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Miners Angry as Government Looks to Sell Silenced Copper Mine

October 1, 1989

CANANEA, Mexico (AP) _ The roar of blast furnaces, the grinding of ore in the crusher room and the rattle of conveyors that have sustained this town for 90 years have come to a halt since the Mexican army closed the Cananea copper mine.

Only the sound of birds in the walnut and cottonwood trees of Cananea’s central plaza, basketballs bouncing on outdoor courts, dogs barking and popular music drifting on the breeze remain.

″What an ugly silence,″ said Herminia de Tona, as she and her retired miner husband watched the sunset from the front porch of their home overlooking the open pit of Mexico’s largest copper mine. ″The government left us in the street.″

The Cananea mine has been an icon of the Mexican labor movement since 1906, when strikers who survived bloody military repression went on to become leaders of the Mexican Revolution. Mindful of that symbolic background, the government sent the army in on Aug. 20 when it announced the bankruptcy of the 90 percent state-owned Compania Minera de Cananea.

The mine closure threw some 3,000 union mineworkers out of jobs, causing worry in the town of 35,000 whose economy revolves around the mine. ″We don’t know what’s going on. We’re all uncertain,″ said Maria Elena Lopez, who has two nephews who worked in the mine. Picking pink roses outside her red brick home, she added, ″Everybody here is affected.″

Sales in local stores have dropped by 90 percent because so many of the towns’ breadwinners were put out of work, according to the local chamber of commerce.

″We were selling 2 million pesos (about $800) worth a day,″ said pharmacy owner Dina Carillo. ″We are down to 600,000 now. We have to give credit to people and we don’t know if they’re going to be able to pay.″

The Cananea mine had been operating in the black, producing 3 percent of the world’s copper and 45 percent of Mexico’s output, at a cost of 90 cents a pound in times when buyers are paying more than $1 a pound for the metal. But the government has been trying to sell the operation to private investors as part of a national privatization effort.

State ownership of companies has decreased from 1,222 to 744 since 1982.

Two deals to sell the mine fell through last year, and the government is looking for a third chance.

Local Section 65 spokesman Arturo Borjorquez of the Industrial Union of Miners, Metallurgical Workers and Allied Trades of the Mexican Republic says the bankruptcy announcement, one week before mineworkers were set to go on strike for collective bargaining contract demands, was a means to break the union and make the operation more attractive to private investors.

″I think the government wants to dress up the bride so she can get married,″ he said.

The mineworkers earned $3,000 to $4,000 per year, plus benefits. The government says their demands amounted to a 330 percent increase in salary and benefits.

Nacional Financiera, the government bank and majority shareholder in the mine, called the move ″a painful measure, but the only viable option.″

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari told labor leaders and lawmakers in Mexico City that all companies privatized under this strategy should be seen as opportunities for worker ownership. Labor Secretary Arsenio Farrell subsequently offered miners 25 percent control of the operation.

Union rank-and-filer members have talked about assuming ownership responsibilities in the past, but have never made a formal proposal, Borjorquez says.

Miners organizing for better pay and conditions in 1906 were brutally put down by Mexican troops and U.S. reinforcements, in one of the first trade union movements in Mexico. More than 20 miners died in the fight and dozens more were imprisoned. Today the ″Martyrs of 1906″ are immortalized in a folk song whose lyrics are emblazoned on a signboard inside the Cananea jail where some of the strikers were detained.

This time, when the army came in ″there was not a single case of mistreatment,″ said Mario Elizarde, now in charge of guarding the idled mine facilities.

Army helicopters dropped leaflets over the town, announcing the bankruptcy, as 3,000 soldiers were martialed into the mine. ″The government just wanted to be secure,″ said Elizarde.

When the troops arrived, Cananea Security Chief Nick Shaw and Mayor Francisco Javier Taddei agreed to order the town’s 12 cantinas and all other liquor outlets closed. ″It was a preventive measure,″ Shaw said.

The weekly dances in the town square were called off, too, a measure that upset local youth. ″It’s making life hard on us kids,″ said Ana Veronica Rojas, who was joined by other high-schoolers in her complaints.

The army pulled out after six days, and the union staged a symbolic mine takeover on Aug. 28, the day miners had set to strike for contract renegotiation demands before the bankruptcy declaration.

The company’s bankruptcy administrator, Financiero Nacional Azucarera, has said the miners will get severance pay set by federal labor law, although their contract calls for six times as much.

The miners have refused to accept severance pay and appealed the bankruptcy decision, demanding that the mine be reopened, their contract observed and that contract negotiations be taken up.

Unions, organizations and individuals in the United States have sent food and clothing to Cananea to help the mineworkers and their families. The government and the Institutional Revolutionary Party have also sent provisions.

Union leaders and Labor Department officials are negotiating in Mexico City as bankruptcy administrators settle the details of accounts due and the government debates the future of the sleeping copper giant.

End Adv Sunday Oct. 1

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