Mass Protests by Mexican Workers for Union Independence and Job Safety

by George Saunders

TUCSON, AZGrupo Mexico, a high-finance conglomerate owned by a Mexican millionaire (probably with some U.S. finance capital hidden in the background), is today the fourth largest owner of copper-mining properties in the world. Grupo Mexico has been in the news this past month because 65 miners, betrayed by management’s unsafe practices, were killed in a mid-February explosion at one of the coal mines owned by this conglomerate octopus. A wave of labor protests in Mexico resulted, and the end is not yet in sight.

Union members in Arizona got to know a little about Grupo Mexico back in 1998, during a strike at its Cananea copper mine in the Mexican state of Sonora, Arizona’s neighbor to the south. An unusual show of cross-border solidarity saw Arizona unions allied with community groups bringing several caravans of food, clothing, and other material aid to the striking miners in Cananea. The caravans traveled from Tucson across the border. Among the many groups and individuals playing key roles in that solidarity campaign were the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) in Tucson and the national AFL-CIO’s field mobilization director for Arizona, Jerry Acosta, together with the Central Arizona Labor Council and the Southern Arizona Central Labor Council, then headed by Ian Robertson, also a copper mine worker.

The Cananea strike was defeated, and within a few years unionized copper-mine workers in Arizona found the company they worked for, Asarco, bought out by none other than…Grupo Mexico. Last year Arizona copper workers, organized in the United Steel Workers union, went on strike against Grupo Mexico to fight, among other things, for the protection of their long-standing health and pension benefits. After a grueling six months’ strike they forced Grupo Mexico to agree to a one-year extension of the old contract, with no substantial change in health or other benefits. During the 2005 strike, leaders of copper-mine workers unions from Peru and Mexico came to Arizona to express their solidarity with the striking workers here, many of whom are of Mexican ancestry. Referring to the 2005 Arizona strike, one news report stated: “During that struggle, thousands of Mexican miners and metal workers conducted a one-day sympathy strike.”

Now the coal mine explosion at Pasta de Conchos and the disastrous loss of life there have contributed to a wave of protest among Mexican workers. It is to be hoped that Arizona workers, and workers throughout the U.S., will show their solidarity with their Mexican brothers and sisters at this critical juncture.

The following article by Dan La Botz, posted on the Internet on March 5, gives a good account of the first stage of the current worker protests in Mexico. Incidentally, Dan La Botz visited Arizona during the 1998 Cananea strike and spoke at a public solidarity meeting in Tucson together with leaders of the Cananea workers. That meeting was organized by our Tucson chapter of the Labor Party.

Dan La Botz is the author of several books on Mexican labor unions, social movements, and politics. He also edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a joint publication of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) in the U.S. and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) in Mexico. It may be viewed on line at:

Following Dan La Botz’s article we reproduce a March 12 news report from the Mexican paper El Universal indicating important new developments in this ongoing struggle.

Nationwide Wildcat Miners’ Strike in Mexico: The First Act?

by Dan La Botz

[March 3, 2006] More than a quarter of a million miners and steelworkers walked off the job between March 1 and March 3 in wildcat strikes at 70 companies in at least eight states from central to northern Mexico, virtually paralyzing the mining industry. While the strike has ended, there are reasons to believe that this could be the first act in an unfolding drama that could challenge Mexican employers, the corrupt “official” unions, and the conservative Mexican government. Stay in your seats, the play has only begun.

The strike resulted from an attempt by the government to remove the Mexican Miners Union’s top officer, general secretary Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, and replace him with Elías Morales Hernández, a union dissident who is reportedly backed by the Grupo Mexico mining company. The coup d’état in their union led miners to strike insisting that the government recognize Gómez Urrutia. In many mining towns and cities they also marched and rallied demanding not only the restitution of their leader but also safer conditions. The wildcat strike erupted little more than a week after a mining accident on February 19 in San Juan de las Sabinas that left 65 dead.

