December 2007   
From the Great Miners’ Strike of 1906 to Today:
Revolutionary Leadership Is Key

Cananea: A Century of
Internationalist Class Struggle

Cananea miners gathered in front of the police station as boss Greene fruitlessly tries to convince them
to return to work. Strike was joint effort of Mexican and U.S. workers.
  Photo:Fondo de Cultura Económica)

The following article is translated from a supplement to El Internacionalista published by our comrades of the Grupo Internacionalista in Mexico and distributed to miners in Cananea along with the accompanying article, “Mexican Miners Strike for Safety, Against Anti-Worker Attacks.”

June 1, 2006 marked the centenary of the copper mine strike at Cananea, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora (about 50 miles southwest of Douglas, Arizona). The conglomerate that now operates the mines, Grupo México, decided to celebrate the event in its usual way: it tried to prevent the commemoration by ordering the workers to carry out their usual tasks. Against this flagrant attack – a blatant violation of the collective contract, which designates the anniversary as a holiday – the militant miners of Latin America’s largest copper mine went on strike. For almost 50 days, the miners of Cananea fought shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Sonoran workers in the mines of La Caridad, in Nacozari (roughly 55 miles southeast of Cananea) and La Calera in Agua Prieta, Douglas’ neighbor just across the U.S.-Mexico border, and with the steel workers at the SICARTSA-Las Truchas mill in Lázaro Cárdenas, on the Pacific coast of Michoacán state. There two strikers were cut down by enemy fire in a pitched battle that threw back a military/police attempt to break the workers’ occupation of the biggest steel works in Latin America.

The SICARTSA steelworkers won a resounding victory, with an 8 percent wage increase with back pay, and withdrawal of all charges against the strikers. The Cananea miners, on the other hand, abandoned by their national “union,” had to return to work empty-handed. The very same National Union of Miners, Metalworkers and Allied Trades of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSRM, by its Spanish initials), even though it was under government attack, stood by the laws of Mexico’s corporatist labor system. The SNTMMSRM threw in the towel when the Federal Arbitration and Mediation Board (JFCyA) rescinded its contract with Grupo México. The battle-hardened miners were forced to take down their red and black strike banners (the traditional symbol for a strike in Mexico) for one simple reason: the lack of a revolutionary class-struggle leadership. But today, in 2007, once again the militant miners of Section 65 have not buckled after more than 130 days on strike.

After the death of 65 coal miners, buried alive at Pasta de Conchos in the state of Coahuila, about 110 miles north-west of Laredo, Texas in February 2006, there was an avalanche of comparisons between the current conditions in the mines and those that prevailed 100 years ago in Cananea (see “Asesinato capitalista en Pasta de Conchos”, El Internacionalista/Edición México No. 2, August 2006). A century later, the bosses’ abuse of the workers is as brutal as ever. At the dawn of the 20th century, the dishonest official statistics indicated mining as the riskiest job in Mexico. Today it remains the most dangerous of the 121 official industrial classifications. The miners of Pasta de Conchos were victims of criminal neglect of the most elemental safety standards by the management (the same Grupo México) and by the state and federal governments, who relied on the complicity of the mine workers’ “union.”

It’s not just the terrible working conditions in the mines that continue to claim workers’ lives. As they have for the past century, the ruling class opts for the “peace of the grave.” While in 2006 the government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Oaxaca attacked striking teachers, accusing them of endangering the education of the children, resulting in the murder of over 20 supporters of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), at the same time the PRI governor of Sonora, Eduardo Bours, closed Cananea’s schools in an attempt to pressure the miners by denying their children schooling.

José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz, the dictator who launched industrialization and opened Mexico to foreign capital. Cananea strike was one of key events that led to his overthrow in 1910, after almost 40 years in power.

