Mexican miners take action to protest mass firing at Cananea

On April 14 Mexico’s Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JFCA) declared illegal a strike that the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers and the Like of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSRM) has led since July 30, 2007 over safety issues at Grupo MĂ©xico’s giant copper mine at Cananea, in the northwestern state of Sonora. The JFCA ruling cleared the way for the company, owned by billionaire Germán Larrea, to proceed with plans to close the mine and fire all 1,200 workers; it announced the firings the next day.

On April 23 the second district judge in labor matters for the Federal District, Antonio Rebollo Torres, issued a temporary injunction suspending the firings and the JFCA decision. (In what was supposed to be a final decision, the JFCA had ruled in the workers’ favor in April 2008)

The SNTMMSRM responded to Grupo MĂ©xico efforts to fire the Cananea workers by calling on its steelworker members in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, an industrial seaport and steel center on Mexico’s west coast, to take action to block the port. In other cities, such as Taxco, miners blocked highways and seized tollbooths.

The effort to close the mine is the latest development in a three-year struggle between the union and the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which has held Mexico’s presidency since 2000 and strongly backs Grupo MĂ©xico. The fight in early 2006 when the federal government officially removed SNTMMSRM head NapoleĂłn GĂłmez Urrutia, charging him with corruption. GĂłmez Urrutia, who fled the country, inherited the union leadership position from his father, but many union members consider him effective in fighting for their rights and continue to support him as he directs the SNTMMSRM from Vancouver, British Columbia. The struggle between the union and the government has included a number of strikes and other actions; the strike at Cananea has lasted the longest.

For most of the past two years Grupo MĂ©xico seemed willing to wait out the strike despite large losses. Some analysts think the company is forcing the issue now because of its likely loss of the bankrupt US mining company ASARCO LLC, which owns Southern Copper Corporation (formerly Southern Peru Copper Corporation). Grupo MĂ©xico took over ASARCO in 1999 but lost control when the company went bankrupt. US judges have been ruling against the Mexican company in the proceedings, and on April 22 Judge Richard Schmidt of the US bankruptcy court in Corpus Christi, Texas, approved a plan to sell ASARCO to India’s Sterlite Industries for $1.7 billion. There is speculation that Grupo MĂ©xico intends to close the Cananea mine to eliminate the SNTMMSRM and then reopen it more profitably with a new, pro-company union.

The confrontation between the SNTMMSRM and the government is heating up just as Mexican unions plan their traditional massive marches for May 1. On April 22 former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the 2006 presidential candidate of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), led a delegation of senators from the PRD, the Workers Party (PT) and the Convergence to Cananea to express support for the union. López Obrador said he was forming a National Committee of Defense and Solidarity with the Miners of Cananea to help to supply basic necessities and medicine to the strikers and their families. In the past he and the PRD have generally avoided taking strong positions in labor struggles. (Mexican Labor News & Analysis, April 2009; La Jornada, Mexico, April 25, 26; Reuters, April 22; Milenio, Mexico, April 23; El Universal, Mexico, April 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 26

See our last posts on Mexico and the labor struggle.