News Analysis: Hundreds of Mexican Miners Fired for Striking

By David Bacon, New America Media
Friday August 11, 2006

NACOZARI, Sonora, Mexico—Just days after conservative candidate Felipe Calderon declared himself the winner of Mexico’s July 2 presidential election, the Mexican federal labor board lowered the boom on striking miners. At Nacozari, one of the world’s largest copper mines, just a few miles south of Arizona, 1,400 miners have been on strike since March 24. On July 12 the board said they’d abandoned their jobs, and gave the mine’s owner, Grupo Mexico, permission to close down operations. 

Under Mexican labor law, during a legal strike a company must stop production. The use of strikebreakers is illegal, and no enterprise can close while workers are on strike. By ruling that there was no legal stoppage, and that Grupo Mexico could therefore close the mine, the board gave the company a legal pretext to fire every miner. 

The closure was a legal fiction. In the days that followed, mine managers began soliciting applications from workers for jobs when the mine reopens. Some of the very miners who were terminated may be accepted back as new employees—but with no seniority and no union contract. And not everyone will be going back. Those most active in the strike are on a blacklist. 

On the day of the announcement, Sonora Gov. Bours Castelo issued arrest warrants against 21 strikers. The two striking local unions offered to sit down with the company to work out a solution to the conflict, but Bours Castelo responded that the union contract no longer existed. “Negotiations are no longer possible,” he declared, “since the union no longer has any bargaining relationship with the company.” 

These were the latest efforts by Mexico’s outgoing conservative Fox administration to force an end to a labor war that has rocked the country for six months, a war that has the beneficiaries of Mexico’s privatization land rush worried. It is no coincidence that Fox moved quickly to crush the strike once Calderon, his hand-picked successor, declared himself elected, in the midst of accusations of fraud and huge demonstrations demanding a recount. 

Unions in the country’s mines and mills are determined to roll back the conservative economic reforms of the past two decades. A victory by Calderon’s opponent, former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, would increase the political pressure for such a rollback. According to the country’s business interests, however, Mexico must be brought back under control instead. 

Last April steel workers stopped work at the huge Sicartsa steel mill in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, and have occupied it since then in a planton, or tent city. Local police tried unsuccessfully to stop their strike on April 20, shooting and killing two union workers. Miners at Mexico’s other huge copper mine at Cananea went on strike in June. 

Nacozari and Cananea are owned by Grupo Mexico, which in turn belongs to one of the country’s wealthiest families, the Larreas. The Sicartsa mill belongs to Grupo Villacero, which is the family business of the wealthy Villareal clan. Both families owe their enormous wealth to the wave of privatization that transformed the Mexican economy in the 1990s, in which they were virtually given their mines and mills. 

Grupo Mexico’s board of directors now includes directors of Kimberly Clark Mexico (the family business of U.S. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, author of last year’s anti-immigrant bill HR 4437) and the Carlyle Group (whose board included former President George Bush Sr.) In the 1990s, Grupo Mexico’s mushrooming capital gave it the resources to buy one of the oldest and largest mining companies in the United States, American Smelting and Refining Co. 

Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, head of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, says, “They think we’re like a cancer, and should be exterminated. This is no longer a country that can be called a democracy.” The effort by Fox to remove him from his union’s leadership was the flashpoint that set off the last few months of conflict. 

Two days after 65 miners died last February in a huge coal mine explosion, Gomez Urrutia accused the Secretary of Labor and Grupo Mexico, the mine’s owner, of “industrial homicide.” Corruption charges most unions view as bogus were filed against him less than a week later. Meanwhile, workers at Nacozari, Cananea and Lazaro Cardenas struck, demanding his reinstatement. 

In a July report, the National Human Rights Commission found that the local office of the federal labor ministry had “clear knowledge” before the accident of the conditions that would set off the explosion. Since the accident, eight miners in other mines have died in accidents. 

The same day Fox’s labor board announced it would allow Grupo Mexico to fire the Nacozari miners, his administration also issued arrest warrants against six other mine union leaders on corruption charges and raided the union’s national office in Mexico City. Facing the threat of closure at their own mine, the union local at Cananea then voted to end their strike, while at Sicartsa, the strike goes on. 

In the meantime, however, Gomez Urrutia and his family fled Mexico. Fox has formally asked Canada for his extradition. 

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 Obrador was elected. 

Since the July 2 election, huge national demonstrations, including the miners and most progressive unions, have demanded a recount after accusations of fraud threw Calderon’s tiny margin of victory into doubt. Whether or not they win a recount, this labor conflict will continue. Two weeks after the election, as Grupo Mexico announced it was firing the Nacozari miners, an anonymous spokesperson for Scotiabank, one of Mexico’s largest, told Reuters news service that Mexican business welcomed the action against the strikers. “This sets a precedent, so the workers will think harder,” he threatened.