analyst with CEREAL, charges that Grupo Mexico "changed the working hours from 8 to 12 per day, which has resulted in more accidents because of the lack of safety protection and training." The new union approved the change.

The government and Grupo Mexico have been prevented from holding a similar election at Cananea because of the strike. If the strike is smashed, however, authorities will probably hold one there to eliminate the miners' union and allow Grupo Mexico to deal with the company union instead.

When the miners' union lost its strike in Cananea in 1998, in which it tried to stop the elimination of hundreds of jobs, blacklisted strikers poured into Arizona in the months that followed. If the current strike is put down, the union broken and its leaders and activists terminated, they too will likely find themselves in Phoenix, Tucson or Los Angeles, hungry and desperate for work.


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