In Ukraine, a first-of-its-kind worker rights center is serving a broad spectrum of working people through labor and human rights education, cultural events and hands-on support in resolving day-to-day workplace issues.
Launched in late 2013, the Labor Initiative drew more than 3,000 people to some 200 educational and community events in its first year. A project of Ukrainian trade unions and the Solidarity Center, the Kiev-based Labor Initiative now averages between eight and nine legal consultations and referrals per day. Allies include local Ukrainian trade unions from health care, education, mine working, construction, the informal economy and other sectors.
“The center has been an important improvement for us, for our capacity to support workers,” says Veniamin Tymoshenko, union activist and vice president of a national aviation crew union. “We have been able to rely on legal support on several key cases that helped us mobilize workers, fight corruption and press for democratic reforms.”
Most recently, the center has been assisting mineworkers displaced by fighting in eastern Ukraine, along with ongoing legal support to active mineworkers.
In one recent case, the center helped an injured mineworker obtain proper disability classification, enabling him to receive ongoing compensation. Despite his worsening condition, the mineworker had not been certified to receive assistance. Trade union leaders say that disability claims in Ukraine often are not honored because medical officials may work closely with employers who offer them financial payments to deny worker disability claims.
Wage theft and illegal firings are the most frequent workplace issues. An ongoing case involves a worker at a large auto parts company who was hired by a subcontractor and realized she was not receiving her full wages because her pay was off the books—the “double envelope” system widespread in Ukraine. When the worker brought the issue to tax authorities, the tax office warned her it likely would not inspect the company and, if it did, she would be charged with tax avoidance and fined.
Both union and nonunion workers can receive legal consultations through the support of the center’s network of labor attorneys. In addition, the center and Solidarity Center staff provide policy and research assistance to Ukrainian unions. The Labor Initiative gets the word out about its services by distributing pamphlets to union offices and at union meetings across the country, and also advertises its legal aid services in high traffic areas, such as on public transportation.
The center has become a community and education hub, hosting events seven days a week, providing a space for union and community group meetings and a weekly labor and social justice film club.
Unions are at the center of reform efforts in the country, and the Labor Initiative offers a key space where workers not only can receive individual workplace assistance but also join to collectively champion democracy.
A union activist of the IndustriALL Mexican affiliate National Miners’ Union SNTMMSRM, also known as Los Mineros, has been severely beaten at the Gunderson railcar plant owned by the Greenbrier companies in Monclova, Coahuila state of Mexico. (Click here to sign a petition protesting the assault.)
On March 7, while he was distributing union leaflets, Jesus Antonio Campos Valle, leader of the SNTMMSRM organizing campaign at the Gunderson railcar plant was viciously attacked by several men, two of whom were identified as Hermilo Falcón López and “El Grande” Lumbreras Piña, members of the non-independent Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which holds a protection contract at the company and prevents other unions from democratic representation of workers’ interests.
The SNTMMSRM denounced this attack as well as other acts of intimidation and harassment by the local leaders of the CTM, Jorge Carlos Mata and Mario Dante Galindo, directed at workers from Gunderson, Teksid and Pytco.
Workers at these three plants launched strikes in April 2014 to protest the lack of democratic representation by the CTM, a “protection union” that colludes with the employers and does not allow the workers to see their collective bargaining agreements. To resolve the strikes, the three companies agreed to recognize SNTMMSRM, but later backtracked and fired union leaders, including Campos.
Campos won a lawsuit ordering his reinstatement for unjust dismissal, but the company has appealed.
SNTMMSRM is now fighting a protracted legal battle against the companies and the CTM, who are supported by Alonso Ancira, the head of the AHMSA steel company, which is the largest employer in Monclova.
“They beat and kicked me in my face, head, chest, ribs and shoulders, all the time threatening me and saying they were from the CTM and they knew me and my family,” Campos stated. After receiving medical treatment, Campos filed a criminal complaint against the CTM leaders.
Jyrki Raina, IndustriALL general secretary addressed to the president of Mexico and denounced this violent act of aggression as “part of systematic attacks organized by the company in collusion with CTM intended to undermine workers’ right to elect democratically their own representative to collective bargaining. This is an inalienable right of workers envisaged in the ILO Convention 87”.
Send an online protest message to delivered to Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico; Ruben Moreira, Governor of Coahuila; and William Furman, CEO of the Greenbrier Companies.
A panel of federal judges in Mexico dropped all criminal charges against Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president and general secretary of the National Mine and Metal Workers Union (Los Mineros), freeing him to return to Mexico from Canada where he has lived in exile.
Gómez Urrutia, who was removed as president of the 250,000-member union by Mexican authorities and replaced with a company-backed rival, was repeatedly threatened and forced to leave Mexico in 2006. He also was charged with embezzling $55 million in union funds, an accusation struck down multiple times by the country’s courts. Following the August 28 decision, Gómez Urrutia said through Los Mineros that he plans to return to Mexico by the end of September.
Los Mineros said in a statement that “the next step will be to meet with the highest levels of government” so that Gómez Urrutia and Los Mineros can “contribute, in a framework of mutual respect, to the development of the industry and the defense of the rights of the workers and the well-being of their families.”
