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.
Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL). Credit: Tula Connell/Solidarity Center
Each day this week leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center will highlight an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.
Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL) and a former domestic worker, is spearheading a drive in her country to organize domestic workers who, like their counterparts elsewhere, are routinely exploited by their employers.
In Liberia and in other countries, the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are young women who view the work as an opportunity to earn a living, but too often find themselves vulnerable to abuses—from low wages and long hours to physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Tarnue, who is also a lead coordinator for the Domestic Workers Union of Liberia (DOWUL), says the workers, mostly women, are paid between $21 and $50 per month, which is barely enough to buy a bag of rice. The country’s minimum wage is $2 a day.
Solidarity Center staff spoke with Tarnue about the challenges involved in connecting with domestic workers to help them understand their rights as workers, join together to improve their working conditions and convey to lawmakers and the public that domestic workers perform real work, and have the same rights as and deserve labor law coverage equal to all other wage earners.
Solidarity Center: How did you get involved with the domestic worker union?
Tarnue: I thought there was a need to organize domestic workers. I have worked as a domestic worker and in our labor laws, domestic workers are not (recognized). We went from home to home and other places, like hotels, where domestic workers are not recognized, and we began to talk to people. (With) the Solidarity Center and the United Steelworkers (USW), we had a training where we selected domestic workers from different communities. We had a good training that led those coordinators to go out and organize and recruit members.
Solidarity Center: What was your experience as a domestic worker?
Tarnue: There’s no scope of work, there’s no term of reference. Domestic workers’ contract is a verbal contract and domestic workers are not (recognized) under the labor law so they are at the discretion of the boss.
Solidarity Center: How do you reach out to domestic workers?
Tarnue: We go out and speak to workers at their workplaces or meet them during their breaks of off hours. We are able to teach them at the level they’ll understand. Teach them their human rights, their physical rights, their moral rights. The basis of our training to domestic workers is to know their rights as human beings. They are entitled to their human rights, and we teach these things to them.
Solidarity Center: Has all this made a difference?
Tarnue: It has made a difference because, as we speak, our 30 coordinators (who are domestic workers) have been able to (challenge) their own bosses.
Solidarity Center: Really?
Tarnue: Yes. Their own bosses! This comes from the Solidarity Center and USW training! We tell them to not be violent, not be rude, but you can peacefully engage your boss. Access the boss’s’ leisure time and discuss issues relating to work time, to terms of reference, scope of work, wages. Lay them down one at a time and go into discussion. These 30 coordinators have been able to increase their wages just by having a discussion with their bosses. This lets us know that the training has been working.
Solidarity Center: In the next five years, what do you envision for DOWUL?
Tarnue: We are 100 percent optimistic that domestic workers are going to be fully unionized and (added) into Liberia labor law and a collective bargaining agreement is going to be done for the domestic workers. That’s our hope because domestic workers are like any other workers. They should be treated like any other worker on Liberian soil.
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.