Mexico’s Cananea Strikers: Fighting for the Right to a Union

David Bacon May 16, 2012

Trade union activists, including members of the miners' union, Los Mineros, protest in Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo, on September 1, 2011. The protest, called the Day of the Indignant, was organized by unions to demand jobs, labor rights and an end to the repression of political dissidents.

Jac­in­to Mar­tinez is the labor sec­re­tary of Sec­tion 65 of the Mineros, Mex­i­co’s union for min­ers and one of the old­est unions in the coun­try. His union has been on strike for five years at the huge Cananea mine, one of the longest strikes in the his­to­ry of North Amer­i­ca. Crit­i­cal sup­port for this strike has come from the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, and both unions have announced their desire to merge to form a sin­gle organization. 
Below, Mar­tinez describes the his­to­ry of the strike and the hor­ri­fy­ing con­di­tions in Cananea today. I inter­viewed him two weeks ago.
Our town is where the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion began in 1906, at a time when min­ers there were vir­tu­al­ly enslaved. The mine was even­tu­al­ly tak­en over by the gov­ern­ment, which ran it for many years. Nev­er­the­less, over the last hun­dred years there were many strikes in this mine over wages and work­ing conditions.
Final­ly, in 1989, the gov­ern­ment stopped all oper­a­tions at the mine, and Pres­i­dent Car­los Sali­nas de Gor­tari declared that the mine was bank­rupt. In August of that year the gov­ern­ment sent in fed­er­al troops. The min­ers were expelled from the mine, and the mine was closed for three months. Then Sali­nas sold it to pri­vate own­ers, Grupo Mex­i­co, the com­pa­ny run by the Lar­rea fam­i­ly. Real­ly, it was basi­cal­ly giv­en away. The gov­ern­ment had just invest­ed 400 mil­lion pesos in the ore con­cen­tra­tor alone. Grupo Mex­i­co bought the whole mine for 650 million.
After the Lar­rea fam­i­ly took over, we’ve had noth­ing but bat­tle after bat­tle with them. They are one of the largest min­ing com­pa­nies in the world, and one of the rich­est fam­i­lies in Mex­i­co. The com­pa­ny was forced to make cer­tain com­mit­ments in order to take over the mine, but they’ve nev­er ful­filled any of them. One was to share with the work­ers five per­cent of the price they’d paid for the mine. Because of their fail­ure, in 2004 we took action to force the com­pa­ny to pay what had become by that time a debt of 55 mil­lion pesos. 
After that things became even more dif­fi­cult. Before, the gov­ern­ment was at least a lit­tle con­cerned for our wel­fare. Now all dia­logue with the gov­ern­ment has been cut off, and they give total sup­port to Grupo Mexico.
We went on strike again on June 30, 2007, because of the dete­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions in the mine. Once the strike start­ed, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, through the labor board, declared it ille­gal sev­er­al times. Each time we’ve gone to court, and the courts have over­ruled the board and restored the strike’s legal sta­tus. Accord­ing to the Inter­Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion on Human Rights, we have a right to return to our jobs.
Once again, on April 14, 2010, the strike was declared legal by the courts. Nev­er­the­less, at 10 p.m. the same day the com­pa­ny with­drew recog­ni­tion from our union and broke off its employer/​union rela­tion­ship with us. That was com­plete­ly ille­gal. But the gov­ern­ment then brought in police and troops, and allowed the com­pa­ny to reopen the mine.
At the time we went on strike, there were about 1,200 mem­bers of our union. Now there are still 850 peo­ple on strike, five years lat­er. The com­pa­ny has tried to buy peo­ple off by offer­ing them sev­er­ance pay if they’ll give up any claim to their jobs. In my case, after 23 years work­ing in the mine, they’ve offered me 1,007,000 pesos [about $85,000]. They’ve said that in addi­tion, they’d give me 830,000 pesos to try to buy me out. But I won’t take their offer, nor will any of the strikers.
We don’t have Social Secu­ri­ty med­ical insur­ance, so the med­ical care we get comes from the com­pa­ny as part of our employ­ment. If we take their offer, we will lose all our med­ical care. The 850 strik­ers have been fight­ing for this too. To make mat­ters worse, on Moth­er’s Day in 2008, the com­pa­ny gave us an addi­tion­al gift by clos­ing the hos­pi­tal where we received our care. Count­ing chil­dren and retirees, an addi­tion­al 1,200 peo­ple lost their med­ical care because of that.
The gov­ern­ment stepped in to pro­vide some ser­vices, but even though we can see a doc­tor again, we have no mon­ey to buy med­i­cine. This has hurt our retirees espe­cial­ly, because now they have to pay for med­i­cine, where in the past the com­pa­ny had to pro­vide it. Some of us have severe prob­lems because of work­ing in the mine, like sil­i­co­sis and high blood pres­sure, so doing with­out med­ical care is not an option.
To protest gov­ern­ment sup­port for the com­pa­ny, about 50 min­ers have gone to Her­mosil­lo, the state capi­tol, where they are occu­py­ing a site near the gov­ern­ment build­ing. When they come back to Cananea, oth­er work­ers go to take their place. We are not the only local union of min­ers on strike. Sec­tion 17 has been on strike in Tax­co and Sec­tion 201 in Zacate­cas. We are all fac­ing Grupo Mexico. 
