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The Killing Dust


Cananea, Sonora, Mexico – In its natural state, Cananea’s copper ore is part of a sagebrush-covered mountain in the middle of the Sonora Desert 70 miles south of Arizona. To extract the metal indispensable to computers, automobiles and iPods, the rock is first blown out of the mountainside with explosives and then loaded onto dump trucks so huge the tires would dwarf a basketball player. The trucks then dump their loads – small boulders, in effect – into the first crusher on the hilltop overlooking the huge complex. When the crushed rocks pour out down below, into tunnels deep in the hillside, they’re still about the size of watermelons. The next crusher breaks them into smaller pieces, and then enormous mills below grind them down even further, until they are no longer rocks at all, or even pebbles, but a steady stream of fine sand.

Even though the mine has been still for over 50 days, shut down because its workers are on strike, rock dust in parts of this huge complex, called the concentrator, is so deep that it rises up over one’s boot tops. In the dark tunnels where rubber conveyer belts normally carry the ore from crushers to mills at breakneck speed, the fine powder mounts up against the machinery in drifts. “When the mine is running,” says Victoriano Carrillo, a member of the mine’s health and safety commission, “you can’t even see more than a few feet in front of you.”

Mine dust is more than just uncomfortable or inconvenient. It’s deadly. Superfine particles lodge in the lungs, so tiny that the cilia, the small hairs that expel most foreign substances from the lungs, can’t get them out. Miners who breathe rock dust year after year suffer a variety of lung diseases, but the most dangerous is silicosis. In mine communities from Cananea to Tucson, on both sides of the border, generations of copper miners have died from it.

In a well-run mine, huge vacuum cleaners suck dust from the buildings covering the crushers, mills and conveyer belts. The Cananea miners call these vacuums colectores, or dust collectors. Outside the hulking buildings of the concentrator complex, those collection tanks and their network of foot-wide pipes are five stories tall. But many of the tanks have rusty holes in their sides the size of a bathroom window. And the pipes, which should lead into the work areas inside, just end in midair. None of the dust collectors, according to the miners’ union, have functioned since the company shut them down in 1999.

So for the past eight years, dust that should have been sucked up by the collectors has ended up instead in the miners’ lungs. That is the most serious reason why the miners are out on strike. But there are other dangers. Many machines have no guards, making it easy to lose fingers or worse. Electrical panels have no covers. Holes are open in the floor with no guardrails. Catwalks many stories above the floor are slippery with dust and often grease, and are crisscrossed by cables and hoses. Not long ago, one worker tripped and fell five stories to his death onto a water pump below.

“We know what’s safe and what’s not,” one miner commented, “but they never want us to spend time fixing problems – just get the production out. If we tried to stop the line for safety problems, we would lose our jobs.” Many safety lines running alongside the conveyers, which should stop the speeding belt in case of an accident, have been cut so they can’t be pulled, or are simply absent.

The Cananea strikers want to force the mine’s owner, the giant Grupo Mexico corporation, to abide by the union contract that mandates the missing protections. Because of the deadly conditions, it is a strike for life, but it is also one for the life of the union itself, Section 65 of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers. Across Mexico, miners are locked in conflict with Grupo Mexico, which seeks to replace the 70-year-old miners’ union with one that would let the company run the mines as it likes.

It is also a strike for the survival of families that make up the small towns, like Cananea, in which the miners live. If the union loses, and the strikers lose their jobs as many have in the past, they will have to leave Cananea. There is no other work in small mining communities that can sustain a family. Often even the workers’ homes belong to their employer. And since the mine’s average wage is $39 a day, plus bonuses and profit sharing, the strike seeks to protect a standard of living higher than most jobs on the border, especially in the maquiladoras.

But in Cananea, the health-care system doesn’t even help workers assess their physical condition. In the union office, files are filled with letters signed by Dr. Alfredo Parra Ybarra, director of the Hospital Ronquillo, where the company pays for miners’ medical care. The forms repeat a few stock phrases. Miners with 15 or 20 years on the job are told they’ve either had a “normal medical examination,” or are given diagnoses of problems unrelated to work, such as “overweight” or “poor eyesight.” Recommendations amount to simply “consult the medical service.” Of course, sometimes miners themselves don’t want to know the real state of their lungs. With no alternative, keeping a family together means going to work every day, regardless of the potential cost.

The Hospital Ronquillo was built even before the famous armed uprising in Cananea in 1906, when miners rebelled against then-owner Col. William C. Greene in the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution. Although miners, their wives and children all get their care at the hospital, it still has only one bathroom for men and one for women. Its inadequacy led miners half a century ago to build a clinic of their own, the Clinica Obrera, with a beautifully equipped operating theater, a children’s wing, wards with one bed and bathroom per room, and specialized prenatal care, obstetrics and other services. The union contract required the company to pay its costs, and the workers ran it. “I was born here,” says Jose Luis Zamora, who was elected administrator by his fellow miners. “So were most of us.”

