Mexican government kill striking workers

Mexican Police have shot and killed 2 steelworkers, injured 45 more in recapturing the occupied SICARTSA steel mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán.

The workers of the Miners and Metalworkers Union (SNTMMRM) have been on strike since April 2nd demanding the reinstatement of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the union leader whose election victory was annulled by the government, and replaced with a more moderate candidate.

Mexican Labour News and Analysis reported that The struggle between the Mexican government and the Mexican Mine Workers Union which has gone on now for more than two months, took a violent turn when police killed two workers while storming a plant held by strikers in Lázaro Cárdenas on April 20. Workers and townspeople retook the plant, but were then besieged by the police. Parts of the plant have been taken over by the Mexican Army and the Mexican Navy. Government human rights organizations have gone to the scene to investigate and prevent further loss of life. Other unions are dispatching their members to Lázaro Cárdenas to support the mine workers. Reports from around the country indicate attacks on miners by authorities or vigilantes in other parts of the country. Because of their importance we have dedicated a substantial part of this issue to these events. We are also asking that you send letters of protest to the Mexican government.

Police shot and killed two workers, five were gravely injured, and over 40 others were wounded, most by gunshots, when authorities launched an assault to expel striking workers occupying the SICARTSA steel mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, Mexico on April 20. Reports from the scene suggest that others may also have been killed or may die from their wounds. A video taken at the scene and released to the press shows Michoacán state police taking aim at strikers and police later admitted shooting at them.

In the latest stage of a months-long struggle between the government of President Vicente Fox and the Mexican Miners’ and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM), some 800 state and federal police, using tear gas, clubs and fire arms, stormed the steel plant held by 500 workers. The SICARTSA steelworkers are members of Local 271 of the Miners union. The workers have been on strike since April 2, demanding the reinstatement of the union’s top official who had been removed from office by the government and replaced by a new leader close to Mexican mining companies.

Grupo Villacero, the owner of the plant, reportedly called upon the federal secretary of public security to send in the police to remove the striking workers.

Killed by the police were Mario Alberto Zúñiga, a worker at the SICARTSA steel plant and Héctor Alvarez Gómez, a union representative of the nearby Mittal Steel company. Two other workers were severely wounded: Luis Alberto Zárate, who was shot through the lungs, and Cirilo Quiñones, who was shot in the chest. Many other workers were wounded, though less severely, and five had been taken to the Civil Hospital in Morelia, the state capital. Dozens of others were treated in the Mexican Institute of Social Security Hospital in Lázaro Cárdenas, the city where the steel mill is located.

Sometime later, union members and townspeople armed with rocks and metal bars retook the plant from the police. In the course of the struggle between workers and police one building and more than 30 company and private vehicles were burned and equipment was destroyed.

At 6:00 p.m. on the day of the attack and killings, more than 1,000 women, mothers, wives, and daughters of the steel workers, marched to the plant to call upon the police to stop their violence. Federal and state governments dispatched human rights agencies to the site of the conflict. Leaders of the National Front for Union Unity and Autonomy (FNUAS) went to the plant to offer support.

There were reports that authorities or vigilantes had engaged in violent attacks on miners in other mining towns in Mexico, though not on the scale at SICARTSA in Lázaro Cárdenas.

The president of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), José Luis Soberanes Fernández, told the press that the Fox government was responsible for the repression and the killing at SICARTSA.

Fox’s presidencial spokesman, Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela, said that the violence took place because the Mine Workers Union and the mine workers don’t respect the law. And he said the government would not give in to the workers demands that their former union leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia be returned to his position as General Secretary.

The Villacero Corporation, which owns SICARTSA, accused the miners of being “terrorists,” and defended the actions of the corporation and the government. The Michoacán Business Coordinating Council praised the government for taking action to evict the strikers from the plant, accused the Miners’ union of violence and showed no sympathy for the families of the dead or for the wounded. COMPARMEX, the Mexican Employers Association, also supported the Michoacán authorities for having taken action.
Workers Accuse Government

Local officials of the Mexican mine workers’ union held the government of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) responsible for the attack by federal police and for the killing of the workers. They also blamed governor Lázaro Cárdenas Batel of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for sending in the state police who were also involved. Cárdenas Bátel denied responsibility, saying state troops had been unarmed and were only cooperating with the Federal police. Later, the Michoacán Attorney General admitted that the state police had fired at the workers and video tapes subsequently proved that this was the case. Two high state police officials resigned and the state police have been withdrawn from the plant.
Unions Respond

The new National Front for Union Unity and Autonomy (FNUAS), composed of the National Union of Workers (UNT), the National Union of Mine and Metallurgical Workers’s now unofficial leadership, and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC) had earlier called for a symbolic national one-hour strike on April 28. Following the April 20 killings FNUAS called upon its members to “organize a caravan” of worker to go to Lázaro Cárdenas to provide a protective ring around the plant, for a mass rally on April 24 in Mexico City, and for other demonstrations of solidarity.

Benedicto Martínez, a co-president of the Authentic Labor Front and a vice-president of the UNT reported to Mexican Labor News and Analysis that among the central demands of the FNUAS were:

* Recognition of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the union leader chosen by the mine workers.
* End of repression at the SICARTSA plant.
* Removal of Francisco Xavier Salazar Sáenz, the Secretary of Labor.
* Political trial of president Vicente Fox by the Congress (impeachment).
* Punishment for those responsible for the violence against the workers.

The AFL-CIO, the United Steel Workers of America (USW), the United Electrical Workers (UE) and other labor unions have expressed their solidarity with the Mexican Mine Workers union in its struggle for union autonomy. [For examples, see statements by the USW, AFL-CIO, and International Metalworkers Federation (IMF), below, as well as the Solidarity Center web site regarding this issue at: http://solidarity.timberlakepublishing.com/content.asp?contentid=579 .]