Much has been written about the saga of the Cananea miners in 1906. Along with the textile workers strike at Río Blanco of 1907, it has been incorporated into the liturgy of the rebellion against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz1. The schoolbooks describe these struggles as precursors of the Mexican revolution of 1910-1917. Esteban Baca Calderón and Manuel Diéguez, whom the official history has raised up as the heroes of the miners’ cause, have taken their places in the iconography of the Revolution. The battle cry, “Five pesos and eight hours of work, ¡viva México!” that was hurled at the offices of the U.S. company that owned the mine at the time has become famous as the succinct expression of the revolution’s democratic nationalist program. However, the miners of Cananea marched under red banners, and contrary to their petty-bourgeois ostensible spokesmen Baca Calderón and Diéguez, the true leaders of the mine workers were revolutionary syndicalists from the U.S. and Mexico who fought for international workers revolution.

Origin and Development of the 1906 Strike

As the historian Javier Torres Parés notes in his book La revolución sin frontera (UNAM, 1990), “As it developed, the workers movement in Mexico established many links with the U.S. proletariat.” So much that “in the border areas ... they managed to build a single zone of workers mobilization.” At the beginning of the 20th century, about half a million Mexicans lived in the U.S. southwest, where they made up the bulk of the railroad maintenance workers, coal and copper miners, and agricultural laborers. Torres Parés highlights the influence that the socialists, anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the U.S. had on the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). The principal leaders of this party, the brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, were in exile in the United States, and maintained contact from St. Louis particularly with the leaders of the PLM in Cananea. In the mines, workers from the U.S., many of whom sympathized with the IWW, made up a third of the 7,500 employees of the Cananea Central Copper Company (CCCC). Already in 1902, ’03 and ’04, skilled workers from the U.S. had launched a number of strikes in Cananea.

Various liberal and “progressive” journalists have noted certain similarities between the events of 1906 and the miners’ struggles today. On the day after the massacre at SICARTSA, Luis Hernández Navarro published an article, “Cananea, once again” (La Jornada, 21 April 2006). The columnist Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, for his part, wrote: “The poor working conditions in the Cananea, Sonora copper mine produced, on 1 June 1906, a strike that was put down by fire and sword. Today the union struggle there challenges the government over trade-union autonomy” (Reforma, 1 June 2006). Granados Chapa recalls the discrimination against Mexican miners, their exclusion from the better paying jobs, and how they were paid in Mexican pesos when almost all their expenses were in dollars, since Cananea depended on goods imported from Naco, Arizona. These facts led various radicals to perceive the “revolutionary potential of the miners’ unionism,” as Granados Chapa puts it, which is why the PLM led the brothers Flores Magón and “various U.S. radical groups” sent delegates to the region.

Among the miners there was a particularly deep resentment of the arbitrary discipline they endured from the supervisors, which reflected the paternalist regime of the company’s owner, “Colonel” William C. Greene, a small-time Wall Street stock manipulator who made himself into a “copper baron” and who ruled the mining town as his personal fiefdom. Greene had built a Yankee enclave in the Sonoran desert: in seven years he not only acquired the mining rights, but took hold of the local economy with his company stores and the refining plant that he built, as well as the rail lines he controlled linking Cananea with Naco and Nogales in Arizona.

The traditional nationalist interpretation of the Cananea strike is based, in large part, on the memoir of Esteban Barca Calderón, Study of the Yaqui War and Genesis of the Strike at Cananea (1980)2. He especially denounces the “racial hegemony throughout the company, on our own native soil, at the cost of our national interests, to the detriment of the Mexican worker and national pride and of the most elementary principles of justice and national rights.”

Miners marching on company offices to present list of demands on 1 June 1906.
(Photo: Agustin Victor Casasola)

The justified hatred of the racist treatment of and systematic discrimination against Mexican workers by the U.S. owner did play an important part in the strike. However, there were other factors that fed the revolt, such as the fear of losing their jobs as a result of mining concessions to independent contractors, and opposition to the Díaz dictatorship. Barca Calderón, who would later become an officer in Francisco Madero’s anti-reelectionist army3 and ended his life as a PRI senator, was a petty-bourgeois intellectual who had recently arrived in the area. There he met up with Manuel Diéguez, a local merchant. This pair petitioned to local authorities against the CCCC’s trampling on “free trade.” The workers had other concerns, and although the bosses and their men treated all Mexicans like peons, the Mexican miners did not see all U.S.-born employees of the company as identical. Their class hatred for the abusive foremen mixed with their resentment over their national oppression. Nevertheless, they found strong allies among the U.S. miners with whom they worked in crews.