The miners’ wildcat strike represents one of the largest industrial actions in recent Mexican history, an event with few precedents since the workers insurgency (la insurgencia obrera) of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the strike has ended, at least temporarily, it has shaken the mining industry, the labor establishment, and the government, and it could reignite and possibly spread to other sectors of the labor movement, possibly shaking the entire society.

The Union Issue: The Pasta de Conchos Accident

The strike by members of the National Union of Mining and Metallurgical Workers of Mexico (SNTMMRM) resulted from both labor union issues and political causes. The explosion and cave-in at the Pasta de Conchos mine in San Juan de Las Sabinas, Coahuila, in northern Mexico trapped 65 miners, all of whom are presumed dead (their bodies have not yet been recovered). The Miners Union leader, Gómez Urrutia, blamed the employer, Grupo Mexico, calling the deaths “industrial homicide.”

The Pasta de Conchos cave-in set off a storm. Throughout Mexico politicians, academics, intellectuals, and ordinary people criticized the mining company. The Grupo Mexico stock fell. Copper and other commodity prices rose. The Mexican Catholic Bishops Conference criticized the employer’s negligence and called for an international investigation, expressing their lack of confidence in the Mexican government.

While miners throughout the country mourned the death of their brothers and complained of health and safety conditions in their own mines, there was no official or wildcat strike in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The Political Issue: The Ousting of Gómez Urrutia

Then, on February 28 the Mexican Secretary of Labor announced that Gómez Urrutia was not actually the head of the union, but that the real general secretary was Elías Morales Hernández. The government’s action was based on part of Mexican labor law known as “taking note” (toma de nota), a process by which the government recognizes the legally elected officers of labor unions. Six years earlier Morales Hernández had appealed to the Secretary of Labor, arguing that he had actually been elected and should be the new head of the union. The government had rejected the appeal by Morales Hernández, and in 2002 Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal Carranza recognized Gómez Urrutia as the general secretary.

Why had the Mexican government suddenly opted to overturn its own earlier decision, recognize the dissident, and bring him out of retirement to assume leadership of the Miners Union? The answer has partly to do with the Miners Union and the recent accident, but just as much to do with the Congress of Labor (CT), the umbrella organization that brings together most of the largest Mexican labor federations and industrial unions.

Official Labor Movement in Crisis

In mid-February 2006 Miners Union leader Gómez Urrutia joined together with Isaías González, head of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), to challenge the election of Victor Flores Morales, head of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union (STFRM), for control of the Congress of Labor. Gómez Urrutia was trying to position himself to become the top leader of the numerically most important Mexican labor organization.

His ambitions troubled many. The Congress of Labor (CT), which brings together most of the “official” unions of Mexico, historically formed part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the ruling party of Mexico. The CT had historically backed the PRI’s candidates, supported the PRI’s policies, and served in the Mexican Congress as PRI senators and congressmen. More recently the CT had worked out a modus vivendi with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, collaborating with his National Action Party (PAN). Napoleón Gómez Urrutia’s attempt to take over the CT, not only challenged Railroad Workers Union leader Victor Florez; it also worried the PRI and PAN.

Rival Leaders

Victor Flores had been the ideal labor union leader of both PRI and PAN governments. He had worked closely with the government to carry out the privatization of the Mexican railroads, leading to their sale to the Union Pacific and the Kansas City railroads. When rank-and-file railroad workers had protested, Victor Flores had cooperated with the government to have them fired—easy enough with some 100,000 railroad workers losing their jobs in the privatization—and if that did not work, he had sent his thugs to beat them and threaten them with murder. While somewhat volatile—as a PRI Congressman Victor Flores had once tried to strangle another representative—he was loyal to the government’s program of neoliberalism.

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, on the other hand, seemed, from the government’s point of view, to be becoming a loose cannon. In some ways this was odd. Gómez Urrutia had inherited the leadership of the miners union from his father, Napoleón Gómez Sada, and both had been typical charros, that is, union bureaucrats absolutely loyal to the PRI. They had turned out the vote for the party, collaborated with the employers, and expelled union activists or leaders who opposed them or supported other political parties. Doing all of those things, they enjoyed the wealth, power, and privilege to which their loyalty entitled them.

