100 Years After the Mexican Labor Movement Was Born, Miners’ Blood Once Again Stains the Nation
Carlyle Group Hand Seen in Fox Government Repression
By John Ross
April 28, 2006
MEXICO CITY, APRIL 27, 2006: 100 years after the Mexican labor movement was birthed in the bloody massacre at the great Cananea Sonora copper pit, the blood of miners once again smears the face of Mexico.
On April 20th, 1,000 federal and state police backed up by Mexican military troops stormed the giant SICARTSA steel mill complex in the Pacific coast port of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, intent on breaking a three week strike by the Miners and Metalworkers Union (SMTMMSRM), killing two workers, wounding 73, and arresting 13. The strike at the SICARTSA plant of Villacero Steel, the largest wire rod and steel bar maker in Latin America, was declared illegal only hours before President Vicente Fox’s labor secretary Francisco Xavier Salazar sent in the police to take back the plant by force.
The Fox government’s deadly sneak attack on the miners’ union came a century almost to the date after Mexico’s miners rose at Cananea against General William Green and the Anaconda Copper Company June 1st. 1906. 23 miners were gunned down when the governor of Sonora declared martial law and summoned the Arizona Rangers across the border to quell the strike said to have been organized by the U.S.-based anarchist Industrial Workers of the World. Several bosses were burnt alive by the furious mob before a tense calm was restored.
The Cananea uprising was a seminal event that gave birth to Mexico’s historic labor movement and figured prominently in the downfall of dictator Porfirio Diaz and the start-up of the 1910-1919 Mexican revolution and each May 1st, International Working Men and Women’s Day, the martyrs of Cananea are remembered in fiery speeches and workers’ anthems here. This year, the 120th celebration of International Labor Day, the repression at SICARTSA will bring added meaning to this annual ritual.
As duly noted each year in this space, International Labor Day, first celebrated on the streets of Chicago Illinois May 1st 1886 amidst the struggle for the eight hour day, is not celebrated in the United States, the land where it began, although the date has been adopted by virtually the entire world as one on which to honor labor.
The SICARTSA complex on the coast of west-central Michoacan state is named for beloved depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas, a native son who expropriated Mexico’s oil industry from Anglo-American owners, nationalized steel production and other heavy industry, and distributed millions of acres of land to landless farmers. The Lazaro Cardenas SICARTSA steel complex is located in the booming west coast port also named for Lazaro Cardenas. Ironically, the elite state police units who shot their way into the Villacero plant April 20th were dispatched by a governor also named Lazaro Cardenas, the son of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of the once left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and grandson of the first Lazaro.
The morning after the deadly clash at SICARTSA, La Jornada political cartoonist El Fisgon drew a somber portrait of President Lazaro Cardenas shedding a tear – the national left daily is usually a PRD booster.
The 2800-member militant miners’ local 271 now headed by burly steelworker Martin Rodriguez, has led dozens of strikes since it won collective bargaining agreements at SICARTSA in the 1970s. The steel plant was privatized in 1991 under the aegis of the now-reviled Carlos Salinas – the new owners, the Monterrey-based Villareal family doing business as Villacero Steel paid $170 million USD for a complex valued at $2.6 billion and immediately fired 2600 workers to “streamline” production. But the Miners and Metalworkers Union was pieced off with 5% of the sales price and strikes grew more infrequent.
The current skirmish is considered an “inter-union” squabble by Villacero spokesperson Ignacio Trevino who claims the steelmaker is losing $3 million USD a day while the plant is down. Just a few days before the police fell on SICARTSA, Fox met with Villacero representatives in nearby Uruapan and pledged government intervention.
This April 20th, as Martin Rodriguez recounted in a recent telephone interview, workers were ambushed by state and federal police landed from the ocean side of their huge work shed by the Mexican Navy. Armed only with slingshots and balls of iron ore, 600 striking workers stood their ground. Then Cardenas’s police began firing live ammunition and the strikers set fire to dozens of cars to form a flaming barrier between themselves and their attackers. The workers eventually drove the cops out of the shed using heavy machinery. Meanwhile, mothers, wives, and children marched from the Miners’ Monument in downtown Lazaro Cardenas to the port facility to protest the murders of two young workers, Hector Alvarez and Mario Castillo under the guns of Governor Cardenas’s elite sharpshooters. Trevino would later demand the miners be jailed for “terrorism” after having displayed the bodies of their dead comrades, an act of incitement to rebellion, according to the Villacero spokesperson.
Villacero Steel and the Mexican Mining Industrial Group (GIMM) – a cog in the Carlyle Group, an international conglomerate with heavy investments in resource and defense – have dominated Mexican mining and steel production since the industry was privatized. Salinas had to send troops to keep peace at Cananea after that historic copper pit was sold to GIMM for a song in 1989.