There are many sources on the outbreak of the strike. Adolfo Gilly, in his book The Mexican Revolution (The New Press, 2006), relates how the miners “went out on strike demanding the removal of an overseer, a minimum wage of five pesos for eight hours work, respectful treatment, and that all positions be filled, given equal abilities, by 75 percent Mexicans and 25 percent foreigners. They put forward their demands in a manifesto in which they attacked the dictatorial government as an ally of the foreign bosses.” The development of the strike itself and the repression that followed is well known in its broad outlines. The anthology edited by Eugenia Meyer, La lucha obrera en Canaea 1906 (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1980) gives a detailed exposition of the official version of the events.

According to this version, the struggle was set off by the announcement on 31 May 1906 in the Oversight mine that the workforce would be cut and the workload for each miner increased. On the early morning hours of 1 June, the workers gathered in front of the mine offices and declared their strike over these issues. They sent for Diéguez and Baca Calderón to be their spokesmen to the company. Two thousand miners marched through the mines, workshops, foundry and refinery, joining the movement en masse. During the afternoon of June 1, the miners’ protest passed by the offices of the CCCC and commercial emporium, and proceeded to march behind a Mexican flag and a number of red flags on the lumber yard. There they were repelled by high pressure fire hoses and rifle shots, which killed one worker. Infuriated, the strikers set fire to the lumber yard, where two North American supervisors died.

When protesters returned to the city hall, boss Greene tried to convince them to return to work, but they paid him no heed. Company men, particularly the Americans, opened fire on the crowd. From the roof of a hotel, marksmen shot indiscriminately at the miners, killing several. According to reports in the Tucson Citizen and the Douglas Daily Dispatch, “One of the leaders, who, according to all eyewitness accounts, carried a red flag, continued to incite the Mexicans.... [S]ome of the more excited Americans opened fire and a general fusillade resulted. The flag-waving leader was hit by at least fifteen bullets” (from Herbert O. Brayer, “The Cananea Incident,” New Mexico Historical Review, October 1938). Gunfire continued through the evening and all night, resulting in over 20 Mexican workers dead.

Meanwhile, boss Greene telegraphed the state governor, Rafael Izábal, requesting that he come to Cananea himself and send troops. Since the troops could not arrive for two days due to lack of a direct route, Greene also asked Washington and the state of Arizona for help. Some 275 Arizona Rangers were dispatched from the mining center of Bisbee, crossing the border at Naco early on June 2, where the Sonoran governor Izábal swore them in as “volunteers.” Their commander, Captain Rynning, was given the same rank as an officer in the Mexican army.

The American militia arrived in Cananea by train later that morning, where Izábal harangued the rebellious miners, rejecting a wage increase and equal pay for Mexican and U.S. workers. Among his arguments, he mentioned that American prostitutes cost more than their Mexican counterparts. In fact, the government of Porfirio Díaz had decreed a maximum wage law. At the same time, Governor Izábal threatened to send all recalcitrant strikers to fight in the genocidal war he was waging against the Yaqui Indians. When speakers for the workers responded, they were imprisoned on the spot together with the strike leaders. That afternoon the paramilitary rural police, the rurales, arrived and the Rangers withdrew. The next day a platoon of 100 Mexican Army soldiers arrived. The town was placed under military occupation.