The Miners Union in Struggle

Lately, however Gómez Urrutia had begun to challenge both the employers and the Congress of Labor/PRI leadership. In June 2005, Mexican miners joined their compañeros in Peru and the United States as more than 10,000 miners carried out a simultaneous protest against Grupo Mexico to demand that the company stop violating workers’ rights. The three unions accused Grupo Mexico of having a policy of repression, exploitation, and unwanted involvement in union affairs. The protest was organized by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) in the United States, the

Federation of Metal Workers of Peru (FETIMAP), and the National Union of Miners and Metal Workers (SNTMM) of Mexico. The international solidarity against the Mexican mining company was backed by the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF).

Then in September 2005, Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union won a 46-day strike against two steel companies in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan, in what may be one of the most important strikes in Mexico in a decade. The local union and its 2,400 members succeeded in winning an 8 percent wage gain, 34 percent in new benefits, and a 7,250 peso one-time only bonus.

The Mexican Miners Union also indicated the ability to impact domestic politics. The Miners Union played a critical role in helping to lead the union bloc that opposed the Fox administration's labor law reform package. All of these actions threatened to upset the Mexican system of labor control by which the governmental labor authorities, the employers, and the “official” unions of the CT collude to channel and suppress workers. Then in February Gómez Urrutia made a bid to take over the CT, raising the prospect that he would lead labor struggles at a national level. Clearly at that point the Fox government must have already been looking for a way to get rid of him. Then his remarks on

Grupo Mexico’s “industrial homicide” made him persona non grata not only with the PRI but also with the employers.

The Larger Context

The struggle over the Congress of Labor and now over the Miners Union takes place at a crucial time: Mexico is in the midst of a national election campaign in which the conservative National Action Party’s candidate, Felipe Calderón, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate, Roberto Madrazo, are being challenged by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. López

Obrador is running on a populist platform calling for “putting the poor first.” He is leading in the polls, and while international bankers and Mexican industrialists have said they can live with him, some fear the poor may take his slogan seriously.

At the same time, Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), has left the Lacandon Forest in Chiapas to organize the Other Campaign. Marcos’s Other Campaign is not an attempt to win election to the presidency, but rather an effort to organize the anticapitalist forces of Mexico into a social movement with the power to overturn the government, call a constituent assembly, and write a new constitution for an egalitarian (and, though he hardly ever uses the word, a socialist) Mexico.

Marcos has recently gone out of his way to speak to Mexican workers and union members, blue-collar laborers in private industry and white-collar workers in government agencies, suggesting that they have to turn against their union leaders, the bosses, and the politicians. Most of the people Marcos speaks too—the poor, Indian communities, the unemployed—don’t have much economic leverage. Now the miners’ strike has shown what real economic power and potential political power could be.

The Drama is Not Yet Over

The drama is not yet over. The Miners Union’s nationwide wildcat strike showed Mexican industrial workers taking center stage for the first time in decades. Twice in the past there have been such strikes against the Mexican government: first in 1959 when the Mexican Railroad Workers union called a nationwide strike and again in 1976 when Electrical Workers and their allies in the Democratic Tendency carried out a national strike. Both of those strikes were crushed by the Mexican government—the PRI’s one-party state—using the army, police, and massive firings.

The Mexican government of that era, the era of the PRI, had the political and social power to carry out such military and police actions to put down a national labor walkout. The Fox government, as demonstrated by six years of political failure, economic doldrums, and social disintegration, does not have the force to face down the labor movement should it act. A number of movements with different political leaderships and goals—López Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution, Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, and Gómez Urrutia and the Miners Union—appear to be aligning in ways that could turn Mexico upside down.

The Next Act

Whether that happens depends on three things: (1) whether or not the government continues to make mistakes that inadvertently advantage and encourage its enemies; (2) whether or not the leaders of these movements are willing to, and capable of, setting broader forces in motion; and (3) whether or not workers, feeling and seeing their strength, move to build their own independent force. Stay in your seats, the curtain is rising…

From El Universal, March 12, 2006:

A March for Labor Independence

Last Tuesday, some 30,000 members of the National Workers Union (UNT), its close ally, the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME), and the National Mine and Metal Workers Union marched through Mexico City to demand the immediate restitution of mineworkers union president, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia.