In 1999, however, Grupo Mexico and the state government reached an unusual conclusion. Comparing the larger, better-equipped clinic with the Hospital Ronquillo, they decided that the hospital was better. The company refused to continue paying the clinic costs, although the union contract required it. After the Clinica Obrera closed, Zamora, its last director, was kept from returning to his job in the mine for three years. “They were punishing me,” he says, “for fighting to keep it open.” Reopening the clinic in accord with the contract is another strike issue.

It’s no accident that the dust collectors stopped the same year the company halted payments for the clinic and forced workers’ families back into the Hospital Ronquillo. Both happened the year after the union lost a disastrous strike in 1998. That strike capped a long series of battles in which the union tried to resist the impact of the mine’s privatization.

The Cananea mine was begun by the Greene family over a hundred years ago and belonged to a succession of US companies until it was finally nationalized in 1976, like many other Mexican industrial enterprises. In the late 1980s, however, the Mexican government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began to reverse their nationalist economic policy. Under pressure from rising debt and mandates from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Mexico began to open up its economy to corporate investment, which eventually led to the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1991, three years before NAFTA even took effect, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began a sweeping sell-off of large mines, railroads, airlines and other state-owned businesses.

Often he didn’t really sell them. Cananea, for instance, was virtually given to a wealthy investor, German Larrea. Eventually Larrea’s industrial empire, Grupo Mexico, owned most of the large mines in Mexico, of which Cananea was the biggest. He also gained control of its privatized railroad system, and other formerly state-owned assets. Larrea didn’t stop at Mexico‘s border. Today Grupo Mexico‘s Southern Copper Co., which owns Cananea, also owns two even larger mines in Peru. And Larrea also bought up ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Co.), with two mines and a smelter in Arizona.

Throughout the 1990s, Larrea cut the Cananea workforce as he sought to reduce labor costs and increase profits. Finally, in 1998, he proposed cuts so severe that the union refused, and went on strike to try to halt them. After three months the government declared the strike illegal and said it would send troops to reopen the mine. Under the threat of military occupation and fearing armed conflict, miners agreed to go back to work. But they paid a high price. The copper smelter and other mine departments were closed, leading to the loss of 800 jobs. Strikers who had gone to Arizona and beyond, helping to organize caravans of food and clothing during the strike, found themselves on a blacklist.

“[My foreman] told me I’d never get a job anywhere in Mexico after that,” recalls Chema Pacheco, a strike leader. “I had no alternative but to leave Cananea, to look for work in the US.”

The company refused to continue operating the municipal water system, although its permission to operate the mine requires it. The state of Sonora had to take over the water system. Over the next few years, it contracted out dozens of jobs. Today 1,350 working miners belong to the union, and have permanent employment in the mine. But another 450 people work alongside them for contracting services that sell their labor to Grupo Mexico. The contract employees receive none of the benefits union members do. That, too, has become an issue in the current strike. The miner who fell to his death from the catwalk, for instance, was a contract employee.

When Napoleon Gomez Sada, national president of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, died in 2001, his son, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, was elected union general secretary. The process in which powerful Mexican political figures pick their own successors is normally a device to prevent change and keep power in the hands of a tiny elite. In the miners’ union, however, it did the opposite.

Gomez Urrutia immediately began to push hard against declining conditions for miners. Taking advantage of record-high copper prices, he won six percent to eight percent wage increases – twice the amount dictated by government austerity policies. He forced open the doors of the elite Technological Institute of Monterrey, where 700 workers and their children now study. He won better housing. When former Mexican President Vicente Fox pushed to reform the country’s labor laws at the behest of the World Bank, Gomez Urrutia brought even conservative unions into a coalition that finally spiked the proposals. The union then helped kill Fox’s plan to tax workers’ benefits.

But all hell broke loose when 65 miners died on February 19, 2006, in a huge explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine, owned by Grupo Mexico in the northern state of Coahuila. Horrified by the deaths, the union discovered that workers on the second shift had complained of high concentrations of explosive methane gas in the shafts the evening before the accident. “They told us that welding was still going on, even after the failure of some electrical equipment,” Gomez charges. At 2:20 a.m., after the start of the third shift, the gas ignited in a huge fireball.

In a July 2006 report, the National Human Rights Commission found that the local office of the federal labor ministry had “clear knowledge” before the accident of conditions that would set off the explosion. In 2004, labor safety inspectors had found 48 health and safety violations in the mine, including oil and gas leaks, missing safety devices, and broken lighting. Although Grupo Mexico was given an order to fix the illegal conditions, no compliance inspection was carried out until February 7, twelve days before the explosion. Only two bodies were ever recovered, and Grupo Mexico has since announced it will no longer look for the others.

Two days after the explosion, Gomez Urrutia accused the secretary of labor and Grupo Mexico of “industrial homicide.” Fox filed corruption charges against Gomez Urrutia less than a week later. Former Labor Secretary Francisco Xavier Salazar Sáenz, with support from Grupo Mexico, appointed an expelled union leader, Elias Morales, to replace him. Under Mexican labor law, the labor secretary has great power over the choice of any union’s leader, regardless of what union members themselves decide.