At one point there were up to 100 miners in the Cananea jail. A number of the leaders were prosecuted by Izábal’s odious government and sentenced to 15 years in prison at the notorious island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz harbor. They were only released in 1911 after the fall of the Díaz regime. These events were intimately linked with the fate of Díaz’s regime, the development of international capitalism and the first imperialist world war. One month later, on 1 July 1906, the Liberal Party launched its platform, written by Ricardo Flores Magón, in which he called for an eight-hour working day, a wage increase to cover the necessities of life and an end to racial discrimination, demands which clearly reflected the struggle in Cananea. In 1907, the mine was temporarily closed due to the financial crash on Wall Street and the recession that followed in the U.S. Despite regaining his control over Cananea with the suppression of the previous year’s strike, Greene lost the mines to the great Anaconda Copper Company. Also in 1907 revolutionary workers struggles broke out in Río Blanco and Orizaba, Veracruz, led by militant supporters of the PLM, and in 1910 the Mexican Revolution began.

Armed Americans protect offices of Cananea copper company, June 1906

Who Led the Strike at Cananea?

In the literature on the Cananea strike, while reproducing the same nationalist version of events, various authors do reveal a certain awareness of the presence of different political currents that influenced the struggle. Thus the historians’ collective at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) remarks about the two PLM clubs in the area: “Although their leaders ... did not come from the working class but were small businessmen, intellectuals and white collar workers, they were recognized as leaders of the workers when the strike broke out” (La lucha obrera en Cananea 1906). However, their account leaves aside the considerable international influence of anarcho-syndicalism on the struggle. In fact, the formation of a second nucleus of the PLM in Cananea was due to certain differences between the local partisans of magonismo. While the Union of Liberal Humanity (Unión Liberal Humanidad) led by Baca Calderón and Diéguez set itself the task of organizing a Miners Union of the United States of Mexico, they only managed to unite a few of the better-paid workers in Cananea. On the other hand, the Cananea Liberal Club (Club Liberal de Cananea) spread its influence in the mines of El Ronquillo and Mesa Grande.

This second club was led by the lawyer Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara and by Enrique Bermúdez, who served as the link with the PLM in St. Louis, Missouri and with the Western Federation of Miners in Douglas, Arizona. At that time the WFM followed a revolutionary-syndicalist political line. Bermúdez had come to the area in November 1905 as a representative of the newspaper Regeneración and got in touch with Baca Calderón and Diéguez. After the celebration of Cinco de Mayo organized by the magonistas, at which Gutiérrez Lara was the principal speaker, agitation among the workers increased to the point that “a good number of the U.S. workers, besides sympathizing with the WFM, also agreed with the ideas of the magonista militants” as Salvador Hernández notes in his chapter, “Libertarian Times. Magonismo in Mexico: Cananea, Río Blanco and Baja California” in Volume 6 of the series edited by Pablo Gómez Casanova, La clase obrera en la historia de México (Siglo XXI Editores, 1980). Police surveillance of Gutiérrez and Bermúdez was also stepped up.

From the reports of the police spies it is clear that the principal leaders of the workers’ struggle in Cananea were Gutiérrez Lara and Bermúdez, and that the two had gone about preparing for the strike at meetings “on Wednesday and Friday evenings” throughout the entire month of May. Two days before the strike broke out, the manager of the mine got in touch with the colonel in command of the treasury police to warn about “the intention to ‘organize’ the company’s Mexican workers for the purpose of calling a strike for the same wages as the U.S. workers” and also with the political goal of “gaining control of the government.” According to Greene, he was given timely information by a fink that “that a socialist club had held three meetings at midnight on May 30 at midnight, at which a large jumber of agitators of socialistic tendencies were present; that agitators of the Western Federation had been through the mines inciting the Mexicans and they had been furnishing money for the socialistic club at Cananea. He also gave us a couple of copies of the revolutionary circulars that had been widely distributed” (cited by Brayer in “The Cananea Incident”).

