Hundreds of police drive miners from Cananea copper mine; TRNN interview with a leader of miner’s union
TEXT ON SCREEN: On Sunday, June 6 at 10 p.m., hundreds of state and federal police stormed the gates of the Mexican Cananea copper mine and forced an end to a more than 1,000-day strike. Tear gas and batons were used to drive the striking miners out of the entrances of the mine. Miners resisted with sticks and by throwing stones, but they were no match for the heavily armed police, who used helicopters and large amounts of tear gas. More than 400 people were also attacked with tear gas in the union hall, including women and children. According to an eyewitness, the police had attempted to trap the people in the building, but they were able to escape from fire exits at the rear of the hall. The mine is located in Cananea, Mexico, near the Arizona border. More than 1,000 members of the National Union of Mine & Metal Workers have been on strike since July 30, 2007. The strike was primarily about health and safety issues. The following interview with one of the leaders of the union was conducted while he was visiting Detroit on April 25.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Dearborn, Michigan, at the Labor Notes conference, and we’re now joined by Jacinto Martinez. He’s a heavy machine operator. He’s also a member of the executive board of the Cananea Miners Union in Cananea, Mexico. Thanks for joining us. So you’re working at the biggest copper mine in Mexico, one of the biggest copper mines in the world, and you’re involved in a very bitter strike. So tell us the context and what’s happening now.
JACINTO MARTINEZ, CANANEA MINERS UNION MEXICO, LOCAL 65 (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The strike began because of the lack of safety at the plant. We’ve been on strike roughly 1,000 days, as I said, for the lack of safety offered to us as workers. The company doesn’t fulfill its safety obligations, equipment repairs. That is our reason for striking. Also for breaches of the collective agreement we have with Grupo Mexico in Cananea.
JAY: Give us a little bit of the background of when the company was privatized and the way it was privatized, ’cause if I understand it correctly, the army was used to help make this privatization.
MARTINEZ: The company used to be state-owned. On August 20, 1989, the company declared bankruptcy; the federal government said it couldn’t sustain it and declared it bankrupt. In November 1990, they sold it to Grupo Mexico, to Germán Larrea. You could almost say they gave it to him, because they sold it for $460 million when just four months earlier the government had invested $680 million in a new plant. As part of the sale, the company agreed to give out 5 percent of the sale price to the workers in the form of stock. They never gave us the shares. Fourteen years later and we are still fighting for our stock.
JAY: You went on strike 1,000 days ago today. What are the main issues you’re striking over? What are some examples of the problems?
MARTINEZ: Above all, lack of safety at the mine. We have had fatal accidents, accidents resulting in mutilation of our colleagues’ legs and hands, all due to a lack of safety. Beyond that, they have restricted the medical services that we are promised in our collective agreement—another violation against the workers.
JAY: So what’s happening now with the strike, 1,000 days in?
MARTINEZ: We continue. What’s happening is that Grupo Mexico is strongly defended by the federal government. Over the 1,000 days, the government has declared our strike illegal four times. But the lawyers we have, our colleague Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, and the national executive committee won legal protections and the restitution of the strike’s legality. So today we are in a legal strike. Last year, the company appealed to the National Labour Relations Board to the effect of the company not being able to operate the mine because the machinery had been destroyed. The Ministry of Economy sided with the company, saying essentially that the equipment was unusable, and thus declared our contract with Grupo Mexico null and void, removing our status as a union. The people are still picketing as normal, regardless of the government breaking our legal status. The people are still blocking access to the mine site. And the people say they won’t hand over the mine. The Supreme Court says we have to hand it over to the company because we lost our status. But we’re not going to hand it over like that. The people are determined to defend the contract and renew it, because we have many guarantees in the contract that the company isn’t fulfilling. So the people are blocking the point of access and they’re not handing it over.
JAY: How serious is the possibility that the army will be brought in?
MARTINEZ: The labor board ruled against us for the first time on January 11, 2008. Unfortunately, in Mexico things are done backwards, because when they ruled against us, they were obligated to give us 24 hours’ notice to evacuate the mine site so their new people could begin to work. They didn’t do it. The authorities removed us by force that same morning, under government orders. They launched tear gas from helicopters and everything to get us out of the mine. So it’s possible they will come, because they’ve done it twice already. But we miners have always fought the battle. There are roughly 1,000 of us now who are standing up to the company. But, unfortunately, they have the guns, while we, as we say, have no more than sticks and stones.
JAY: Your leader was forced out of Mexico. What happened?
MARTINEZ: On February 17, 2006, the federal government revoked union leadership credentials from Napoleon Gomez Urrutia. Specifically the Ministry of labor gave it to another man, Elias Morales, dismissing our colleague Napoleon. Two days later, on the 19th, we had the explosion at Pasta de Conchos, a mine owned by the same Grupo Mexico. So Napoleon declared the explosion a case of industrial homicide, because the union had filed numerous claims to have safety measures taken in that mine. The government and Grupo Mexico didn’t like his comments, and they filed criminal cases against him. He continues his work today from Canada.
JAY: So it’s possible the army or the police could be showing up any day. What would you like American and Canadian people to do in terms of your support?
MARTINEZ: We have received support from unions in the US and other countries. The Steelworkers of the US and Canada have been particularly helpful to us as strikers, to our Cananea local. I want to add that when they send us money, we are spending it on medicine for the families and workers, because the first thing Grupo Mexico did on May 10, 2008, when the strike broke out, as a Mother’s Day present, was cut health-care service to everyone. And there are roughly 13,000 people that use that service, including retired miners, spouses, children, and the workers. They cut all our health-care services on May 10. The state government stepped in to provide some service, and we thank them, but the medicine is in short supply, because being a mining community we deal with chronic diseases—asthma, high blood pressure, and all that.
JAY: Well, we’re going to keep following the story of your strike, and perhaps some of our viewers might want to call Mexican embassies or consulates and let them know they’re also following the course of the strike. Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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