Background: The Pasta de Conchos Accident

The struggle between the National Union of Mining and Metallurgical Workers of Mexico (SNTMMRM) has arisen from both labor union issues and political causes. The explosion and cave in at the Pasta de Conchos mine in San Juan de Las Sabinas, Coahuila in northern Mexico on February 19 trapped and killed 65 miners. The miners’ union leader, Gómez Urrutia, blamed the employer, Grupo México, calling the deaths “industrial homicide.”

The Pasta de Conchos cave-in set off a storm. Throughout Mexico, politicians, academics, intellectuals, and ordinary people criticized the mining company. The Grupo México stock fell. Copper and other commodity prices rose. The Mexican Catholic Bishops Conference criticized the employer’s negligence and called for an international investigation, expressing their lack of confidence in the Mexican government.
While miners throughout the country mourned the death of their brothers and complained of health and safety conditions in their own mines, there was no official or wildcat strike in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The Political Issue: The Ousting of Gómez Urrutia

Then, on February 28, the Mexican Secretary of Labor Francisco Xavier Salazar Sáenz announced that Gómez Urrutia was not actually the head of the union, but that the real general secretary was Elías Morales Hernández. The government’s action was based in part on Mexican labor law known as “taking note” (toma de nota), a process by which the government legally recognizes the elected officers of labor unions. Six years earlier Morales Hernández had appealed to the Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal Carranza, arguing that he had actually been elected and should be the new head of the union. The government had rejected the appeal by Morales Hernández and in 2002 Secretary of Labor Abascal Carranza recognized Gómez Urrutia as the general secretary.

Why had the Mexican government suddenly opted to overturn its own earlier decision, recognize the dissident, and bring him out of retirement to assume leadership of the miners’ union? The answer has partly to do with the miners’ union and the recent accident, but just as much to do with the Congress of Labor (CT), the umbrella organization that brings together most of the largest Mexican labor federations and industrial unions.
The Official Labor Movement in Crisis

In mid-February 2006 miners’ union leader, Gómez Urrutia, joined together with Isaías González, head of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), to challenge the election of Victor Flores Morales, head of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union (STFRM), for control of the Congress of Labor. Gómez Urrutia was trying to position himself to become the top leader of the numerically most important Mexican labor organization.

His ambitions troubled many. The Congress of Labor (CT), which brings together most of the “official” unions of Mexico, historically formed part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the ruling party of Mexico. The CT had historically backed the PRI’s candidates, supported the PRI’s policies, and served in the Mexican Congress as PRI senators and congressmen. More recently the CT had worked out a modus viviendi with Mexican president Vicente Fox, collaborating with his National Action Party (PAN). Napoleón Gómez Urrutia’s attempt to take over the CT not only challenged railroad workers union leader Victor Flores, it also worried the PRI and PAN.
Rival Leaders

Victor Flores had been the ideal labor union leader of both PRI and PAN governments. He had worked closely with the government to carry out the privatization of the Mexican railroads, leading to their sale to the Union Pacific and the Kansas City railroads. When rank-and-file railroad workers had protested, Victor Flores had cooperated with the government to have them fired—easy enough with some 100,000 railroad workers losing their jobs in the privatization—and if that did not work he had sent his thugs to beat them and threaten them with murder. While somewhat volatile—as a PRI Congressman Victor Flores had once tried to strangle another representative—he was loyal to the government’s program of neoliberalism.

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, on the other hand, from the government’s point of view, seemed to be becoming a loose canon. In some ways this was odd. Gómez Urrutia had inherited the leadership of the mine from his father Napoleón Gómez Sada, and both had been typical charros, that is, union bureaucrats absolutely loyal to the PRI. They had turned out the vote for the party, collaborated with the employers, and had expelled union activists or leaders who opposed them or supported other political parties. Doing all of those things, they enjoyed the wealth, power and privilege to which their loyalty entitled them.
The Miners’ Union in Struggle

Lately, however, Gómez Urrutia had begun to challenge both the employers and the Congress of Labor/PRI leadership. In June 2005, Mexican miners joined their compañeros in Peru and the United States as more than 10,000 miners carried out a simultaneous protest against Grupo Mexico to demand that the company stop violating workers’ rights. The three unions accused Grupo Mexico of having a policy of repression, exploitation and unwanted involvement in union affairs. The protest was organized by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) in the United States, the Federation of Metal Workers of Peru (FETIMAP), and the National union of Miners and Metal Workers (SNTMM) of Mexico. The international solidarity against the Mexican mining company was backed by the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF).

Then, in September 2005, the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union won a 46-day strike against two steel companies in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan, in what may be one of the most important strikes in Mexico in a decade. The local union and its 2,400 members succeeded in winning an 8 percent wage gain, 34 percent in new benefits, and a 7,250 peso one-time only bonus.

The Mexican miners’ union also indicated the ability to impact domestic politics. The miners’ union played a critical role in helping to lead the union bloc that opposed the Fox administration's labor law reform package. All of these actions threatened to upset the Mexican system of labor control by which the governmental labor authorities, the employers, and the “official” unions of the CT collude to channel and suppress workers. Then, in February, Gómez Urrutia made a bid to take over the CT, raising the prospect that he would lead labor struggles at a national level. Clearly at that point the Fox government must have already been looking for a way to get rid of him, when his remarks on Grupo Mexico’s “industrial homicide” made him persona non grata not only with the PRI but also with the employers.

Edited by Jack Ray