Some of the Cananea miners arrested for participating in 1906 strike. (Photo: Agustin Victor Casasola)

These facts alone refute the validity of Baca Calderón’s version, according to which the movement had been “spontaneous.” So, asks Salvador Hernández, “Why this distortion of the facts, if Baca Calderón really was one of the workers’ leaders present at the meeting” that decided on the strike? It turns out that the decision taken at that meeting “caused a deep division among the members of the two main workers organizations in Cananea, over the methods of struggle to be followed throughout the strike.” The group around Baca Calderón and Diéguez, the Union of Liberal Humanity, looked toward negotiation with the company and the government, which the others roundly rejected. Moreover, Diéguez “was visibly upset, condemning the movement.” On the morning the strike began, when the workers went to wake him, he didn’t want to go to management on behalf of the strikers. When Greene’s refusal to raise wages was received, “He told [the workers] that nothing had been gained. Having done this, Diéguez and Calderón disassociated themselves from the movement and withdrew to their homes.”

“For their part, the group led by Gutiérrez de Lara, Enrique Bermúdez and a few activists from the Western Federation of Miners had opted for the road of direct action”, writes the historian Hernández. He cites an array of newspapers from the U.S. border towns that put the “blame” for the strike on the revolutionary agitators. “The problem that started the riot was prepared ... by incendiary speeches given by members of Mexican socialist organizations,” wrote the Tucson Citizen of 2 June 1902, adding that “American socialist agitators had come to Cananea months in advance in order to propagate their doctrines among the Mexicans and spur them to the formation of miners’ unions.”* The Douglas Daily Dispatch of 7 June 1902 reported, “With the arrival in Cananea some months back of Lara and Bermúdez, the current conflict began. These two men, by means of revolutionary-spirited newspapers, began propounding the need to bring down Díaz’s government... and quietly began to organize revolutionary workers’ clubs.”*

It is notable that in the internal correspondence of the CCCC (cited in the book of Manuel González Ramírez, La huelga de Cananea [Fondo de Cultúra Económica, 1956]), in a list of “agitators,” who went about the mines creating disturbances, nine Mexican workers are named and five North Americans (named Cunneham, Moore, Walsh, Woods and Kelley). In the repression that followed the defeat of the strike, both Gutiérrez de Lara and Bermúdez managed to escape to the U.S., where they were protected by their comrades of the IWW and the WFM. For their part, Diéguez and Baca Calderón, in spite of their decision to stay at home, and even though they thought “the strike was doomed to fail,” were sent to prison and later erroneously praised as the principal leaders of the strike. Calderón himself wrote that the protagonists of the action were “revolutionary groups that pursued ends of a general, national character” (Génesis de la huelga de Cananea).

Ricardo Flores Magón

For the revolutionaries who in fact organized the strike, one cannot simply say that the strike was a disaster, despite its violent suppression. Ricardo Flores Magón considered the strike at Cananea an integral part of his plans for a social revolution, which were expressed in the program of the PLM, promulgated one month after the events of Cananea. However, the PLM was very far from being a party of the working class, much less of the proletarian vanguard. While the Flores Magón brothers did evolve toward anarchism, the roots of their party are to be found in Benito Juárez and his 1857 Constitution, not in Marx or Bakunin. As Manuel González Ramírez wrote in his introductory note to the compilation of materials La huelga de Cananea: “In their struggle, the liberal opponents of General Díaz saw themselves as heirs to 19th century Mexican liberalism. They continuously put forward the paradigms of Benito Juárez4, Ignacio Ramírez5, Melchor Ocampo6 and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada7.”

Revolutionary syndicalists on both sides of the border were inspired by the Cananea uprising, along with a whole series of struggles led by the IWW “wobblies” and the WFM miners in those years. In 1911 and afterwards, as Torres Parés notes, they gave rise to a “mobilization with a clearly anti-imperialist tint that the workers of both countries waged against U.S. government intervention in Mexico.” The 1906 strike at Cananea was also a precursor of the copper miners’ strike of 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona, that ended with the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Mexican miners (see “Bisbee, Arizona Deportation of 1917: ‘Reds’ and Immigrants,” The Internationalist No. 2, April-May 1997). Nevertheless, the strikes of both Cananea and Bisbee demonstrated the inability of the doctrines of revolutionary syndicalism to complete the longed-for workers revolution.