Days before he was removed as Los Mineros leader, an explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine trapped 65 mineworkers. Gómez Urrutia said the company and Mexican government only made minimal efforts to rescue the trapped men. The search for survivors was ended and the mine closed after five days, leaving the men entombed and their families waiting outside.
Prior to the explosion, Los Mineros had repeatedly cited dangerous working conditions and the smell of gas at Pasta de Conchos. After the company abandoned the men and sealed the mine, Gómez Urrutia publicly accused the mining company and the Ministry of Labor of “industrial homicide.” In response, the government filed criminal charges against Gómez Urrutia and other union leaders, froze the union’s bank accounts, assisted employers to set up company unions in Los Mineros-represented workplaces, declared the union’s strikes illegal and sent in troops to suppress them.
In 2011, Gómez Urrutia received the AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calling Gómez Urrutia a “truly courageous man who has shown us how difficult and how important it is to be an independent leader of a democratic union.” He also won the 2014 Arthur Svensson Prize granted to individuals or organizations working to promote trade union rights and/or strengthen trade union organizing around the world.
The AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers and IndustriAll were among union organizations worldwide backing Gómez Urrutia and providing an international platform to champion his innocence.
Gómez Urrutia described the struggle by Mexico’s mineworkers for safety and health protections, decent wages and improved working conditions in his 2013 book, Collapse of Dignity, The Story of A Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico. Collapse of Dignity details the February 2006 mine disaster and the subsequent attacks on him and Los Mineros. Most of the victims were temporary contractors with no training and insufficient oxygen supplies.
Miners at the El Coronel mine in Zacatecas, Mexico, voted to join the union Los Mineros. Photo: Julia Quiñonez
Mineworkers at the El Coronel gold mine in Zacatecas, Mexico, have voted to join the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Similar Workers of the Mexican Republic, known as “Los Mineros” or SNTMMSSRM in Spanish, with 425 workers voting for the union to be its bargaining representative.
A team of international observers from non-governmental organizations and unions monitored the election and reported that the “voting on February 21 was conducted in a substantively fair and transparent manner, free of interference from the employer or government officials.”
Three unions were represented on the ballot, including Los Mineros. As it has done on previous occasions when there is concern of violence or vote-rigging, the Solidarity Center convened an international team of observers to ensure that the voting process was fair. The team served as a visible presence seeking to reduce the risk of any clashes, intimidation, or harassment and to detect any irregularities in the process that could have hindered the successful completion of a free election. Members of the independent observation team are all trained and experienced in international protocols for election observation, such as only interviewing workers after they have voted and not asking workers which union they voted for or other personal information.
The team included representatives of the Solidarity Center, United Steelworkers (USW), Border Committee of Women Workers (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO), the Project on Organizing, Development, Education and Research (PODER) and Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ProDESC).
More details about the campaign are available from the USW.
Some 5,000 Los Mineros members and their families rallied in memory of two workers slain while on strike. Credit: Lorraine Clewer
Mario Alberto Castillo and Hector Alvarez Gümez were among 500 members of the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, known as Los Mineros, who had been on strike for 18 days when 800 police moved in to forcibly remove the strikers. Two men were shot dead and 41 injured, two of them seriously, during the break-up of the strike. No arrests were ever made for the murders.
Dressed in red shirts, some 5,000 Los Mineros members, along with their families, marched to a stone memorial erected in memory of the two men. They were joined by 100 Steelworkers from steel plants throughout District 7 in Indiana and Illinois, a delegation of 10 Unite the Union members from across the United Kingdom and four representatives from Peru representing the mine, metal, steel and energy sectors.
Union members from Peru’s mine, metal, steel and energy sectors joined the Los Mineros commemoration. Credit: Lorraine Clewer
Greeting the mineworkers from his exile in Canada, Los Mineros General Secretary Napoleón Gómez Urrutia noted that although the international community recognizes the legitimacy and leadership of Los Mineros, the Mexican government makes it impossible for him to return to Mexico. Mexico’s labor minister has said publicly that he does not recognize Gómez Urrutia‘s leadership of Los Mineros.
Participants in the memorial also condemned the ongoing repression of the Mexican government against Los Mineros and against all independent unions in Mexico, and called for concrete resolutions to violations of workers’ right to freedom of association in Mexico.
The company, Sicartsa, owned by Grupo Vallacero, was sold to ArcelorMittal after the strike. Los Mineros subsequently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with ArcelorMittal, which included a 42 percent salary increase.
The April 20, 2006, shooting deaths occurred two months after 65 mineworkers, Los Mineros members, were killed in the Pasta de Conchos mine explosion.
Also speaking at the gathering, Lorraine Clewer, Solidarity Center country program director in Mexico, said that the bullets that had killed Mario Alberto Castillo and Hector Alvarez Gomez did not achieve their aim.
“Los Mineros lives on, stronger than ever, and we are certain that soon the international labor movement will be celebrating Napoleon Gómez Urrutia’s triumphant return to Mexico.