Mass Protests by Mexican Workers for Union
by George Saunders
Union members in
strike was defeated, and within a few years unionized copper-mine workers in
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
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
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
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.
Wildcat Miners’ Strike in
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
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
The Pasta de Conchos
cave-in set off a storm. Throughout
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
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
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.
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
Metal Workers of
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
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
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
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:
March for Labor
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
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.
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
In fact, says
This did not endear him to the Fox government.
In addition, says
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.