To bring down the rule of capital requires much more than for the workers to stop working. It demands that the most advanced elements of the working class place themselves at the head of all the oppressed, including the poor peasants and indigenous peoples, to prepare a general uprising that affects the bourgeois army, the backbone of the capitalist state. The active seizure of power must be prepared in order to build a workers state that can crush bourgeois reaction and open the way to socialism. The definitive act of a revolution is an insurrection, not a general strike. And for this a key element was missing, in 1906 as in 1910-1917: the existence of a communist party of the working class vanguard, capable of carrying out the necessary preparations for victory that the militant miners of Mexico and the U.S. lacked. Without such a party, the Mexican working class will continue to be, in the famous phrase of José Revueltas, “a headless proletariat.”8

A Century of Workers Struggle in the Sonora Desert

The workers struggle in Cananea did not end at the beginning of the 20th century. Far from it. As the largest copper mine in Latin America and one of the ten largest in the world, the first industrial union was organized at Cananea in the 1930s, the Grand Workers Union of the Martyrs of 1906, which later became Section 65 of the SNTMMSRM. In 1971, the Mexican government bought up the majority of the shares of the Anaconda Copper Company and completed the nationalization of the mine in 1982. With the investment of some $900 million to modernize its physical plant, Cananea greatly increased its output and became one of the most important companies in the country. Nevertheless, when the government of Carlos Salinas de Gotari decreed the privatization of over 1,000 state-owned enterprises, the Cananea mine was given to the Nafinsa development bank for reorganization (that is, reducing its workforce) to make it “more attractive” to buyers. In the summer of 1989, the management announced plans for closing two departments, spinning off other divisions to create new firms with new (and worse) labor contracts, and the firing of hundreds of the 4,000 workers.

The new companies were to work 365 days per year, overriding the contracts that gave workers Sundays and holidays off. Section 65 went on strike. A week before the strike began, the mine was declared insolvent due to inability to pay its debts. But around 80 percent of these were fictitious charges supposedly owed to Nafinsa. On the same day, thousands of Mexican army soldiers arrived in Cananea, who proceeded to pull 600 workers off the night shift, and barred 1,000 day shift workers from entering. Helicopters hovered over the city and troops patrolled the streets. The head of the SNTMMSRM, the corporatist “union” that was part of the PRI-government apparatus, asked for an audience with president Salinas to negotiate the matter.

But a rebellion was brewing among the miners of Cananea. A resolution of Section 65 demanded the withdrawal of troops and the Federal Judicial Police, who were investigating the union “over the false impression that we had an arsenal and guerrilla groups. We don’t believe in the government or the PRI,” declared the motion. The U.S. expert on Mexican trade unions, Dan La Botz writes in his book, Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in México Today (South End Press, 1992):

“Gómez Sada declared that the workers were not responsible for the bankruptcy of the company, but took no action to defend union members except to demand that they be severed as provided by the contract and the labor law.”

Gómez Sada wasn’t alone in abandoning the members of his own “union.” Neither the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) nor the Congress of Labor (CT), the principal corporatist labor confederations, did a thing for them. The boss of the CTM and the CT, Fidel Velásquez, later said that he did not show any support for the strike because the SNTMMSRM opposed it (Andrea Becerril, “Impide Gómez Sada el apoyo del CT a obreros de Cananea”, La Jornada, 7 September 1989, cited in La Botz). The Mexican workers were dumbfounded by the utter capitulation of “their” unions.

After four days, the army withdrew from the city. Even then, Gómez Sada insisted that nothing could be done, because everything had been done in accord with the labor law in force. The executive boards of Union Federation of Government Service Workers (FSTSE) and the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), an alternative corporatist labor federation, expressed their “understanding” for the government’s actions. Despite the corporatist bureaucracy’s refusal to take up the least action in its defense, the miners of Section 65 went ahead with their strike plans. On 28 August 1989 they walked out, and on September 1 independent unions demonstrated in the capitol in support of the workers of Cananea. The Labor Department proposed to withdraw the bankruptcy judgment in exchange for eliminating 115 clauses of the contract and amending 143 others, definitive proof of the spurious nature of the “bankruptcy.” A few days later, the JFCyA approved the company’s petition to void the contract in its entirety.

