Miners’ Strike Broken in Cananea

David Bacon

the mile-high mountains of the Sonora desert, just 25 miles south of the
border between Arizona and Mexico, over 2,000 miners have been locked in a
bitter industrial war since mid-November. Here Grupo Mexico operates North
America’s oldest, and one of the world’s largest copper mines—Cananea.
For 2 months the mine has been paralyzed over company plans to eliminate the
jobs of 700 of its 2,070 blue-collar employees.

Mexican authorities ruled
the strike illegal in January, threatening to withdraw the union’s ability
to bargain, and even its legal right to exist. The company then announced it
would reopen the mine with strikebreakers, despite constitutional guarantees
that struck workplaces must remain closed until the dispute is settled.

Conservative national
leaders of their union, allies of the Mexico’s governing Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI), who told them they’d already signed a
back-to-work agreement, pressured local strike leaders. They promised
severance pay above that required by Mexican law, which calls for 20 days pay
for every year of service. When government authorities in Cananea withdrew the
promise, however, miners vowed to occupy the mine.

On February 13, they went
to their job sites in the vast pit, to hold them against possible
replacements. Meanwhile, four convoys of Mexican soldiers began moving toward
the town. Over 300 heavily armed members of the state judicial police took
over the streets.

With violent confrontation
in the air, local union president Manuel Romero, Cananea mayor Francisco
Garcia, and police and army officers entered the mine. They walked from
installation to installation, appealing to the miners to leave. Fearing the
prospect of armed battle, the workers finally gave up the occupation and ended
the strike. In the days that followed, however, over 120 strike leaders were
turned away at the mine gates, as they tried to report back to their old jobs.
The company meanwhile told other miners that they would no longer be permanent
employees, but would only be hired on temporary 28-day contracts. Under
Mexican law, workers must work for 30 days to become permanent employees, and
be covered by union contracts.

While the strike in Cananea
may have ended, one of its repercussions will be felt for years to come.
Miners on the U.S. side of the border backed the Mexican strikers. For two
months, their demonstrations and rallies throughout southern Arizona sent
caravans of food and supplies south to the mine. For the first time,
cross-border solidarity had the official backing of the AFL-CIO. Previous
efforts to support Mexican labor battles have drawn more limited support from
U.S. unions. But a chief organizer of the activity supporting the Cananea
miners was the AFL-CIO’s Arizona field organizer, Jerry Acosta. While those
efforts didn’t succeed in evening the steep odds faced by the strikers, they
may have created a new commitment to using cross-border solidarity to win
future battles.

Cananea is just a small, dusty border community of 30,000 residents, it
occupies an almost mythic place in the iconography of the Mexican Revolution.
Copper has been mined continuously here since the days of the Spanish viceroys
in the late 1600s.

In 1906, the mine’s U.S.
owners paid a lower salary to Mexican miners than they paid to white
supervisors brought down from the north. Cananea miners went on strike,
demanding five pesos for an eight-hour day, and an end to the lower Mexican
wage. After Arizona vigilantes attacked them, workers took up arms and were
bloodily put down by then-dictator Porfirio Diaz.

In Mexican public schools,
children learn of Cananea as the opening gun of what became the Mexican
Revolution (which officially began in 1910), much as U.S. children learn of
the 1776 battle at Lexington and Concord.

The 1906 battle not only heralded revolution to come,
but was the first strike organized on both sides of the border, by the first
real cross-border activists. The strike’s organizers, the Flores Magon
brothers, plotted the Cananea uprising in the communities of Mexican railroad
workers in East Los Angeles and St. Louis.

The Flores Magon brothers
were supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World, the early U.S.
industrial union of southwestern miners and farmworkers organized by political
radicals. After the strike, the brothers spent years on the run, not only from
Diaz’s federales, but also from U.S. authorities. They were eventually sent
to Leavenworth, where Ricardo Flores Magon died.

For years after the 1906
conflict, the Cananea mine belonged to the U.S.-based Anaconda Copper Company.
In 1971 the mine was nationalized. Two decades later, after the Mexican
government began adopting economic reforms bent on attracting investment,
Cananea was again sold to a private company. Its new owner, Grupo Mexico, was
one of the country’s largest industrial corporations, and its main
shareholder, Jorge Larrea, heads one of the country’s wealthiest families.

