The beneficiaries of Mexico’s privatization gold rush are worried.
With the election approaching and popular discontent at record levels, President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, has tried to reassure his wealthy supporters that his economic reforms would continue protecting them. These patrons include the Villareal family, whose Grupo Villacero owns the huge Sicartsa steel mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán. (The plant was given to them in 1991 by former President Carlos Salinas for a tenth of its real value, making them instant billionaires.) And the Larreas, who got Mexico’s two great copper mines, making their Grupo Mexico one of the world’s largest mining companies.
Mexico’s superrich aren’t the only ones with a lot to lose. In mid-June, reports surfaced in the press of a plan by the Ford Motor Company, already one of Mexico’s largest employers, to invest $9.2 billion more, while moving to close fourteen North American plants and lay off tens of thousands of US workers.
But if it’s up to the unions in Mexican mines and mills, the conservative wave of the past decade will soon be history. In April steel workers stopped work at Sicartsa, and they have occupied it since then in a plantón, or tent city. Although Michoacán’s left-wing governor refrained from sending troops to dislodge them, local police beholden to the Villareals made an unsuccessful try on April 20, shooting and killing two workers. Meanwhile, miners belonging to the same union in Sonora have shut down Grupo Mexico’s two copper mines, one of them for three months.
Insuring the continuation of a favorable investment climate requires control of an increasingly restive workforce, and the old methods no longer work. Mexican employers themselves are discarding the social contract, in which unions had a place at the table so long as they didn’t upset it. Now corporations like Grupo Mexico and Grupo Villacero want no unions at all.
Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, head of the National Union of Mine, Metalurgical and Allied Workers of Mexico, says, “They think we’re like a cancer and should be exterminated. This is no longer a country that can be called a democracy.” Gómez Urrutia is one of the main reasons Fox and his corporate friends look at labor with new eyes. Gómez Urrutia’s father was head of the miners’ union before him, a corporatist leader in the old style, with a reputation for cooperation. Gómez Urrutia is different.
Fox pushed hard to weaken the country’s labor protections at the behest of the World Bank. Mexican labor law gives workers more rights than US law, which Fox seeks to emulate. In a Mexican strike all work must stop and strikebreaking is illegal. Mexican law gives workers the right to healthcare and housing, protects job security, mandates strict hours of work and imposes severance pay for laid-off employees. Gómez Urrutia helped bring even conservative unions into a coalition that spiked Fox’s proposals to gut those rights.