Mexico’s miners have long fought for higher wages, better working conditions, and for the right to unionize independently. At every turn, they have encountered resistance from the government, from mining corporations, and from government-controlled unions. The alliance between the government and the transnational mining industry is part of the state’s prioritization of the interests of mining companies and has led to a brutal and persistent assault on the rights of miners in Mexico.
The massive privatizations of the 1980s and 1990s, which included the selling off of many state mining companies, intensified the attack on the miners and their rights. The handover of the mineral wealth of Mexico has reached extremes. According to a November 14, 2011 supplement of the daily paper La Jornada, in 10 years of National Action Party (PAN) rule from 2000-2010, the mine owners extracted more than double the amount of gold as that which was extracted in the 300 years of Spanish rule—380 tons as compared to 182 tons of gold.
The Grupo México of Germán Larrea, the largest mining company in Mexico, received major state-owned enterprises at abnormally low prices during those years of PAN rule. They included the national railway company, the extensive copper mines of Cananea (in the border state of Sonora) as well as other important mines, oil rigs, and transportation companies subcontracted by PEMEX. The three next largest Mexican mining and metallurgical companies are Frisco, which belongs to Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico; Peñoles, which belongs to an oligarch named Bernardo Bailleres; and Grupo Acerera del Norte of Alonso Ancira, now owner of Mexico’s largest steel mill, Altos Hornos de Mexico, as well as extensive coal and iron mines. Grupo México also owns the Asarco mines in Arizona and has major operations in Peru through the Southern Peru Copper Corp.
There are also 279 smaller foreign mining companies operating in Mexico, 210 of which are from Canada and mainly involved in gold and silver mining. Most notable of these are Gold Corp Inc. with 13 mines in 5 states; Macmillan Gold with 12 mines in 5 states; Excellon Resources with 4 mines in Durango; and Almaden Minerals LTD with 18 mines in 7 states.
The stakes are high in Mexican mining and the main companies are powerful. They are not interested in sharing their profits through higher wages, or in assuming additional costs for the health and safety of their workers or that of nearby communities. They have been intimately connected with the neoliberal Mexican state, regardless of which party has occupied the presidency. The alliance between the government and the mining oligarchs, both national and transnational, has led to an all-out assault on the miners and their union, the most important source of resistance to their ambitions.
There have been near-constant political, military, and legal attacks on the Mining and Metallurgy Union (SNTMMRM, from here on referred to as Los Mineros) and its president, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia. The miners’ union has fought back through strikes and court battles. Their resistance has been sustained by the traditional solidarity of mining communities as well as international labor support, especially that of the United Steelworkers (USW) and the IndustriALL global union.
Gómez Urrutia has been consistently persecuted for his critical and independent stance that has challenged the government, the mining companies, and company- or government-controlled unions. On February 17, 2006, the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare withdrew Gómez Urrutia’s registration as union leader in favor of the preferred candidate of the then-ruling National Action Party (PAN), Elías Morales, who was appointed that same day.
Because of Gómez Urrutia’s independence from the powerful mine owners, he was baselessly charged with embezzlement of union funds and forced into exile in Canada, where he continues to lead the union working from offices provided by the United Steelworkers (USW). Though acquitted of these charges ten times, the government continues to lay legal siege against him to avoid his return to Mexico.
Since 2002, the miners’ union has fought against the government policy of wage caps as well as attempts to tax wages and benefits, and other regressive policies proposed by the Fox and Calderón governments. The union strategy in some 76 locals across Mexico has been to negotiate directly with the business owners for wage and benefit increases above the official ceilings, in addition to bonuses based on profits, without involvement of the Secretariat of Labor. Using this strategy, the union has been able to gain wage increases of 8% and annual benefits of at least 6% in addition to bonuses based on profits. These successes have earned the union fame and prestige among workers, as most unions have accepted ceilings on wages and official benefits. Many otherwise quiescent unions have been challenged by their memberships to press for similar gains. At the same time, however, the union’s strength has led to increased attacks from the companies and the state, both of which defend industry profits that are based largely on low wages and an almost non-existent social welfare policy.
Los Mineros have engaged in 10 major strikes in the last 10 years, from 2004 to 2014, and have participated in other major conflicts, including a dispute with an official union over union representation at a maquiladora in Ciudad Acuña (see Quintero in this issue). The bitterest conflicts have taken place over health and safety issues, issues that have been at the forefront of miners’ demands. The Pasta de Conchos accident in which some 65 miners were killed, brought the miners’ union into a direct confrontation with the government over its lax safety standards and with the Mexican oligarch, Germán Larrea, the main owner of Grupo México who had very close ties to the governments of Fox and Calderón.
The bodies of the miners killed at Pasta de Conchos, which have remained buried since February 19, 2006 at the insistence of Germán Larrea and the complicit PAN governments, may finally be recovered due to pressure from the Inter-American Commission. (Five more miners lost their lives this past February 12 at the Grupo México mine in San Luis Potosí.) Grupo México was also the company involved in the bitter Cananea strike of the first decade of the twenty-first century in which military force was used to defeat the strikers.
Mining conflicts have developed in all the regions of the country, but particularly in the states on Mexico’s northern border. Along the border, Los Mineros represent one of the few segments of the working class that is organized genuinely in representative unions, even though the rate of unionization in the region is one of the lowest in the country. In all these conflicts, Los Mineros have fought hard for substantive salary gains, against the wage caps imposed mostly by the state and the corporate structure of industry, and to guarantee basic hygiene and safety considerations in the face of the repeated presence of industrial deaths.
Miners have participated in many of the largest and most important labor struggles in twentieth-
century Mexico, starting with the first Cananea strike in 1906, which played an important role in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. The Mining and Metallurgy Union has continued this long history of struggle and sacrifice by the workers for labor rights. Los Mineros have successfully resisted the onslaught of neoliberal mining policies enacted by the Fox and Calderón administrations in conjunction with mining companies. They have held their flag high and shown that the struggle for labor rights is an ongoing struggle in Mexico.
Oscar Alzaga is a Mexican labor lawyer. He has been the legal counsel for Los Mineros since 2010. Prior to that, he was legal counsel to the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (1993-2000) and the Telephone Workers of the Mexican Republic (1976-1979).
Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Spring issue: "Mexico: The State Against the Working Class"