Wildcat Miners’ Strike In Mexico




M

ore than a quarter of a million miners and
steelworkers walked off the job between March 1-3 in wildcat strikes
at 70 companies in at least 8 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 to challenge Mexican employers, corrupt “official”
unions, and the conservative Mexican government.  


The strike resulted from an attempt by the government to remove
the union’s General Secretary Napleón Gómez Urrutia
and replace him with Elías Morales Hernández, who was
reportedly backed by the Grupo Mexico mining company. This coup
d’état 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. 


The strike by members of the National Union of Mining and Metallurgical
Workers of Mexico 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  died. 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 citizens
    criticized the mining company 

  • 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 deaths and complained
of health and safety conditions, there was no official or wildcat
strike in the immediate aftermath of the accident. 


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,” 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 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. 


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


His ambitions troubled many. The Congress of Labor, 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 PRI’s
candidates and policies. More recently the CT had worked out a modus
viviendi with Mexican 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, but it also worried the PRI and PAN. 








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 Union Pacific and 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 to privatization—and when
that did not work, he sent his thugs to beat them and threaten them
with murder. While somewhat volatile—as a PRI Con- gressperson
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 a loose cannon. In some
ways this was odd as Gómez Urrutia had inherited the leadership
of the mine from his father Napoleón Gómez Sada and both
had been typical charros, that is, union bureaucrats 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 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, the Federation of Metal Workers of Peru, and the National
union of Miners and Metal Workers of Mexico. The international solidarity
against the Mexican mining company was backed by the International
Metalworkers Federation (IMF). 


In September 2005 the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union won
a 46-day strike against 2 steel companies, 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,
a 34 percent gain in new benefits, and a 7,250 peso one-time-only
bonus. 



T

he Mexican Miners Union played
a critical role in 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 government’s
labor authorities, the employers and the “official” unions
of the CT collude to channel and suppress workers. When 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, 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 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 make take his slogan seriously. 


At the same time, Subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatista Army of
National Liberation (EZLN), has left the Lacandon Forest in Chiapas
to organize the “other campaign”—an effort to organize
anti-capitalist forces 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 Marcos 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
turn against their union leaders, bosses, and politicians. Most
of the people Marcos speaks to—the poor, Indian communities,
the unemployed— don’t have much economic leverage. Now
the miners’ strike has shown what real economic power and political
power could be. 








The drama is not yet over. The Miners Union’s wildcat strike
showed Mexican industrial workers taking center stage. 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
carried out a national strike. Both of those strikes were crushed
by the Mexican government—the PRI’s previous one- party-state
—using the army, police, and massive firings. 


The Mexican government of that era had the power to carry out such
military and police actions to put down a national labor walkout.
The current 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—are aligning in ways that could turn Mexico upside down. 


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 prove 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.


 





Dan
La Botz is author of several books on Mexican labor unions, movements,
and politics. He edits



Mexican Labor News and Analysi



s,
a publication of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and the
Authentic Labor Front (FAT).