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Police shoot and kill two striking workers in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, Mexico

category north america / mexico | workplace struggles | appeal / petition author Tuesday April 25, 2006 00:55author by Dan La Botz Report this post to the editors

Alert: Letters of Protest Urgently Needed!!!

Police shot and killed two workers, another was crushed to death in a melee, and over 40 others were wounded, most by gunshots, when authorities launched an assault to expel striking workers occupying the SICARTSA steel mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, Mexico on April 20.

Reports from the scene suggest that others may also have been killed or may die from their wounds. Workers and townspeople retook the plant, but were then besieged by the police. Parts of the plant have been taken over by the Mexican Army and the Mexican Navy.

The new National Front for Union Unity and Autonomy (FNUAS) composed of the UNT, the Mine Workers Union and others have called for the resignation of the Mexican Secretary of Labor, Francisco Xavier Salazar, the impeachment of President Vicente Fox Quezada, punishment of those who are guilty, and recognition of the elected leader of the mine workers union.

The Frente Autentico del Trabajo has requested that we circulate this information as widely as possible and urgently request that letters of protest be sent to the President of Mexico and Secretary of Labor.

The letter sent by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) appears below. Please feel free to use it as a model or to draft your own and send it by fax: 011-52-55-52-77-23-76 or email: vicente.fox.quezada@presidencia.gob.mx, xsalazar@stps.gob.mx . Please send a blind copy to the FAT at FAT@laneta.apc.org.

Vicente Fox Quezada, President of the Republic
Francisco Xavier Salazar, Secretary of Labor

Dear President Fox and Secretary Salazar,

I am writing to you on behalf of the officers and members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) to express our grave concern about the events unfolding in Mexico at the SICARTSA plant.

We have been advised that several workers have been killed, some forty more have been injured, and that parts of the plant have been taken over by the Mexican Army and Navy.

It appears that what began as a strike is rapidly becoming far more serious. We urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that the repression at the plant ceases, that a peaceful solution is sought to resolve the confrontation, and that the underlying controversy is addressed by restoring the elected leader of the mine-workers union, Napoleon Gómez Urrutia, to the office to which he was elected.

Sincerely,
John H. Hovis, Jr., General-President

THREE WORKERS KILLED AT STEEL PLANT IN FIGHT
BETWEEN MEXICAN GOVERNMENT AND MINERS UNION

By Dan La Botz

The struggle between the Mexican government and the Mexican Mine Workers Union which has gone on now for more than two months, took a violent turn when police killed two workers in storming a plant held by strikers in Lázaro Cárdenas on April 20. Workers and townspeople retook the plant, but were then besieged by the police. Parts of the plant have been taken over by the Mexican Army and the Mexican Navy. Government human rights organizations have gone to the scene to investigate and prevent further loss of life. Other unions are dispatching their members to Lázaro Cárdenas to support the mine workers. Reports from around the country indicate attacks on miners by authorities or vigilantes on other parts of the country.

Police shot and killed two workers, another was crushed to death in a melee, and over 40 others were wounded, most by gunshots, when authorities launched an assault to expel striking workers occupying the SICARTSA steel mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, Mexico on April 20. Reports from the scene suggest that others may also have been killed or may die from their wounds.

In the latest stage of a months-long struggle between government of President Vicente Fox and the Mexican Miners’ and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM), some 800 state and federal police, using tear gas, clubs and fire arms, stormed the steel plant held by 500 workers. The workers have been on strike since April 2, demanding the reinstatement of the union’s top official who had been removed from office by the government and replaced by a new leader close to Mexican mining companies.

Grupo Villacero, the owner of the plant, reported called upon the federal secretary of public security to send in the police to remove the striking workers.

Killed by the police were José Luis Castillo Zúñiga, a worker at the SICARTSA steel plant and Héctor Alvarez Gómez, a union representative of the nearby Mittal Steel company. Two other workers were severely wounded: Luis Alberto Zárate, who was shot through the lungs, and Cirilo Quiñones, who was shot in the chest. Many other workers were wounded, though less severely, and five had been taken to the Civil Hospital in Morelia, the state capital. Dozens of others were treated in the Mexican Institute of Social Security Hospital in Lazaro Cardenas, the city where the steel mill is located.

Sometime later, union members and townspeople armed with rocks and metal bars retook the plant from the police. In the course of the struggle between workers and police one building and more than 30 company and private vehicles were burned and equipment was destroyed.
At 6:00 p.m. more than 1,000 women, mothers, wives, and daughters of the steel workers, marched to the plant to call upon the police to stop their violence. Federal and state governments dispatched human rights agencies to the site of the conflict.

There were reports that authorities or vigilantes had engaged in violent attacks on miners at other mining towns in Mexico, though not on the scale at SICARTSA in Lázaro Cárdenas.