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, leader of SNTMMSRM, fell afoul of PAN governments, whereupon he was removed and criminal charges brought. Class-conscious workers demand all charges be dropped while fighting in corporatist “unions” to form workers committees free of any state control.
(Photo: El Porvenir)

Already at that time, the differences between Section 65 and the national miners’ “union” had come to light, as well as the division in Cananea itself between the section’s executive committee, which followed the directives of Gómez Sada, and the strike committee. The corporatist bureaucrats declared their readiness to accept voluntary resignations by the workers along with the severance pay proposed by the government. Nevertheless, the strike continued under the direction of the strike committee. Miners blockaded the federal highway and occupied the local offices of the JFCyA. Finally, the SNTMMSRM “negotiated” a new contract that eliminated more than150 clauses, reducing the number of job descriptions to three, laying off 400 workers and refusing to rehire over 700 more – altogether a third of the mine’s workforce – and a payment to the union in exchange for the layoffs. It is this payment, the famous $50 million, for which the government is now going after the son and heir of Gómez Sada, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia.

The reality is that from the beginning, the government considered these funds not as a benefit for the laid-off workers, but as a bribe to the union for undermining the struggle of the Cananea miners. But like all bribes, this payoff to the corporatist “union” leaders for their complicity expired the moment that they demonstrated the slightest failure to cooperate with the regime. Thus, when Gómez Urrutia opposed the failed “Abascal Law” for labor reform, and then characterized the mine workers’ deaths in Pasta de Conchos as “industrial homicide” (a declaration made to escape the wrath of families of the miners who considered the the “union” and the company “are one and the same”), the Fox government withdrew its support from Gómez Urrutia, accusing him of misappropriation of funds, and sought to impose another chief, Elías Morales Hernández. As we explained in our article “Asesinato capitalista en Pasta de Conchos”:

“When the regime turns on the ‘misbehaving child’ Gómez Urrutia to replace him with his old rival Elías Morales (who was second in command under Napoleón Gómez I), it does so in order to tighten the screws of its machinery and guarantee stricter control over the workers movement. Thus, it is vital for the workers to mobilize against this government attack and simultaneously take concrete measures to free themselves from all state tutelage. The workers themselves must be the ones to smash the corporatist apparatus by which they are tied to the capitalist state....

“In the corporatist ‘unions’ workers committees must be formed to fight irreconcilably for the elimination of all state control, to break with the CT and organize genuine workers’ unions.”

In 1990 the mine was sold to Grúpo México, headed by Jorge Larrea, a buddy of president Salinas. Despite the heavy defeat they suffered in 1989, the workers of Cananea slowly recovered their strength. In November of 1998 a new strike broke out, against the company’s plans to lay off 700 of its 2,100 employees. The following January, the government declared the strike “nonexistent,” and threatened to annul the union’s legal charter. The company threatened to reopen the mine with scab labor. The leaders of the corporatist SNTMMSRM announced that they had signed an agreement to return to work, putting pressure on the local strike leadership. But when the government representatives went back on their offer of an increased severance pay, the miners occupied the mine, where they awaited the onslaught of four Army convoys and over 300 paramilitary cops of the Sonora Judicial Police. Faced with the possibility of a deadly attack, they finally decided to abandon their occupation. Nevertheless, when they returned to work they found that 120 of their comrades who had been most active in the strike had been fired, and many others were given temporary contracts that expired every 28 days.