Larrea’s industrial
empire grew rapidly through his close friendship with past-President Carlos
Salinas, who signed the NAFTA treaty in 1994. Under Salinas, the Mexican
government sold Larrea the Cananea and other copper mines, as well as
railroads and other heavy industrial enterprises, often at a fraction of their
book value. He is presently negotiating the concession to operate the Pacific
coast port of Guaymas. Thirteen Mexican financiers became billionaires during
the Salinas administration. Larrea was one of them.

The enterprises acquired by
Grupo Mexico have been rocked by conflict over demands for drastic job cuts.
In 1997, Larrea bought the 6,521-kilometer Pacific North railroad, in
partnership with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific. Last summer, workers
throughout northern Mexico mounted a series of rolling wildcat strikes over
plans to reduce its workforce of 13,000 by more than half.

Grupo Mexico’s four
copper mines account for over 90 percent of production in Mexico, which is one
of the world’s ten largest producers of the metal. When Larrea took over the
Cananea mine in 1991, in partnership with the American Smelting and Refining
Co., its workforce numbered over 3,300. In 6 years, the mine workforce was
reduced by 1,300 jobs. Meanwhile, production increased dramatically, from
30,000 tons of ore per day in 1979 to 80,000 tons last year.

The Cananea miners’ union
has a militant reputation, and their wages have averaged among the highest of
the country’s industrial workers—between $8-12 an hour. The spark that
provoked the recent strike was a company announcement that it would lay off
435 workers permanently, closing 4 mine departments.

Miners charge closure plans
will have environmental consequences. Grupo Mexico says it is shutting the
smelter at Cananea, which employs 325 workers. When the company bought the
mine, it agreed to install pollution-control devices at the facility. The
company never bought the equipment, however, and now plans to ship the ore by
train to another smelter at its nearby mine in Nacozari.

Wastewater from ore
processing is currently held behind a large dam. The company has announced it
is terminating all 135 workers who maintain that tailings pond. According to
striker Rene Enriquez Leon, mine runoff could reach the headwaters of the
Sonora River nearby, and lead to massive pollution problems in the extensive
farming regions downstream. “It would be an ecological disaster,” he said.

Cananea strikers won
support from the town’s mayor, who worked in the mine for 18 years. Popular
sympathy for the miners also induced the governor of Sonora and all three
political parties in the state legislature, including the ruling PRI and the
opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution and National Action Party, to
express verbal support. But strikers say their most important help came from
copper miners and unions north of the border. Within days of walking out of
the mine on November 18, they had already sent a group to Tucson to appeal for
food and money. There they found Jerry Acosta.

As Arizona representative
of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Field Mobilization, Acosta was in a unique
position to publicize their cause. He won union support by arguing that U.S.
miners would be directly affected by the strike. “Because of NAFTA,” he
said, “U.S. corporations have moved jobs to Mexico, where they pay lower
wages and aren’t restricted by union contracts or environmental regulations.
If the union in Cananea is broken, efforts by Mexican workers to pull wages up
and enforce their rights will be set back.”

Appeals from Cananea also
struck a sympathetic chord because many families, divided by the border, have
members working in the mines in both countries. “My cousins work in Cananea,”
Acosta explained.

In Mexico City, the
representative of the AFL-CIO’s Center for International Solidarity, Tim
Beaty, tried to convince the leaders of the Mexican miners union to give more
support to their own strike. But Tucson attorney Jesus Romo, who counseled the
striking miners, accuses them of being more loyal to the government and the
PRI than to their own striking members.

Strikers charge that those
who went to the U.S. seeking support were targeted for firings, and received
death threats from police and company guards. In mid-January, the judicial
police broke into the homes of two of them, Rene Enriquez and Reynaldo
Palomino, terrorizing their families. That same month, Grupo Mexico
spokesperson Jose Fernando Rodriguez Correa announced that 198 strikers had
been terminated, and later threatened to lay off all Cananea workers, rehiring
only 80 percent under new arrangements. Arizona attorney Jesus Romo, who
counseled the strikers, charged that “workers gathering U.S. support were
all included in the termination list.”

Gema Lopez Limon, professor
at the University of Baja California in nearby Mexicali, concludes that “our
government and corporations are using privatization to do away with unions
entirely, as they’ve sought to do with the railroad workers, and now the
miners here in Cananea. For unions to survive here, they will have to be much
better organized, and seek even greater international support.”

Acosta concluded that the
stakes are higher for U.S. unions as well, as a result of the strike. “When
companies can pick up and go five miles to the other side of the border, where
a miner earns less in a day than his relative on this side earns in an hour,
can we find the solidarity to bridge the gap?” he asked. “If we can’t
find the answer, we’re all going to suffer.”



Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.