Mexican Miners Union Protests Government Intervention

So you think we’ve got labor problems here in the U.S.? South of the border, the miners’ union is on the brink of a civil war – and possibly a showdown with the Mexican government. On Tuesday, March 7, more than 20,000 workers belonging to the National Miners and Metal Workers Union marched through downtown Mexico City, protesting the government’s decision to oust the union’s general secretary, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia. The 250,000-member union already had staged a two-day strike in support of Urrutia, currently under government investigation for corruption. The strike, which shut down most of the nation’s coal, steel, copper, zinc and silver mines, comes in the wake of a major mining disaster and accusations of massive corruption. 


For now, the union has a new leader, Elias Morales. At least some people say he’s the leader. Mexican officials are citing documents filed by pro-Morales members of the union’s oversight committee as proof of Urrutia’s corruption. President Fox insists his government did not force Urrutia out – that his ouster came at the hands of Morales supporters within the union who had accused Urrutia of fraud. The charges stem from $55 million scheduled for distribution by the mining company, Grupo Mexico, part of a 1990 deal to privatize two copper mines. The union states that of the 6,500 current and former workers at those mines entitled to a portion of the money, 5,300 have been paid $7,600 on average. Some of the miners believe they were unjustly denied payment, and have filed lawsuits. But Urrutia loyalists say the documents pointing to corruption on his part are phony. What’s more, they add, their man isn’t about to leave his post anytime soon. 


The pro-Urrutia faction has enlisted some key outside help. One source is the National Workers Union, a Mexican umbrella labor organization equivalent to our own AFL-CIO. Another is the AFL-CIO itself, whose president, John Sweeney, recently sent a letter to Mexican President Vicente Fox.  Sweeney wrote to “express my extreme concern over the direct intervention of the Mexican government in the internal affairs” of the miners’ union. The removal of Urrutia, Sweeney stated, “infringes on the union’s constitution, violates Mexican law, and undermines conventions of the International Labor Organization ratified by Mexico.”         


Triggering this strife was an underground gas explosion on February 19 at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine that killed 65 workers. Urrutia waited more than a week after the tragedy before visiting the mine, located about 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas. And when he did arrive, he had to rush into the offices of the mine’s owner, Grupo Mexico, to escape the angry families confronting him. Urrutia’s opponents note that he won his job as a result of nepotism, having taken over the union from his late father in 2002. As for the strikes, Labor Minister Francisco Salazar stated that they were illegal except for those at San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas, where the union is negotiating contract revisions. The union in turn has vowed to continue striking until the government retracts its recognition of Morales, denying that any of its members wanted him at the helm in the first place.  

The U.S. has a stake in a quick resolution to this dispute. The last couple decades have witnessed an increased intertwining of the fortunes of our country and Mexico, spurred by the NAFTA free-trade agreement and heightened immigration, illegal as well as legal. The last thing America needs is a civil war in Mexico over this, which could trigger still more immigration.  (San Diego Union Tribune, 3/1/06; Associated Press, 3/8/06).