Cananea miners with red-and-black strike flag outside mine, December 1999. National labor leaders repeatedly stabbed Cananea strikers in back. (Photo: Milenio)

One of the most significant aspects of the 1999 strike was the contribution from unions and copper miners north of the border. Shortly after the strike broke out, the strikers sent a delegation to Tuscon, Arizona. There, they received a warm welcome from the organizing office of the AFL-CIO. Although in the past the U.S. labor federation has followed a protectionist program, blaming Mexican workers for “stealing American jobs,” when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, the job losses were so great that the AFL-CIO bureaucrats occasionally have decided to help Mexican workers fight for better conditions. Another factor in this case were the many miners in Arizona with relatives working in the Sonora mines. Nevertheless, U.S. unionists could see that ‘”the leaders of the Mexican miners union” were “more loyal to the government and the PRI than to their own striking members” (David Bacon, “Miners’ Strike Broken in Cananea”, Z Magazine, May 1999).

The miners of Cananea were betrayed time and again by “their” union leaders, who in reality are functionaries and representatives of the capitalist state. In August 2006, after the bitter experience of that year’s strike, they demanded that the national “union” not participate in their wage negotiations with Grupo México. Today, with the corporatist system in deep decay, thus opening a crack in the state’s retaining wall of corporatist unions that are integrated into the PRI and the state apparatus, the objective conditions are present for a successful struggle for trade-union independence from the control of the bourgeois state and the bosses. But as Leon Trotsky pointed out in his work, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” the fight for union independence and union democracy is inseparable from the struggle for a revolutionary leadership.

Despite their combative spirit displayed in their strikes of 1989, 1999 and again in 2006, the miners have not had a leadership equal to their needs, able to simultaneously confront the bosses, the capitalist state and its labor cops in the corporatist unions. Only a class-struggle leadership, united in a communist party composed of professional revolutionary cadres, would be able to take on this task. This decisive element was the contribution of the Russian Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin, who together with Leon Trotsky led the October revolution of 1917, a few months after the Bisbee strike. And it is exactly the recognition of the urgency need to forge a revolutionary leadership that is the foremost lesson of a century of internationalist class struggle in Cananea.

*Retranslated from Spanish to English.

1 A Liberal (anti-clerical) military officer, and later president of Mexico (officially, by repeated reelection, or through puppets) from 1876 until he was forced to resign and flee to France in 1911.

2 For a quarter century beginning in the 1880s the Díaz dictatorship waged a war to put down independence struggles of the Yaqui native people who inhabited the Sonoran desert.

3 Francisco Madero, who won the 1910 election, became president of Mexico when Díaz fell to the revolution. He  led the moderate bourgeois Anti-Reelectionist Party, whose Plan of St. Louis called for modest land redistribution (on idle lands) and democratic reforms. Once in power, Madero unleashed the “Constitutionalist” army inherited from Díaz against radical peasant armies led by Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

4 Benito Juárez, a liberal jurist and Zapoteco Indian, was the first indigenous head of state in the Western hemisphere, holding office from 1858 to 1872. He helped write and implemented the laws known as La Reforma, curtailing the power of the Catholic church and the military, which led to war against clerical reactionaries (1858-61) and the Emperor Maximilian (1862-67), imposed by a French invasion at the invitation of Mexican conservatives.

5 Ignacio Ramírez, author of the book There Is No God, was minister of justice and public education under Juárez during the War of La Reforma against clerical domination.

6 Melchor Ocampo was a liberal intellectual who as minister of the interior under Juárez authored the Reform Laws separating church and state.

7 Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada was foreign minister under Juárez and president of Mexico from Juárez’ death in 1872 until 1876, when he was overthrown by Porfirio Díaz. .

8 José Revueltas, the Mexican author and film writer, was expelled from the Communist Party after 15 years membership, went on to found the Liga Leninista Espartaco and later showed sympathies for Trotskyism. His Ensayo sobre un proletariado sin cabeza (written in 1960-61) is an indictment of the failure of the Stalinized Communist Party to act as the vanguard of the Mexican working class.

See also: Mexico: Cananea Must Not Stand Alone!  (1 February 2008)
                New York Picket Protests Repression Against Mexican Miners (11 January 2008)
Mexican Miners Strike for Safety  (15 December 2007)

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