Since 2006, the right-wing Mexican governments of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have been engaged in a war of nerves with the National Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers. Calderon has now escalated the fight in an attempt to crush this major union entirely. But national and international solidarity with the union is growing.
Under the formerly ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), most major unions were formally incorporated into the operations of the ruling party and state. This “corporatist” arrangement was supposed to maintain Mexico’s unity against reactionary enemies at home and abroad. But workers have often faced a united front of management, government and union leadership when they sought better wages.
There also have been independent unions and federations working outside the corporatist setup. These include, today, the outstanding Mexican Electrical Workers Union and the National Labor Union (actually a federation) as well as the FAT (Authentic Labor Federation) and others. Sometimes the independents have faced massive government repression.
The defeat of the PRI in the presidential election of 2000 has shaken up the corporatist arrangement, while the right-wing, anti-worker orientation of the Fox and Calderon administrations has faced workers with new challenges (privatization, free trade, weakened labor rights) and sharply declining living standards.
Some corporatist unions have tried to adapt by ingratiating themselves with Calderon’s PAN government. For example, the main Petroleum Workers’ Union leadership has not protested Calderon’s stealth moves toward privatization of the state oil company, PEMEX.
But the Mine and Metal Workers Union, though originally part of the corporatist Federation of Labor (CT), has, under its Secretary General Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, broken away. First it fought for and won contracts which entailed better compensation for union members than the government wanted, and then it went after the giant Grupo Mexico monopoly for its negligence in worker health and safety that led to a February 2006 explosion in the Pasta de Conchos Mine in Coahuila in which 65 miners were killed.
In response, the federal department of labor tried first to remove Gomez Urrutia from the union’s leadership and replace him with a man believed connected with the Grupo Mexico management. When this failed, they accused Gomez of corruption in the distribution of $55 million which the union received as part of compensation for mine privatization. Gomez and his allies say that independent auditors have shown this to be a false accusation. Meanwhile he has been in self-imposed exile in Vancouver, Canada.
The government and business interests have tried to chip away at support for Gomez Urrutia by manipulating local union elections in various parts of the country. But most members of the union have continued to support Gomez. This has been shown in the solid support for a 16-month strike in the Cananea copper mine in Sonora, where both Grupo Mexico management and the government have failed to end the walkout in spite of using every legal and extralegal tactic.
Over the past several weeks Mexican Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano Alarcon has sharply escalated the government’s attacks on the union by: threatening to demand extradition of Gomez Urrutia from Canada; freezing the union’s bank accounts; arresting two important union officials for corruption because of their connection with Gomez Urrutia: Carlos Pavon Campos, the union’s secretary for political affairs, and Juan Linares Montufar, chair of the vigilance committee (both have been released by a judge, but face charges).
This escalation of repression has been met with increased national and international solidarity activity. In Mexico, independent unions such as the Electrical Workers organized demonstrations and rolling work stoppages in solidarity with the mine workers. In the U.S., the Steelworkers union, which represents workers in Grupo Mexico operations in the United States, has been organizing support for Gomez Urrutia and his union, in spite of vicious attacks on the USW in the Mexican press.
This month, the Mexican mineworkers won another court victory, when the Fifth Labor Court for the Federal District ruled the Cananea strike to be legal, overturning a December 2007 ruling by the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board.
Miners’ President Gomez issued a statement from his Vancouver exile saying, “This is another triumph in the workers’ struggle for union autonomy and freedom and for the workers’ fundamental rights,” and called again for the Calderon administration to drop its persecution.