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One ‘gringo invasion’ that Mexican workers welcome

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cananea, Mexico

The road into this small city looked like a parade route the afternoon of Dec. 18, 1998. Hundreds of cars lined the road, and nearly 2,000 people waved, cheered and honked their horns in greeting as a caravan of 14 trucks and vans arrived from Tucson, Ariz., about three hours to the north.

The vehicles carried some three dozen unionists and members of community organizations bringing an estimated 8 tons of food, clothing and -- most important to the people of Cananea -- a show of support for 2,100 striking mineworkers.

The spirited reception was followed by a rally at the packed union hall in the center of the town. The rally occurred across the street from the Cananea Chamber of Commerce, which displayed a large banner in support of the striking workers, an indication of the strong support for the workers in this town where 30,000 of its 33,000 citizens are economically dependent on the mine.

Jesus Romo, a Tucson attorney and one of the leaders of the support effort, told the cheering crowd that the event marked “one of the first times that it is not just transnationals crossing borders to exploit workers but unions crossing borders to defend workers’ rights.”

The Southern Arizona Central Labor Council’s James Watson told the audience, “We will stand in solidarity until this strike is settled with justice and dignity for you, the workers of Cananea.”

AFL-CIO Mexico City representative Tim Beaty told the workers, “In Mexico there has been an invasion of gringo culture and gringo capital, but this invasion of unionism is something I’m very proud of.” Beaty flew here from Mexico City at the request of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to express the support of the 13-million-member labor organization.

Labor responds to NAFTA

The invasion of cross-border solidarity is representative of a relatively new development that political analyst Noam Chomsky characterizes as labor’s underreported response to the North American Free Trade Agreement and economic globalization in general, as workers begin to see common interests worldwide.

Being at the forefront of labor history is nothing new for Cananea. In an article profiling the mine’s owner, well-known Mexican billionaire Jorge Larrea, Forbes magazine described the mine as, “a piece of U.S.-Mexican history.” The copper mine at Cananea, the magazine wrote, was “where a bloody 1906 strike -- put down by invading vigilantes from Texas -- simmered and helped provoke the 1910 Mexican revolution.”

More than 80 years later, Cananea is again at the center of the convulsive relations between the two countries. The current strike is a telling example, some say, of the effects of more than 15 years of neoliberal reform in Mexico, culminating in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

The miners struck Nov. 19 after months of stalled negotiations with the company.

The strike was precipitated by the company’s attempts to reduce wages and eliminate health benefits in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. But the problems between the union and the company date back to the purchase of the then state-owned copper mine by Larrea’s Grupo Mexico in 1990.

The union claims the company has failed to comply with numerous obligations under the original sale contract, including a commitment to award 5 percent of the company’s shares to the workers.

Large process of privatization

When Carlos Salinas, then president of Mexico, sold the mine, the move was hailed by Forbes as the “start of [Mexico’s] reform era.” The sale was part of a larger process of privatization of over 1,000 state industries and services vigorously pursued by the Salinas government in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Sale of the mine to Larrea -- rated by Forbes as the third richest man in Mexico with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion in 1995 -- is viewed with suspicion by Manuel Romero, general secretary of Local 65 of the miners’ union. Romero said that Grupo Mexico’s bid was not the highest of the three bids submitted.

Tucson attorney Romo promised the workers he would approach the Lawyers’ Guild to investigate the questionable circumstances of the transfer. “When the highest bid isn’t accepted,” said Romo, “something fishy is going on.” Romo speculated that Grupo Mexico may have been favored because of Larrea’s close ties to Salinas and the company’s reputation as a union-buster.

Attempts by NCR to reach officials of Larrea’s company were unsuccessful.

According to Romo, the Salinas administration made an unsuccessful attempt to break the union shortly before privatization.

“Apparently Grupo Mexico was the beneficiary of a lot of different privatization efforts,” said Romo. “There could be a multitude of violations going on. These were privatizations that were sanctioned internationally under the presumption that they were carried out pursuant to existing international standards.”

Romo also promised to investigate the company’s failure to turn over the shares promised to the workers, which were originally estimated to be worth $19 million and are now put at over $70 million.

The company says its actions are due to the fall in copper prices on the international market, but according to an article in La Jornada, Merrill Lynch estimates that the fall in international copper prices “will not prevent the company from reaching over $1.75 billion in revenues in 1998.”

‘Excessive union power’

Union Secretary Romero charges that the company provoked the strike with months of stalled negotiations and broken promises and may be taking advantage of the lower copper prices to minimize the cost of what Romero considers an attempt to break the union. Company representatives acknowledged in an article in the Arizona Daily Star of Tucson that they have “tried to curb what they see as excessive union power at the mine.”

It seems that international attention may be hampering those efforts. The three mineworkers, whose early December visit to the Tucson-based Arizona Border Rights Project resulted in the Dec. 18 support effort, report receiving calls from company attorneys offering to pay them an unspecified sum and reinstate their salaries if they would agree not to continue their work in the United States.

The miners’ response is clear: They are now back in Tucson working with labor leaders to continue the food drive and plan a rally for late January. They are planning to visit Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and San Antonio to tell their story and seek support for their cause. Meanwhile, negotiations continue in Mexico City.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999