Hundreds of Mexican federal and state police stormed the Sicartsa steel plant in western Michoacan, April 20, to remove striking steelworkers who had occupied the plant since April 2. The police opened fire on workers with teargas and bullets. When the smoke cleared, the police had killed two workers, one of them a representative of the National Union of Mine and Metallurgical Workers of the Republic of Mexico. About 40 workers were hospitalized, along with some two dozen police officers.
As night fell, 1,000 women marched through the streets to the mill protesting the attack. Police held the steelworks for two hours. Steelworkers and local residents, some still in their pajamas, fired up backhoes and, in a shower of rocks and stones, evicted the police and took control of the plant.
In solidarity, steelworkers walked out of a nearby mill as well as the Viga Trefilados plant 3 miles away on Cayacal Island. Some workers reported they were shot at from a police helicopter as they marched to the Sicartsa plant.
In the U.S., United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard denounced the government attack, saying in a statement that the “murderous actions” of Mexican President Vicente Fox’s administration “have marked it as one of the most heinous in all Latin America.” The USW has formed a strategic alliance with the 250,000-member Mexican union.
Sicartsa is owned by Villacero SA, a Mexican multinational steel and mining corporation with facilities in several countries including the U.S. It is Mexico’s largest producer of steel bar, rod and wire. Mexico is Latin America’s second-biggest steel producer, after Brazil.
The strike and occupation at the Sicartsa complex is part of a strike wave that swept the country protesting the government’s response following a Feb. 20 coal mine explosion which took the lives of 65 miners. The metalworkers union, which represented miners at the doomed Pasta de Concha mine, assailed the company and government decision to entomb the 65 miners when rescue efforts failed. “We did not want to abandon our comrades, dead or alive,” union miner Alvaro Cortez told reporters.
The only action the government took was to remove the president of the metalworkers union and name their own man.
The mine is owned by Grupo Mexico, which also owns Asarco copper mining operations in Arizona and Texas.
Miners struck Grupo Mexico 14 times “not only for salary increases but because of its constant refusal to review security and health measures,” the union said in a statement.
On March 24, 4,000 miners and steelworkers, furious at the attack on the union and in defense of their own working conditions, struck not only Grupo Mexico, but also Villacero and the mega-steel corporation Mittal as well. Mittal owns the former Bethlehem and LTV mills in the U.S.
Anger spilled across the border to the U.S. and Canada. The United Steelworkers sent health and safety technical support to the Mexican metalworkers. USW members picketed Mexican consulates from Philadelphia to Minneapolis to Toronto in solidarity with Mexican workers. It was the USW’s first such solidarity action in the U.S.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson deplored the latest police violence and demanded that the metalworkers’ leadership be restored. She also called for action on the critical issue of mine safety.
Michoacan public safety director Gabriel Mendoza Jimenez and state police chief Jaime Liera were caught in a public lie. They told the press, April 21, that their officers were not armed and only the federal police carried loaded guns. But Felipe Manuel Maya Bucio, a metalworkers union official, released a video showing Liera clearly issuing the order to fire. Both police officials resigned.
The deadly police violence sent a tremor through the Mexican government. The leader of Fox’s political party, PAN, and the lawyer for Villacero seemed to be singing out of the same hymnal. PAN leader Francisco Morelos Borja said the government had to act because the sit-in and strike at the Sicartsa mill were illegal. Alejandro Gonzalez, the corporation lawyer, accused workers of “terrorism”. But the president of the government’s National Human Rights Commission, Jose Luis Soberanes Fernandez, who has 11 investigators at the mill, said Fox should assume “serious responsibility for the killings.” Mexico’s national elections are in July.
While the families of steelworkers bury their dead, Villacero is worried about profits. The corporation estimates that the strike is costing it $3 million a day.
As of April 22, steelworkers and community residents continued to hold the mill and had set up a picket line circling the complex.
Teachers, electricians and telephone workers across Mexico were poised to hold a three-hour work stoppage April 28 in solidarity with the metalworkers.