When Mexican unions assert the right of their members to continue living in the towns and cities where they’ve resided for generations, even indirectly, they quickly come into conflict with the federal government, as they have in Sonora close to the U.S. border and in Mexico City itself. Nowhere is this result—displacement produced by the suppression of labor rights—as evident as it is in Cananea, a mining town just south of the border.
In 2010, Manny Armenta, a representative of the U.S. union for metal miners, the United Steelworkers, led strikers’ wives and children to safety in the middle of an armed assault by federal police on the miners’ strike there. He’d just arrived from Arizona on one of his many trips bringing food and money to the strike. On the evening of June 7, the federal government sent two thousand police and soldiers into this small mining town—more than two for every striker. As darkness fell and helicopters clattered overhead, they charged the mine gate in riot shields and batons, filling the streets with tear gas. Miners retreated to the union hall with their families, and the police followed, barricading the doors and lobbing more tear gas inside. The union’s leaders were already in hiding—the police had arrest warrants for them all. Armenta helped lead women and children down fire escapes and up through the basement to safety in the darkness.
Two months earlier the Arizona legislature had passed the notorious anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. Armenta, who’s spent more time in Cananea than at home in Arizona over the last five years, was upset by what he viewed as the hypocrisy and cruelty in routing miners’ families on one side of the border, and then criminalizing those who cross it on the other. “Especially in Arizona with the new law, all we hear about is illegal immigrants,” he charged bitterly. “What do they think will happen here? Where do they think all the miners will have to go?”
That same day, police moved on the widows of 65 miners who died in an explosion on February 19, 2006, at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Coahuila. Five days after the explosion, Grupo Mexico, the mining and railroad giant that owns both the Pasta de Conchos and Cananea mines, abandoned rescue efforts. The company closed the coal mine for good, with the trapped miners still inside. Grupo Mexico and then Mexican labor secretary Francisco Salazar refused to make any further attempts to recover their bodies. Nevertheless, miners’ widows camped at the gates for years afterward, asking for their husbands’ remains. The same day that police fought copper miners in Cananea, other cops drove the women away from the closed coal-mine entrance in Nueva Rosita.
Both the Cananea strike and the widows’ protests highlight extremely unsafe conditions in Mexican mines. At Cananea, silicosis-causing dust from crushed copper ore rises to miners’ knees inside the buildings. Grupo Mexico disconnected the dust extractors several years before the strike, in retaliation for earlier protests. At Pasta de Conchos, dozens of uncorrected violations for dangerous methane buildup preceded the 2006 explosion.
The Cananea strike involves issues beyond health and safety, however. The Mexican Union of Mine, Metal, and Allied Workers, or Mineros, used to be a loyal ally of the old Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for seventy years. But Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, the Mineros’ general secretary, took over the union in 2001 from his father, a PRI stalwart. Gomez Urrutia had much more militant and democratic ideas than his predecessor. He quickly forced employers, including Grupo Mexico, to concede much higher wage increases than those mandated by then-president Vicente Fox. Gomez helped defeat Fox’s reform of Mexico’s labor laws, a proposal recommended by the World Bank. After the Pasta de Conchos explosion, he accused Grupo Mexico of “industrial homicide.”
The government reacted violently. It accused Gomez of corruption, forcing him to flee to Canada to avoid arrest, where he’s lived since, given sanctuary by the United Steel Workers. A government-backed effort to install a pro-company leader to head the union was twice rejected by workers, who reelected Gomez even while in exile. All the legal actions against him led instead to his exoneration, but the government still threatened to jail him if he returned to Mexico.
In June 2007, Section 65 of the Mineros went on strike at the Cananea mine over safety conditions. The following January, after police beat dozens of strikers in an attempt to break the strike, twenty-five thousand Mineros members struck in protest in ten mines and at the huge steel mill in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, where two workers were shot and killed. In 2010, dozens more were beaten when they shut the mill down again and marched in the streets.
The government-dominated labor board (Junta Nacional de Conciliacion y Arbitraje, or JNCA) repeatedly declared the strike at Cananea legally “nonexistent,” a decision allowing Grupo Mexico to fire the strikers and install a company union. The family of German Larrea, which owns Grupo Mexico, was a major contributor to the campaign of former president Felipe Calderon, and the president and his party control the labor board. After Calderon’s election in 2006, the secretary of labor recognized a new, company-dominated union for miners. A rump election and the firing of fifteen hundred workers at another giant copper mine in nearby Nacozari allowed Grupo Mexico to sign a labor contract with this company union. This was followed by similar moves at several other mines.
Strikers at Cananea were trying to prevent a similar fate in their mine. “The government and the Larreas are making history, but backwards,” the Mineros responded after the federal assault on Cananea, “trying to return to an era when we had no right to strike or right to industrial safety.”
According to the Mineros, Calderon’s labor secretary, Javier Lozano, held meetings with mine owners before bringing the police into Cananea. He offered them government recognition of the pro-company union as a way for them to get out of contracts with the Mineros. The Chamber of Mines, in turn, hosted a banquet in Calderon’s honor.
In May 2010, just before the assault in Cananea, Calderon was also feted at a state dinner at the White House. Steel union leaders met with Obama administration officials, asking them to tell Calderon that the United States wouldn’t tolerate an attack on the miners. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti wrote to Washington and Ottawa with the same demand. According to Armenta, officials “assured us they were not turning their heads away. That was totally false.” Seventeen days after the banquet, police attacked the copper strikers.
Armenta believes the assault on Cananea miners was the consequence, not just of Calderon’s anti-labor policies but also of tacit U.S. support for them. “Our government continues to give the Mexican government millions and millions of dollars, saying it will be used to fight drugs. But we see here clearly that this money is going to fight workers and progressive people. Our own government is creating this problem,” Armenta says. “I condemn the Mexican government and Grupo Mexico. But I also condemn the US government for allowing this to happen, for not taking any action.”
Smashing the strike led to the same massive firings that followed an earlier lost strike in 1998, and the destruction of the union in Nacozari in 2006. Waves of desperate miners, unable to find other work in their tiny mining communities, crossed the border into the United States as undocumented workers. In both Nacozari and Cananea, displaced people from southern Mexico were used as a new migrant workforce to replace fired union members, while the miners who’d lived in those border communities for decades became displaced themselves.
Excerpted with permission from Chapter Three of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration, forthcoming on September 10 from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.
David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.