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Striking Copper Miners
Updated On: Mar 07, 2010

Striking copper miners continue the struggle at the site of historic battle for labor rights

January 1948: Cananea, Mexico:

What does U.S. Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin have to do with a copper strike in Mexico?

In Cananea, a small town about 50 miles south of the border, some 1,287 copper miners are battling one of Mexico’s largest corporations – Grupo Mexico. The chief financial officer of Grupo Mexico is J. Eduardo Gonzalez. Gonzalez was once an executive of the Mexican subsidiary of Kimberly Clark, the paper company founded by the Sensenbrenner family.

 

So, the sponsor of anti-immigrant legislation in the U.S. Congress has ties to people running a huge Mexican mining corporation which treats its workers so badly that many of them are forced to head north to look for a better life! While that’s ironic, it’s not surprising, because for more than a century what has happened to the miners of northern Mexico has affected workers on both sides of the border. That’s why we should speak out in support of the strike going on in Cananea right now -- and heed the lessons of the battles fought there in the past.

 

On January 16, more than 25,000 miners across Mexico staged a one-day work stoppage to protest the attack by 1,000 police officers on the Cananea picket lines in early January. The miners’ gesture of solidarity came exactly 102 years to the day after another important event which also involved Cananea’s miners. It was on another January 16 – January 16, 1906 – that workers at the Cananea mine banded together to form a secret organization. The group helped lead a famous strike – and the crushing of that strike helped light the fuse of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

 

In 1906, the town of Cananea, the Cananea mine, and more than 10 square miles of surrounding farmland and forests were all the property of the “4C” – the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company. Headed by an American named William C. Greene, the company maintained its own schools, stores, railway, and police force. Discrimination against Mexican workers was rampant.

 

On January 16, 1906, a group of about 15 Cananea miners formed the Union Liberal Humanidad (“Liberal Humanity Union”), which was allied with the Mexican Liberal Party. The group played an important leadership role in a strike which broke out on June 1, 1906, after the company announced that it would pay wages on the basis of piecework rather than by the hour.

 

The strike was crushed by the Mexican police (who were aided by a detachment of Arizona territorial police officers.) Thirty Mexicans and six Americans were killed.

 

Outrage at the violent suppression of the Cananea strike helped to deepen the growing public rejection of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Today, Mexican school children are taught about how the Cananea strike of 1906 sparked their country’s 1910 revolution in much the same way that U.S. children are taught about the battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution.

 

In 1917, the “4C” was sold to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. In 1971, the mine was nationalized. In 1990, the government of President Carlos Salinas privatized the mine, selling it for $450 million to Grupo Mexico.

 

At the time, Grupo Mexico’s main shareholder – Jorge Larrea – was the head of one of Mexico’s richest families. Larrea’s industrial empire expanded rapidly through his close friendship with President Carlos Salinas, who signed the NAFTA treaty during his administration. Under Salinas, the Mexican government sold Larrea the Cananea mine and other copper mines, as well as railroads and other enterprises, often at a fraction of their book value. Thirteen Mexican financiers became billionaires during the Salinas administration; Jorge Larrea was one of them.

 

Conditions at Cananea led to strikes in 1998-99; in 2003 and in 2004; and in 2006. The current strike is taking place chiefly over health and safety conditions. The workers in the enclosed part of the huge complex have to deal with rock dust so deep that it rises over the top of the workers’ boots. Superfine particles lodge in workers’ lungs. The miners who breathe this rock dust year after year suffer a variety of lung diseases, including silicosis. Safety equipment has been disconnected or is inoperable. Safety personnel have been eliminated.

 

Fed up, on July 30, 2007, the members of Section 65 of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers went on strike. On January 11, 2008, Mexico’s labor board ruled that the strike was illegal. As the board was announcing its decision, the Mexican government was dispatching hundreds of police officers to break up the picket lines. Twenty people were injured, several seriously. Dozens of people were beaten; police helicopters dropped tear gas bombs on strikers.

 

The union has appealed the labor board’s ruling, arguing that the decision violates labor rights enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. If the Mexican courts declare the Cananea strike illegal and allow the company to bring in strikebreakers, that step would represent a drastic departure from precedent, a move to make labor law in Mexico much less sympathetic to unions (and much closer to the way such laws operate in the United States). When previous strikes in the mine were crushed, many strikers had no choice but to head north to the United States to look for work, often as undocumented workers. For all these reasons – and because no human being should have to work in rock dust up to the top of their boots – workers in the United States should speak out now in support of the miners of Cananea.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

 


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