The strike at Villacero exploded April 2nd after Labor Secretary Salazar withdrew recognition of miners union czar Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, accusing him of having embezzled $55 million USD, the union’s slice of the privatization boodle, and looting a private pension fund. Locals in Nacazari (Sonora), Sombrerete (Zacatecas), Taxco (Guerrero), and Lazaro Cardenas struck when Salazar installed retired union dissident Elias Morales, reportedly a puppet of GIMM owner German Larrea, in Gomez Urrutia’s stead.
The Miners and Metalworkers of the Republic of Mexico have never known a union boss who was not named Napoleon Gomez. Napoleon Gomez Sada (Napoleon I) ruled the roost for 40 years and when he passed on to the Big Piecard in the sky in 2003, his son, Napoleon II took over the union’s reigns. Both are what are called “charros” here, literally extravagantly-garbed cowboys, and like their charro class cohorts in Mexico’s two main labor federations, the Congress of Labor (CT) and the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM) were and are appendages of the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI.)
Although Gomez Urrutia has been on the lam since he was charged – Fox claims he is holed up in Vancouver Canada – the miners’ union boss seems to be available for daily interviews in which he professes to be as innocent of fleecing his union as the driven snow and accuses the Fox government of retaliation after he charged GIMM with “industrial homicide” in the wake of the February 19th explosion at that company’s Pasta de Conchos Coahuila state coalmine that took 65 miners lives – workers were trapped after ventilators failed to clear a methane gas build-up and their bodies have yet to be recovered despite heart-wrenching daily vigils by family members and a procession to the mine’s gates led by Bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raul Vera.
Hundreds of miners in Coahuila coalmines, some paid as low as $50 a week, have been killed on the job in the past ten years in a state where mine inspection is virtually non-existent – the Secretary of Labor has only one mine inspector to cover the whole state.
Despite the miners union’s threat of a national walkout, the Fox administration has failed to hold GIMM responsible for the Pasta de Conchos tragedy. One possible reason: at least three GIMM executives sit on the board of directors of the Vamos Mexico Foundation, first lady Marta de Fox’s pet charity.
Labor secretary Salazar added fuel to the fire down below when he flew into Pasta de Conchos March 13th and blamed GIMM negligence on the dead miners who he accused of smoking marijuana before they went on shift. Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira immediately issued an edict declaring the PANista labor secretary persona non grata in the state.
Francisco Xavier Salazar is a member of that right-wing party’s right wing – the “Yunque” (“plow team”), a group of descendants of Catholic zealots who fought the post-revolutionary government from 1926 to 1929 in the “Cristero” war, mostly in President Fox’s home state of Guanajuato. Last year, Salazar replaced Carlos Abascal as labor secretary when the latter moved over to Interior – Abascal’s father was in fact a founder of El Yunque.
GIMM, Mexico’s leading mine operator, is closely tied to the Carlyle Group, a global investor with major holdings in mining and other defense-related industries – the soon-to-be-outgoing Fox is mentioned as a candidate for Carlyle association. GIMM has a strategic alliance with the Southern Peru Copper Company, a Carlyle property, and the private pension fund Gomez Urrutia is accused of emptying out, Siglo 21, is a subsidiary of Fidelity Investment, also connected to the Carlyle Group.
Fox’s persecution of Gomez Urrutia follows in the grand tradition of jailing Mexican labor leaders when they get out of line. Railroad union leaders Demetrio Vallejo and Valentin Campa were imprisoned by President Adolfo Lopez Mateos for more than a decade after shutting down the nation’s rail lines in 1959. In January 1989, President Salinas sent troops to capture powerful Petroleum Workers Union charro Joaquin Galicia after “La Quina” backed Salinas rival Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the previous year’s disputed elections.
Cross-border solidarity with the striking SICARTSA miners was offered by United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard – both Villacero and GIMM have U.S. plants. “The blood of these workers is on President Fox’s hands” Gerard wrote in a call for U.S. union support, labeling Fox the most anti-union head of state in Latin America. Unions on both sides of the border have donated 22 tons of food to keep the SICARTSA strikers fed.
The Mexican National Workers Union (UNT), a federation of unions in industries once owned by the government, and dissidents in the PRI’s Congress of Labor have called for a one hour work stoppage April 28th to protest Fox government violations of union autonomy. UNT director Francisco Hernandez Juarez is the ten-time president of the Mexican telephone workers union and could cut all telephone and Internet communications during the hour-long strike. 4,000,000 workers are expected to participate.
On May 1st, the 120th anniversary of International Labor Day, 100,000 workers will fill Mexico City’s great Zocalo plaza as they do each spring. Although this year, the massive march and rally has been called in solidarity with Mexican workers in the U.S. who will also be on the move that day (the first May 1st was also a movement of immigrant workers), “our hearts will be on fire,” affirms Local 271’s Martin Rodriguez, with memories of the long-ago Cananea massacre and the Fox government’s very recent bloodletting in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan.
John Ross is still on deadline for his latest opus, “Making Another World Possible – Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006” to be published this fall by Nation Books. He still has no time to talk.
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