Features » April 12, 2013
Los Mineros’ Leader-in-Exile
From Canada, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia seeks justice for the deaths of 65 miners.
We’re trying to do as much as we can to keep out the influence of these cartels. We have succeeded in most of the cases, but in some others, yes, the labor situation has been affected by this drug war.
On February 19, 2006, an explosion in a coal mine in northern Mexico known as Pasta de Conchos trapped 65 miners. The accident became a milestone in the career of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, general secretary of the National Mining and Metal Workers Union (known as Los Mineros), who accused Grupo México—the mine’s owner—and the government of having ignored complaints about safety conditions at the mine, and of trying to cover up the tragedy. Two weeks after the explosion, Gómez fled Mexico amidst death threats and criminal charges leveled against him by the government, which labor leaders described as trumped-up. Working from Canada, he has become an increasingly prominent leader in the international solidarity and global unionism movement. He serves on the executive committee of Industri-ALL, a global union coalition representing 50 million workers.
Gómez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, an industrial city not far from the U.S. border. His father was a miner who became general secretary of the Mineros union in 1960, and was one of the country’s best-known labor leaders as well as a congressman and senator. As a boy, Gómez often tagged along with his father and developed respect for the labor movement and the miners he represented. After studying economics at Mexico’s Autonomous National University and Oxford University, Gómez served for 12 years as director of the Mexican Mint, responsible for fabricating money for more than 20 different countries. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor of the state of Nuevo Leon as a candidate for Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), despite lacking the support of the corrupt PRI President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
When Gómez’s 86-year-old father could no longer continue leading the union, Gómez took over in 2000 in what was meant to be a temporary position. But his dedication to the union—at a time when other Mineros leaders proved more loyal to the companies—won over the membership, and in 2002 he was elected general secretary. In 2008 he was re-elected in exile, and he now leads the union from Canada.
Gómez spearheaded a groundbreaking partnership between the Mineros and the United Steelworkers, initially formalized in 2005 and then expanded in 2011 and titled the North American Solidarity Alliance. Since the unions represent workers employed by many of the same companies in Canada, Mexico and the United States, they collaborate closely in bargaining situations as well as in larger strategy.
Gómez is also the author of the new book Collapse of Dignity: The Story of a Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico (BenBella Books), which includes a foreword by United Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard.
Gómez spoke recently with In These Times by phone from his home in Vancouver.
What are the main points that you want people to take away from the book?
This is a story of what we have lived in the seven years since the Pasta de Conchos explosion. Grupo México, in collusion with the government of then-president Vicente Fox, shut down the mine after only five days of trying to rescue workers. They abandoned 65 miners without knowing if they were dead or alive. So the families and the union accused the company of industrial homicide—what you in North America might call “corporate murder.” In response, the Mexican government launched a smear campaign against me and other leaders of Los Mineros.
Is the union still making demands regarding Pasta de Conchos?
Yes. First, to retrieve the bodies. Second, investigate what happened. Third, demand that Grupo México be sued for their criminal negligence. And fourth, that the widows and families must be compensated with dignity and justice.
During the Pasta de Conchos incident, Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) controlled the government. Have things changed at all now that PRI is back in power?
With PRI the relations are beginning to be better in terms of having at least some dialogue and communication with the government, which we lost with the right-wing governments of former PAN Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. In October 2012, PAN made reforms in the labor laws that went against workers’ rights, against the collective bargaining agreements. These reforms give the Mexican government much more power to act against unions, particularly democratic and independent unions, so that is why we’re still not very clear what path this new PRI government is going to follow.
How is the drug war affecting workers and the union movement in Mexico?
The drug war has created insecurity in the country, and it’s affecting some mining regions. In some cases, the drug cartels control mines, like in the north of Mexico where the coal mines are. This problem has been officially recognized by the government. So we’re trying to do as much as we can to keep out the influence of these cartels in these regions. We have succeeded in most of the cases, but in some others, yes, the labor situation has been affected by this drug war.
How is the alliance with the Steelworkers going?
The partnership is very, very strong. The Steelworkers have been very committed to supporting our struggle from the beginning. We have a lot of coordination and frequent meetings. We share ideas and experiences. This is the best way to protect workers’ rights. Globalization tends to of course diminish the power of the unions. In 2005, Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers, and I signed this strategic alliance in which we say, “If the world economy is globalizing, we should also globalize our efforts, our experiences and our negotiations.”
How did you feel about all the attention given the rescue in 2010 of the Chilean miners?
In Chile it was a moral victory for the mineworkers. In Mexico it was a shame, since in Chile workers were rescued, while in Mexico they were abandoned. Grupo México has great influence. They spend a lot of money in controlling the media, and they never want to talk about Pasta de Conchos. February 19 was the seventh anniversary of the tragedy of Pasta de Conchos and we had rallies and demonstrations in Mexico City and in more than 30 countries during the international days of action in solidarity with Los Mineros. Grupo México tried not to have this news published openly in Mexico.
How can we demand accountability from the mining industry?
Since this conflict began, I’ve been addressing members of [Mexico’s] Congress, saying that we need to pass a law that penalizes mining corporations for criminal negligence. We have got some improvements, but we still don’t have the final law that we would like to be adopted or implemented. A special commission in Congress is trying to make some reforms and introduce a bill.
Is there a role for international law?
We submitted a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., and we submitted another complaint to the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO condemned the company, but we’re still waiting for the response from the Mexican government.
If Congress does pass immigration reform in the United States, how would that affect both workers and unions in Mexico?
First, it will give a measure of certainty to the migrants in the United States. But the Mexican government must also create an opportunity for Mexicans to stay in their country and work and have well-paid, permanent jobs.
How does the labor movement in Canada compare to that in the United States and Mexico?
We have studied the systems they have in organizing, in collective bargaining agreements. The labor movement in Canada is well organized and very strong, but they are not as passionate as we are. North American union leaders have learned from us that in Mexico we need stronger and better jobs at higher wages so that people stay in our country, and we can have a mutually respectful relationship with the Canadian and the American unions.
Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.