We are also protest­ing over what hap­pened at Pas­ta de Con­chos in 2006. The union made many requests to the Labor Sec­re­tary, ask­ing that the gov­ern­ment con­duct inspec­tions of that mine. But there were none, and final­ly there was a ter­ri­ble explo­sion in which 65 min­ers were trapped inside and died. The only thing they did was close the mine. The com­pa­ny even refused to go in and bring back the bod­ies, and the gov­ern­ment backed them up. The com­pa­ny and gov­ern­ment claimed it was an acci­dent. But the pres­i­dent of our union, Napoleon Gomez Urru­tia, held a press con­fer­ence and called it indus­tri­al homi­cide. After that, the gov­ern­ment tried to arrest him and he had to flee to Canada. 
Since we’ve been fight­ing Grupo Mex­i­co, we’ve had the finan­cial sup­port of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers in the U.S., who also gave sanc­tu­ary to our pres­i­dent. [Edi­tor’s note: See this recent In These Times sto­ry about exiled Mineros leader Napoleon Gomez Urru­ti­a’s suc­cess­ful fight against gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion charges.] That’s how we’ve been able to sur­vive. More than 80,000 work­ers are con­tribut­ing to our abil­i­ty to go on fight­ing. And we are also receiv­ing con­tri­bu­tions from our own mem­bers in Mex­i­co who are still work­ing. So our sit­u­a­tion in Cananea isn’t good, but we’ve been able to con­tin­ue for five years. Our mem­bers still sup­port the strike totally. 
The com­pa­ny has been able to restart pro­duc­tion, using about 3,000 work­ers who are employed by con­trac­tors. There are about 2,000 fed­er­al sol­diers guard­ing them. They’ve turned Cananea into an armed camp. They have tow­ers with machine guns watch­ing over peo­ple, and you can’t even pass through cer­tain streets in the cen­ter of town. This is why we’re sup­port­ing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in his cam­paign for pres­i­dent in our nation­al elec­tions in July. He’s promised that if he’s elect­ed, he’ll defend us. 
Grupo Mex­i­co is real­ly destroy­ing Cananea. The mine pumps water from about 70 wells. Cananea, with a pop­u­la­tion of 30,000, only has two or three. The mine is buy­ing up land through­out this area, and now has more land than the town itself. They use it to dump the mine tail­ings, which have already buried part of the old town. 
Mean­while, of the 300 mem­bers of our union who betrayed us and went back to work, only about 50 are left. The only way they’ve been able to make the mine run is by bring­ing in 3,000 peo­ple from out­side, from Oax­a­ca, Puebla and oth­er states in the south. The eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion in these states is worse than here in the north. There’s no work, no jobs there. 
Grupo Mex­i­co has built spe­cial hous­ing for many of the strike­break­ers on the mine prop­er­ty, called colec­tivos. They’re like bar­racks. For oth­ers, the com­pa­ny rents big hous­es in town, where a lot of them are housed togeth­er. The com­pa­ny then picks them up in busses in the morn­ing and brings them back at night. That way it con­trols them. And the whole econ­o­my of Cananea has col­lapsed because these work­ers aren’t liv­ing in the area like nor­mal res­i­dents. Many of them actu­al­ly come here because we’re close to the U.S. bor­der, and they’re think­ing about jump­ing the fence. The real­i­ty is that the econ­o­my here is pret­ty dead. 
Grupo Mex­i­co mis­treats these work­ers. It’s gone back to the same con­di­tions peo­ple rose up against in 1906, when min­ers went on strike for the 8‑hour day. The strike­break­ers are work­ing 12 hours a day. They all have to belong to a pro­tec­tion union, part of the CTM [the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Mex­i­can Work­ers, affil­i­at­ed to Mex­i­co’s for­mer rul­ing par­ty, the PRI]. Then, after work­ing four or five months, the com­pa­ny fires them. They only get 1,300 pesos a week [about $100], so when peo­ple want to go home, they don’t have enough mon­ey to get back. Some of the fired work­ers wan­der through the streets, beg­ging for help from oth­er work­ers so they can get home.
With peo­ple brought in from out­side to work the mine, the only solu­tion for the peo­ple of Cananea itself is to leave, to migrate. There’s no oth­er work here. Some go to oth­er states, or to oth­er cities in north­ern Mex­i­co. They leave by them­selves to look for work. Then right after they get paid on Fri­day, they send the mon­ey home to their fam­i­lies. Most go to the Unit­ed States.
That’s log­i­cal, because the bor­der is only a half hour away, and Tuc­son’s only three hours from here. And that’s where the work is. Some­times peo­ple just go to work for two or three weeks, and then come back, try­ing to find a way to keep on liv­ing here. They try to use the work in the U.S. to build up their reserves. This also hap­pened after the three-month strike in 1998.
The peo­ple who are on strike are all peo­ple who live here, and most of us have been liv­ing here for gen­er­a­tions. The head of our strike com­mit­tee, Jesus Ver­dugo, is the third gen­er­a­tion in his fam­i­ly to work in the mine. Now his chil­dren are old enough to work. But if we don’t win the strike, they’ll nev­er work here. We’re los­ing our tra­di­tions; we’re los­ing the whole his­to­ry of Cananea. And this is because of what Grupo Mex­i­co and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment are doing to us. 
You could say we’re fight­ing for our right and abil­i­ty to keep on liv­ing in Cananea.
David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), 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 dba​con​.igc​.org.
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