Mexican Workers Want a Recount
by David Bacon
[We reprint this article for the information of our readers. It was published in the San Francisco Chronicle July 17, 2006, and an earlier version appeared in The Nation magazine under the title “Mexico’s Labor Rebels.” David Bacon is the author of “The Children of NAFTA” (University of California, 2004) and the forthcoming “Communities Without Borders” (Cornell University Press, 2006). He can be reached here.
Huge national demonstrations in Mexico are now demanding a recount of the votes cast in the presidential election, tainted by allegations of vote fraud.
Mexico’s wealthiest families have a lot to lose. All benefited from Mexico’s conservative economic reforms, which the leading candidate, Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party, vows to continue. The Villareal family’s Grupo Villacero, for instance, was virtually given the huge Sicartsa steel mill by the government in the early 1990s for a tenth of its value, according to Mexican press reports, when government holdings were privatized. The Larrea family’s’ Grupo Mexico got Mexico’s two great copper mines in the 1980s.
Mexican workers, however, gained little from the privatization and want a change in political direction. People in the United States will be affected if a recount results in the defeat of Calderon and his reforms. If Mexican workers win better jobs and stronger unions, they will feel less pressure to migrate north. Higher wages will create a market for U.S.-made products, while decreasing the incentive for moving factories south.
Privatization and economic reforms have undermined labor rights, however. Last April, Sicartsa’s steelworkers stopped work and occupied the mill, accusing the government of trying to take over their union. Local police made an unsuccessful attempt to evict them on April 20, shooting and killing two. Miners belonging to the same union in Sonora shut down Grupo Mexico’s two copper mines, making the same protest.
Oaxaca’s teachers have been striking for higher salaries and an end to alleged human rights’ violations by Gov. Ulisses Ruiz. Conflict became so bitter that on June 14, helicopters bombarded teachers occupying the city’s central square with tear gas. Police beat scores of them. Three days before the Oaxaca confrontation, Ruiz promised business owners he would use the mano dura, or heavy hand, to put down protest.
Mexican employers are discarding the social contract, in which unions had a place at the table so long as they didn’t upset it. Increasingly, corporations such as Grupo Mexico and Grupo Villacero want no unions at all.
President Vicente Fox, who heads the PAN, pushed hard to eviscerate the country’s labor laws at the corporations’ behest. Mexican law prohibits strikebreaking, gives workers the right to health care and housing, protects job security, mandates strict work hours, and imposes severance pay for laid-off employees. Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, head of the miners’ union, led a labor effort that spiked Fox’s proposals.
But labor conflict grew more heated when 65 miners died on Feb. 19 this year, in a huge explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coalmine, owned by Grupo Mexico. Workers told the union they were required to weld while high concentrations of explosive methane gas filled the shafts in the days before the accident. The gas ignited in a huge fireball.
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 Saenz appointed a more “cooperative” replacement to head the union. Salazar owns two companies that supply chemicals to Grupo Mexico.
Gomez says the country’s wealthy families “think unions are like a cancer, and should be exterminated.”
Forty of the dead miners were contract workers, who have no union or safety committee. They were getting $9 a day, working 10 to 12 hours, well beyond the legal 8-hour limit. Contract employment is a new phenomenon in Mexico. When the mines and mills belonged to the government, workers became permanent employees after probation. But when the Sicartsa mill was sold to the Villareals, they put half the workforce on temporary contracts and ended their labor rights.
At the Cananea copper mine, workers struck against Grupo Mexico in 1998 over similar demands. When they lost, 800 people were blacklisted. Displaced miners left for Arizona, 50 miles north. “I had no alternative,” says Jorge Mendoza, now an undocumented worker in Phoenix. “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. So when Labor Secretary Salazar tried to replace him, workers re-elected him twice, and then struck the copper pits and the Sicartsa mill, demanding his reinstatement.
Mexicans headed for the polls in the middle of this turmoil. Grupo Mexico and Grupo Villacero poured money into Calderon’s campaign, funding commercials predicting chaos if Lopez Obrador, candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, were elected. Lopez Obrador himself declared “we will promote respect for union democracy, and there will be no intervention in the life of the unions.” No wonder Mexico’s most progressive unions then called for a recount, after accusations of fraud threw Calderon’s tiny margin into doubt.
Some, like the miners, the telephone workers, and the Authentic Labor Front, a Mexican union federation, have partnerships with unions on the U.S. side of the border. The United Steel Workers, which represents U.S. copper miners, sheltered Gomez Urrutia and his family when they were forced to flee Mexico. Relations between Mexican and U.S. mining unions go back decades. Copper miners come from the same families on both sides of the border. In 1998, union caravans from Arizona brought food to Cananea during the strike.
Those historic ties give U.S. workers a stake in Mexico’s direction. Unions here know that if the conservative reforms continue, they will produce even greater numbers of displaced people. Many will have little alternative but to look for work in the north.
Meanwhile, jobs move south. While closing 14 U.S. plants, laying off thousands, Ford Motor Company is investing $9 billion in new Mexican plants. “Grupo Mexico now owns the American Smelting and Refining Company, and mines on the U.S. side, so we’re facing the same employers,” explains Gerry Fernandez, United Steelworkers international director. “We’re directly affected by the attack on the miners, and we’re going to defend them.”