In defiance, miners re-elected Gomez Urrutia twice, and then went on strike at Cananea, the Nacozari mine, and the Sicartsa steel mill to demand his reinstatement. Two strikers were even shot and killed during the Sicartsa plant occupation. The strikes did not achieve their goal, however. At Sicartsa and Cananea, workers eventually returned to work, preserving their jobs and contracts. But in Nacozari, the government permitted Grupo Mexico to fire its entire workforce. It then selectively rehired about 700 union members, and brought in another 1,200 workers from southern Mexico, who were housed on the mine’s premises.

“Most of the miners who lost their jobs at Nacozari also had to leave their homes,” explains Jorge Luis Morales, president of the Vigilance and Justice Commission of the union at Cananea. “I’m sure most of them are working in Tucson or Phoenix now, or even California. These are very skilled workers, but where could they go?” This fall, when a group of fired miners marched to the mine in Nacozari to demand their reinstatement, one of them, Reynaldo Hernandez, was killed.

Gomez Urrutia also left Mexico to avoid arrest, and over the next year mounted a legal effort to win back control of the union. The labor secretary’s decision appointing Elias Morales was overturned a year later, when it was discovered that signatures on his petition to become union leader had been forged. Now the corruption charges are also likely to be dismissed. Gomez Urrutia was accused of stealing the $55 million that Grupo Mexico paid miners when it took over the state-owned properties. In September, however, a Swiss accounting firm, Horwath Berney Audit SA, went over the union’s books and accounted for all the funds.

In the meantime, a new organization applied for a registro, or legal status as a union, from Mexican labor authorities, which granted the application in November 2006. The National Union of Workers in the Exploration, Exploitation and Benefit of Mines (SUTEEBM) is headed by Francisco Gamez, who once worked at Cananea and then tried to organize a business contracting labor for the mine. Mexico’s new labor secretary Javier Lozano, called the organization a legitimate union, saying that “without a strike its members receive profit sharing” from Grupo Mexico.

Mexican labor authorities and employers have a long history, however, of using brutal tactics to deny legal status to independent unions. The fact that the new “white union” (the Mexican phrase for company union) received a registro so easily indicates it was organized with the support of Grupo Mexico and the government. The white union than announced its affiliation with the National Federation of Independent Unions, a company union group set up in 1936 by employers to oppose the nationalist policies of then-President Lazaro Cardenas.

Company support for the new union became even more evident at the beginning of September, when the Mexican labor board set up elections to allow it to take over representation rights in eight mines. The Center for Labor Action and Reflection (CEREAL), a human rights organization, charges the election process was manipulated to get rid of the miners’ union.

Before the vote, 15 workers were fired at a San Luis Potosi mine, CEREAL says. In Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, miners on the first and second shifts were locked inside the coal mine for a day before balloting began. The union charges that 300 federal, state and municipal police then maintained an intimidating presence in the polling place, surrounding the mine entrance.

At Nacozari, over 900 workers were denied voting rights, while the mine’s new workers were told they would be fired, evicted from company housing and sent back to southern Mexico if the white union didn’t win. Rita Marcela Robles Benitez, an analyst with CEREAL, charges that Grupo Mexico “changed the working hours from 8 to 12 per day, which has resulted in more accidents because of the lack of safety protection and training.” The change, she said, was made with the agreement of the white union. Seventy percent of the miners at Nacozari now work for contractors, rather than for Grupo Mexico itself, and therefore have no union rights or benefits at all.

By the time of the election, however, miners at Cananea and two other mines in Guerrero and Zacatecas were already on strike over violations of the existing union contract. That barred elections from taking place there. Jesus Verdugo Quijada, head of the strike committee at Cananea, accused the company of not taking their demands seriously, and refusing to negotiate over them. “They say one thing and do another,” he told the Mexico City daily, El Imparcial. “There’s no more time for playing games. We’re not playing, which is why we made the decision to strike.” Jorge Morales says that “980 workers signed the strike declaration, and the 300 who didn’t simply wanted to wait until the contract expired on August 27.” The union has postponed the contract termination twice, but now may also strike over new contract terms at the beginning of October, when those extensions expire.

Manny Armenta, a representative of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), accompanied a delegation of striking miners to Tucson, Arizona, where they spoke to a support meeting organized by the immigrant rights group, Derechos Humanos. The day after, they collected over $2,000 in donations from working miners as they passed through the gate at the ASARCO mine in Kearney, Arizona, on their way to work. The USWA and the International Metalworkers Federation helped the Mexican union arrange for the audit that proved that the charges against Gomez Urrutia had been invented. Following the release of the report, USWA President Leo Gerard wrote to the Mexican government, demanding that it drop charges against him and recognize his legitimate status. The USWA is also helping to organize a three-country alliance with the unions in Mexico and Peru to face Grupo Mexico together.

Armenta believes that miners on both sides of the US-Mexico border have a common interest, especially since so many of them work for Grupo Mexico. “The miners in Cananea want the company to clean up conditions we’d never stand for here,” he explains. “If we don’t help them, eventually we’ll face the same problems. Plus, they’re fighting for basic principles that we believe in. They want the right to elect their own leaders, and to belong to a union controlled by miners, not by the company. We can all identify with that.”

 

David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book Communities Without Borders was just published by Cornell University/ILR Press.

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