The president of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), José Luis Soberanes Fernández, told the press that the Fox government was responsible for the repression and the killing at SICARTSA.

Fox’s presidencial spokesman, Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela, said that the violence took place because the Mine Workers Union and the mine workers don’t respect the law. And he said the government would not give in to the workers demands that their former union leader, Napoleon Gómez Urrutia be returned to his position as General Secretary.

Workers Accuse Government

Local officials of the Mexican Mine Workers union held the government of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) responsible for the attack by federal police and the killing of the workers. They also blamed governor Lázaro Cárdenas Batel of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for sending in the state police who were also involved. Cárdenas Bátel denied responsibility saying state troops had been unarmed and only cooperating with the Federal police.

The new National Front for Union Unity and Autonomy (FNUAS) composed of the UNT, the Mine Workers Union and CROC has issued denunciations, and is sending a caravan to Lazaro Cardenas to provide a protective ring around the plant

Benedicto Martínez, a co-president of the Authentic Labor Front and a vice-president of the National Union of Workers (UNT) reported to Mexican Labor News and Analysis that among the central demands of the FNUAS were:

• Recognition of the union leader chosen by the mine workers.
• End of repression at the SICARTSA plant.
• Removal of the Secretary of Labor.
• Political trial of president Vicente Fox by the Congress (impeachment).
• Punishment for those responsible for the violence against the workers.


Unions Respond

FNUAS, led by the National Union of Workers (UNT), the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), and the Mexican Mine Workers union’s now unofficial leadership, had earlier called for a symbolic national one-hour strike on April 28. Following the April 20 killings FNUAS called upon its members to “organize a caravan” of worker to go to Lázaro Cárdenas, for a mass rally on April 24 in Mexico City, and for other demonstrations of solidarity.

The AFL-CIO, the United Steel Workers of America (USW), the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and other U.S. labor unions have expressed their solidarity with the Mexican Mine Workers union in its struggle for union autonomy. [See statement by the USW below, and the Solidarity Center web site regarding this issue at: http://solidarity.timberlakepublishing.com/content.asp?contentid=579 .]

Background: The Pasta de Conchos Accident

The struggle between the National Union of Mining and Metallurgical Workers of Mexico (SNTMMRM) has arisen from both labor union issues and political causes. The explosion and cave in at the Pasta de Conchos mine in San Juan de Las Sabinas, Coahuila in northern Mexico on February 19 trapped and killed 65 miners. The Miners Union leader, Gómez Urrutia, blamed the employer, Grupo Mexico, calling the deaths “industrial homicide.”

The Pasta de Conchos cave-in set off a storm. Throughout Mexico politicians, academics, intellectuals, and ordinary people criticized the mining company. The Grupo Mexico stock fell. Copper and other commodity prices rose. The Mexican Catholic Bishops Conference criticized the employer’s negligence and called for an international investigation, expressing their lack of confidence in the Mexican government.
While miners throughout the country mourned the death of their brothers and complained of health and safety conditions in their own mines, there was no official or wildcat strike in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The Political Issue: The Ousting of Gómez Urrutia

Then, on February 28 the Mexican Secretary of Labor announced that Gómez Urrutia was not actually the head of the union, but that the real general secretary was Elías Morales Hernández. The government’s action was based on part of Mexican labor law known as “taking note” (toma de nota), a process by which the government legally recognizes the elected officers of labor unions. Six years earlier Morales Hernández had appealed to the Secretary of Labor, arguing that he had actually been elected and should be the new head of the union. The government had rejected the appeal by Morales Hernández and in 2002 Secretary of Labor Carlos Abascal Carranza recognized Gómez Urrutia as the general secretary.

Why had the Mexican government suddenly opted to overturn its own earlier decision, recognize the dissident, and bring him out of retirement to assume leadership of the Miners Union? The answer has partly to do with the Miners’ Union and the recent accident, but just as much to do with the Congress of Labor (CT), the umbrella organization that brings together most of the largest Mexican labor federations and industrial unions.
The Official Labor Movement in Crisis

In mid-February 2006 Miners’ Union leader Gómez Urrutia joined together with Isaías González, head of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), to challenge the election of Victor Flores Morales, head of the Mexican Railroad Workers Union (STFRM), for control of the Congress of Labor. Gómez Urrutia was trying to position himself to become the top leader of the numerically most important Mexican labor organization.

His ambitions troubled many. The Congress of Labor (CT), which brings together most of the “official” unions of Mexico, historically formed part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the ruling party of Mexico. The CT had historically backed the PRI’s candidates, supported the PRI’s policies, and served in the Mexican Congress as PRI senators and congressmen. More recently the CT had worked out a modus viviendi with Mexican president Vicente Fox, collaborating with his National Action Party (PAN). Napoleón Gómez Urrutia’s attempt to take over the CT, not only challenged Railroad Workers Union leader Victor Flores, it also worried the PRI and PAN.

