Mexican miners hold out against owners
|Mexican miners hold out against vicious assault by owners: solidarity across borders is needed
by Fred Hyde
Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 29, No. 2, April - May 2008
FOR OVER 100 YEARS, workers at the Cananea, Mexico, copper mine have fought for fair treatment, a safe work site, better healthcare, a living wage, and clean water. Today, they are up against one of the largest mining corporations in the world, Grupo México, which took over the huge open-pit mine when it was privatized in 1990. Grupo México blatantly ignores labor, safety and environmental laws to the extent that workers' lives are severely endangered by preventable accidents and by lung disease and cancer caused by toxic levels of silica dust.
On July 30, 2007, more than 1,300 members of the Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers went on strike at Cananea and two smaller mines. They occupied the premises and called for job safety, improved health facilities, and raises of 10 percent in recognition of the company's huge profits from soaring copper prices.
The union is also demanding that the government restore its duly-elected secretary general, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, to his position. In 2006, the government illegally froze the union's bank accounts and removed Gómez from office. The pretext was specious allegations of fraud by Elias Morales, a disgraced union official expelled in 2000 for taking bribes from Grupo México. Gómez has been living in exile in Vancouver, B.C. until his name is cleared (all but a few charges have been dismissed) and until death threats against his family stop.
The harassment of Gómez began shortly after he accused Grupo México of "industrial homicide" in a February 2006 methane explosion that killed 65 miners. The smear campaign is also part of an attempt to bring in a docile company union.
Battlefront Sonora Mountains.
For the first five months of the strike, union members controlled the mine. They stopped production, causing losses of nearly $3 million a day, while also fending off legal attacks. Courts twice declared the strike lawful. But on Jan. 11, 2008, the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board decreed the strike legally "non-existent," giving the company permission to fire strikers and re-open the mine.
That same day, the company and the government launched a massive assault. Over 1,000 federal and state police dumped tear gas from helicopters and used pellet guns against strikers who were blockading the mine. Police beat and injured scores of miners, their wives and children, and occupied the town.
Although the federal court affirmed the legality of the strike on the following day and again in February, the strikers had been ousted from the mine and troops now barricaded the entrances. The judge allowed the company to resume production with strikebreakers -- a violation of Mexican labor laws that prohibit the operation of businesses and the use of scabs during legal strikes.
The government's brute force was denounced by leaders of the National Union of Workers (UNT) and its affiliates, and by the United Steel Workers (USW) International, which represents workers at several Grupo México-owned ASARCO facilities in the U.S. On January 16, 25,000 members of the National Miners Union conducted an eight-hour nationwide walkout to protest the violence and the seizure of the mine.
Miners' wives are an important part of the Cananea struggle, as they were during a 1998 strike where they formed a Women's Front. On Jan. 18, 2008, 600 Cananea women protested the onslaught by working with students and teachers to shut down the town's 40 schools. The following week, 1,500 teachers, electrical and telephone workers, and farmers gathered in Mexico City and marched on the Labor Secretary's office demanding the withdrawal of police from Cananea.
Where to from here?
The key to winning the strike is mobilizing the Mexican and U.S. labor movements and their allies -- feminists, civil rights activists, radicals, environmentalists, students and immigrants -- to oppose the Grupo/government campaign to bust the miners union. The copper strike needs to become a general strike demanding the right of all workers to organize and the nationalization of mines and other basic industries under workers' control.
Manuel Armenta, USW District 12 Sub-Director in Arizona, has worked closely with the Cananea miners and their families in this fight. To him, the importance of international solidarity is clear. "A defeat of the Cananea strike would set the labor movement in Mexico back at least 50 years, which, in turn, will impact union struggles throughout Central, South and North America," he told the Freedom Socialist.
Readers can help by sending checks made out to Manuel Armenta, USW District 12, 3150 Carlisle Blvd. NE, Suite 110, Albuquerque, NM 87110, with a notation that the donation is for Cananea miners.
As of March 11, Cananea was working at only one-third capacity using non-union workers, and the union and Grupo México were resuming talks. Despite Grupo México's long history of violent repression and blacklisting, the miners' struggle continues toward what is likely to be a decisive showdown.
Fred Hyde, a radical attorney and veteran of labor battles, has organized numerous international solidarity campaigns. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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