The Mexican city of Cananea, site of one of the world’s largest copper mines, is moving toward a virtual state of siege after fighting swept through the streets between police and strikers more than a week ago. The attack on the Mexican miners’ union, followed by a massive police occupation of the mine and surrounding town, has sparked a growing uproar among the country’s workers and unions. More than 25,000 miners across Mexico walked off the job for a day on January 16 in protest. Six days later, 1,500 teachers, electrical and telephone workers, and farmers marched on the Mexico City office of Labor Secretary Javier Lozano Alarcon to demand that the government withdraw police from the struck mine.
Francisco Hernandez Juarez, head of the National Union of Workers (UNT), Mexico’s independent union federation, not only condemned government moves to break the miners’ strike but accused the administration of President Felipe Calderón of unilaterally implementing its proposals for labor law reform, which would effectively eliminate the right to strike. A statement by the Authentic Labor Front, which belongs to the UNT, said, “The government is trying to intimidate us into accepting its labor law reform.” Deputies from the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party also denounced the government plan.
Meanwhile, on January 18, more than 600 women began blockading Cananea’s forty schools, picketing in below-zero weather, to protest the police occupation of the mine and the town. Almost all students and teachers supported the action, and even the Sonora state secretary of education admitted that the schools had been closed.
Cananea is a tiny town in the Sonora mountains, just fifty miles south of the US border. Since June 30 of last year, the union there, Section 65 of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, has been on strike over extreme health and safety dangers. On January 11 the federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board (JNCA) declared the mine strike illegal. Under current Mexican law, if a strike is legal, the company may not make any effort to operate the mine or make reprisals against the strikers. If the strike is declared illegal, however, the company can begin operations and fire any striker who refuses to return to work.
As the JNCA was announcing its decision, 700 agents of the Sonora state police and the Federal Preventative Police entered the mine and took control of the premises. Cananea erupted into street fighting between miners and police, in which twenty people were injured–several seriously–and five strikers were reported missing. “They dropped tear gas bombs on us from helicopters,” said Jesus Verdugo, chair of the union’s strike committee. “Dozens of us were beaten.”
Grupo Mexico, the mine’s owner, then claimed that 410 workers went to work the following day, out of about 1,300 strikers. Verdugo and union spokesperson Carlos Pavon Campos deny this. “They brought about twenty people in from outside and kept them locked up inside the mine,” Pavon told Mexican reporters. “They’re seeking to provoke a confrontation between the workers.” According to union lawyer Juan Rivero Legorreta, however, the company has begun sending notices to workers saying they will be fired if they don’t go back to work.
The board’s move was the latest of many similar efforts by the federal government to force strikers back to work, and it had ruled the strike illegal from the very beginning. Those moves had been blocked by injunctions obtained by the union in Mexican federal court. After the JNCA announced its latest declaration January 11, the union again went before a judge in Mexico City the following day. Maximo Ariel Torres Quevedo, Sixth District Judge for Labor Matters, again barred the JNCA from declaring the strike illegal. But in a highly unusual decision he went on to declare that Grupo Mexico could restart operations anyway, using either strikebreakers or strikers who “voluntarily” returned to work.