Rival Leaders

Victor Flores had been the ideal labor union leader of both PRI and PAN governments. He had worked closely with the government to carry out the privatization of the Mexican railroads, leading to their sale to the Union Pacific and the Kansas City railroads. When rank-and-file railroad workers had protested, Victor Flores had cooperated with the government to have them fired—easy enough with some 100,000 railroad workers losing their jobs in the privatization—and if that did not work he had sent his thugs to beat them and threaten them with murder. While somewhat volatile—as a PRI Congressman Victor Flores had once tried to strangle another representative—he was loyal to the government’s program of neoliberalism.

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, on the other hand, seemed, from the government’s point of view, to be becoming a loose canon. In some ways this was odd. Gómez Urrutia had inherited the leadership of the mine from his father Napoleón Gómez Sada, and both had been typical charros, that is, union bureaucrats absolutely loyal to the PRI. They had turned out the vote for the party, collaborated with the employers, and had expelled union activists or leaders who opposed them or supported other political parties. Doing all of those things, they enjoyed the wealth, power and privilege to which their loyalty entitled them.

The Miners Union in Struggle

Lately, however, Gómez Urrutia had begun to challenge both the employers and the Congress of Labor/PRI leadership. In June 2005, Mexican miners joined their compañeros in Peru and the United States as more than 10,000 miners carried out a simultaneous protest against Grupo Mexico to demand that the company stop violating workers’ rights. The three unions accused Grupo Mexico of having a policy of repression, exploitation and unwanted involvement in union affairs. The protest was organized by the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) in the United States, the Federation of Metal Workers of Peru (FETIMAP), and the National union of Miners and Metal Workers (SNTMM) of Mexico. The international solidarity against the Mexican mining company was backed by the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF).

Then in September 2005, the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union won a 46-day strike against two steel companies in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan, in what may be one of the most important strikes in Mexico in a decade. The local union and its 2,400 members succeeded in winning an 8 percent wage gain, 34 percent in new benefits, and a 7,250 peso one-time only bonus.

The Mexican Miners Union also indicated the ability to impact domestic politics. The Miners’ Union played a critical role in helping to lead the union bloc that opposed the Fox administration's labor law reform package. All of these actions threatened to upset the Mexican system of labor control by which the governmental labor authorities, the employers, and the “official” unions of the CT collude to channel and suppress workers. Then, in February, Gómez Urrutia made a bid to take over the CT, raising the prospect that he would lead labor struggles at a national level. Clearly at that point the Fox government must have already been looking for a way to get rid of him, when his remarks on Grupo Mexico’s “industrial homicide” made him persona non grata not only with the PRI but also with the employers.

UNITED STEEL WORKERS EXPRESS OUTRAGE AT MEXICAN GOV’T

[April 21, 2006 Pittsburgh] – United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard today denounced as deplorable the deadly violence that occurred in Mexico Thursday when hundreds of police stormed a major steel plant to force out strikers who were protesting the government’s illegal ouster of a union leader. Four workers died in a pitched battle at the Sicartsa steelmaking complex in the western state of Michoacan after police firing tear gas canisters confronted strikers. Dozens more were injured. The clash was the worst since thousands of mining and metals workers across Mexico went on strike in defense of Napoleon Gomez, who was removed from his position as leader of the National Union of Mine and Metallurgical Workers by the government of Vicente Fox.

“The Fox Administration’s murderous actions have marked it as one of the most heinous in all Latin America,’’ Gerard said. The USW is a partner in a strategic alliance with the Mexican union, which denounced Fox as having “blood on his hands.’’ The Mexican union defended the strike as legitimate and called for an investigation. Workers at the steel plant operated by Villacero SA., Mexico’s biggest producer of steel bars and wire rod, went on strike April 2 to protest Gomez’ removal as leader of the union, known widely as “Los Mineros” by its 250,000 members.

Gomez’s troubles began following a horrific mining disaster in which 65 miners were killed at Pasta de Concha, owned by Grupo Mexico. He was removed from office after he criticized the company and the government and called for an investigation. The Mexican federal government, and in particular, Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar, bear primary responsibility for this disastrous assault on workers. The government provoked the strike by removing Gomez in flagrant violation of both Mexican law and international labor conventions. “This is a terrible situation when a supposedly civilized government attacks its own citizens for exercising labor union rights,’’ said Terry Bonds, director of USW District 12 in California.

The USW has a membership of 850,000 workers in a range of industries across North America. It is the largest industrial union in North America.

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