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.

Fox liked it even less when the miners’ union helped kill his proposal to tax workers’ benefits. But all hell broke loose when sixty-five miners died February 19 in a huge explosion in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in the northern state of Coahuila.

The union found that workers on the second shift had complained of high concentrations of explosive methane gas in the shafts the evening before the accident. “They told us that welding was still going on, even after the failure of some electrical equipment,” Gómez Urrutia charges. At 2:20 am, after the start of the third shift, the gas ignited in a huge fireball.

Of the sixty-five killed, forty didn’t work directly for Grupo Mexico, the mine’s owner. Instead, they were employed by the network of small private contractors who supply personnel to large industrial employers throughout Mexico. One of those subcontracted employees, Gómez Urrutia says, quit three days before the accident, after being required to weld while there were high concentrations of methane. “He said his supervisor told him, If you don’t like it, leave.”

A union worker can refuse to work in such conditions, and a labor-management safety committee will back him or her. But contract workers have no union or safety committee. Unions say employers push them harder to take more risks, and pay them less. At Pasta de Conchos, subcontracted coal miners were getting 90 pesos a day (about $9) for working ten to twelve hours, well beyond the legal eight-hour limit.

Two days after the explosion, Gomez Urrutia accused the Secretary of Labor and Grupo Mexico of “industrial homicide.” Less than a week later, corruption charges were filed against him, and Labor Secretary Francisco Xavier Salazar Sáenz, with support from Grupo Villacero and Grupo Mexico, appointed an expelled leader to replace him. Salazar owns two companies that supply chemicals to Grupo Mexico’s zinc refinery in San Luis Potosí.

Contract employment is a new phenomenon in Mexico, a product of privatization. When the Cananea and Nacozari copper mines and the Sicartsa mill belonged to the government, all workers became permanent employees after a probation period. But when Sicartsa was sold to the Villareals, they put half the workforce on eighty-nine-day contracts. Mexican law stipulates that workers receive labor protections after ninety days.

When Gómez Urrutia was elected union general secretary in 2001, he began pushing back hard. Taking advantage of record copper prices, he won 7 to 9 percent wage increases, twice those dictated by government austerity policies. He forced open the doors of the elite Technological Institute of Monterrey, where 700 workers and their children now study. He won better housing. So when Labor Secretary Salazar tried to replace him, workers re-elected him twice and struck the Nacozari pit and the Sicartsa mill. When work stopped at Cananea, on the 100th anniversary of the uprising there that started the Mexican Revolution, miners announced they wouldn’t resume work until Gómez Urrutia was reinstated.

Most Mexican unions say the charges against Gómez Urrutia are bogus and have organized huge demonstrations to protest, knowing that the government has done the same to other unions that challenged its policies. Francisco Hernández Juárez, head of the National Union of Workers, threatened a general strike June 28 if Gómez Urrutia was not reinstated.

In the meantime, however, Gómez Urrutia and his family fled Mexico. Interviewed by phone in a secret location in Canada, he said he and his wife had received many death threats. Leaders of the United Steel Workers, which represents US copper miners, had urged him to leave Mexico until his safety could be guaranteed. The two unions formed a strategic alliance last year, but their ties go back much further. Copper miners on both sides of the border come from the same families. In the cold war era, the left-wing Mine Mill union, now part of USW, supported Mexican copper strikes. That tradition was renewed in 1998, when union caravans from Arizona brought food and help to Cananea, where workers were striking against the Larreas over workforce cuts.

“Grupo Mexico now owns mines on the US side, so we’re facing the same employers,” explains Gerry Fernandez, USW international director. “We’re directly affected by the Mexican government’s attack on the mineros, and we’re going to defend them.”

The miners aren’t Mexico’s only labor rebels. Oaxaca’s education workers were occupying the central square of their state capital for three weeks when they too were attacked. On June 14 at four in the morning, helicopters bombarded sleeping teachers and their children with tear-gas shells, and then hundreds of police charged into their tents. Within minutes, scores had been beaten. What had been a protest over wages was transformed into a movement to throw out Governor Ulises Ruiz and end his administration’s long history of human rights violations.

Ruiz belongs to Mexico’s old governing party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, while Fox heads the right-wing National Action Party. But both parties support the “reforms” that created Mexico’s new billionaires. Three days before the Oaxaca confrontation, Ruiz promised the state’s business owners that he would use the mano dura–heavy hand–to put down protest.

As they head for the polls, Mexicans face a clear choice. Images of violence on national TV from Oaxaca and Michoacán dovetail with corporate-funded commercials for Fox’s would-be successor, Felipe Calderón, predicting chaos if Mexico changes direction.

But while Fox was trying to seize control of the miners, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, outlined his labor policy on a campaign swing through Sonora, where miners are striking Cananea and Nacozari. “We will promote respect for union democracy,” he told reporters. “And there will be no intervention in the life of the unions. Workers can freely elect their own leaders.”

Mexico has traveled so far down the road of neoliberal transformation that union democracy alone cannot reverse its course. But the ability of workers to control their unions is the key to electing leaders willing to challenge corporations and the government policies protecting them. Despite their weakened state, unions are still a powerful force. And rank-and-file miners and teachers have been willing to face repression and violence to defend their leaders who demand a change in direction.

Regardless of who is elected July 2, this movement for change will continue. Echoing Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, Cananea miners leader Francisco Hernández told Reuters, “Wherever there is a miner, there is a person fighting for labor rights and social justice.” And in Oaxaca, on the day after the bloody confrontation, more than 300,000 people marched through the city to defend their embattled teachers.