They also sought the dismissal of Labor Secretary Javier Salazar, who had summarily removed Gómez Urrutia from office.

The protesting unions threatened a general strike if the labor secretary, who they accused of intervening in the affairs of an ostensibly independent union by firing its president, was not dismissed within three weeks. To understand the protest, one must remember that the UNT is a federation of dissident unions that have broken away from the official, corporatist labor federation, the Labor Congress (CT).

They aimed the protest against the CT itself, Secretary Salazar, and the very structure of “corporate unionism”—organized labor’s incorporation within the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and hence within the government—which had almost total control over Mexico’s labor movement from the mid-1940s until the breakaway UNT (whose strongest unions represent the country’s telephone workers and Social Security workers) was formed in 1997.

Labor Conflicts

The Mineworkers Union remains within the CT, but its recently removed leader, Gómez Urrutia, had led a dissident faction in a highly personal conflict with the CT’s leader, Victor Flores.

After the Feb. 19 explosion in the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila, the Mineworkers Union suddenly came to prominence. The union leaders accused the mine owners, Grupo México, of gross negligence and industrial homicide, and claimed the state and federal labor boards had ignored the violations of safety standards they had brought to their attention.

In turn, there is a public reexamination of charges that Gómez Urrutia has kept for himself the US$55 million given to the union to be distributed among the thousands of unionized miners—now mostly ex-miners—when the company, then called Industrial Minera Mexicana de Cananea, was privatized. He claims the money is in a fund waiting to be distributed once the eligible miners are identified. The case has never been brought to trial, and the marchers voiced no opinion on it, simply protesting Gómez Urrutia's summary dismissal in the old corporatist manner.

Never a miner, Gómez Urrutia is an Oxford-trained lawyer and the son of an archetypal corporatist union leader named Napoleón Gómez Sada, who presided over the Mineworkers Union from 1960 until he passed the mantle on to his son in 2000.

The union’s statutes, requiring that any officer have experience as an actual mineworker, were modified to allow the son to succeed the father.

The modification was rejected by the state labor board, but then approved by incoming Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal, who apparently thought he could count on Gómez Urrutia to help establish a close, accommodating relationship with the incoming National Action Party (PAN).

The son thus seems to fit the image of the father, but according to Benjamin Davis, the AFL-CIO representative in Mexico, “He is more interesting than that.”

First, says Davis, he has distanced himself from the CT and the PRI, and actively opposed Secretary Abascal’s Labor Reform Law meant to create a more “flexible” labor market and weaken the bargaining power of labor.

In fact, says Davis, it was Gómez Urrutia’s opposition that switched enough votes among PRI deputies to defeat the reform in the Chamber of Deputies.

This did not endear him to the Fox government.

In addition, says Davis, in an era in which Mexican unions have generally been quiescent, Gómez Urrutia has been “industrially militant,” willing to strike for better pay and jurisdictional issues. (He successfully brought underpaid mine maintenance and service workers into the mineworkers’ bargaining unit last year.) And he has “projected himself internationally,” recognizing that some degree of cross-border labor solidarity is necessary to build enforceable labor rights into any renegotiated NAFTA.

This further alienated him from the pro-“free trade,” pro-“labor flexibility” PAN government.

But like the CT leaders, Gómez Urrutia knows how to play from both sides of the table. Under his leadership, the non-union subcontracting of miners has grown enormously. Just as he was bringing maintenance workers under union protection, two-thirds of the miners who perished in the accident at Pasta de Conchos were hired outside of the union contract.

The labor flexibility he successfully opposed in Congress, was actively practiced in a workplace in which his union represented the workers.

But Tuesday’s cause was union autonomy, not the fate of an inconsistent union leader. And with a labor secretary playing the role of an old-time corporatist boss, the marchers had a point.