Labor turmoil following disaster draws in USW
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The horrific Pasta de Conchos mining accident sparked a leadership crisis in Mexico's mammoth mine and steelworkers union, and officials with United Steelworkers of America are taking sides.
Soon after the Feb. 19 explosion, which killed 65 workers at the mine near the Texas border, the Mexican government accused union leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia of stealing millions of dollars from his own members.
In March, the USW gave Mr. Gomez and his family asylum in Arizona, helping him escape arrest in Mexico. Union officials in Pittsburgh say the charges are bogus and describe Mr. Gomez as a fiercely independent labor leader willing to fight against entrenched power interests, both at home and abroad.
The conflict between the government and the union leader has sparked months of labor unrest across Mexico, with lengthy strikes and at least one deadly encounter between police and union members. Mr. Gomez's supporters are threatening a new round of nationwide strikes unless the government drops its allegations. Those threats come at a time when Mexico is dealing with the aftermath of a hugely contentious presidential election.
Gerald D. Fernandez, assistant to the USW president, said the Mexican government is trying to undermine the tough negotiating tactics and growing militancy of Mr. Gomez's union, the country's largest industrial union.
"So far, the government has not presented anything publicly that proves their case," he said. The charges against Mr. Gomez, he said, are nothing more than "political persecution."
Mr. Gomez, 60, and his family are now at an undisclosed location in Canada.
"I've never taken a single cent, dollar, peso or whatever," he said in a recent telephone interview. "These are false accusations meant to discredit me. But my members know exactly who I am. They strongly support me."
He insists that the union -- Sindicato de Trabajadores Mineros y Metalurgicos de la Republica Mexicana -- has extensive documentation for the money he's accused of taking and that the government has ignored that evidence.
Luis Raul Sarmiento, a regional director for the Mexican labor secretary, said his department acted only when it received complaints from union members.
A new kind of union
USW officials started forging closer ties with Mexico's mine and steelworker union in the 1990s, as part of a larger strategy of using global labor alliances to confront the growing strength of multinational corporations.
At the time, Mr. Gomez's father, Napoleon Gomez Sada, had headed the union for almost four decades. Longtime observers of Mexican politics describe him as a true "charro," a member of a class of ruthless and often corrupt labor leaders who worked closely with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to control the country's political system.
Some union officials held seats in the Mexican Congress or high-ranking government posts. Others ensured that their rank-and-file members turned out for PRI on elections and helped manipulate election results.
"They were not actually unions," said Ben Davis, director of the AFL-CIO's solidarity center in Mexico City. "They were appendages of the ruling party."
Six years ago, the National Action Party broke PRI's 70-year grip on the presidency, and new president Vicente Fox promised broad reforms and an end to the corruption of the past.
Mr. Gomez became head of the mine and steelworkers union when his father died in 2001, at age 86. Some labor activists rolled their eyes at the father-son succession, but Mr. Gomez, an Oxford-educated economist who had never worked in a mine, quickly showed that he was willing to take a different route.
He gave his workers the ability to vote on their contracts, a rarity in Mexico. He led dozens of strikes, including one against the owners of the country's largest steel mill, winning substantial increases in wages and benefits. And he helped block legislation that labor activists said would have eroded their powers.
"This guy treated his workers with dignity and respect," Mr. Fernandez said.
Last year, Mr. Gomez won the USW's favor by leading his workers off the job at Mexican copper mines owned by Grupo Mexico in a show of solidarity with American miners on a long strike at the company's operations in Arizona.
It was a new chapter in a long-running dispute between Mr. Gomez's union and Grupo Mexico. In the late 1980s, when the company acquired two huge state-owned copper mines, the union called for a share of the profits for employees. Grupo Mexico offered stock payments, but more than a decade of legal wrangling went by without a transfer of money.
Following the money
Mr. Gomez decided to push the issue by initiating a new series of strikes. His efforts worked. Two years ago, Grupo Mexico gave the union a $55 million settlement.
But, Mr. Gomez said, the company didn't provide a complete list of eligible workers who had been employed before privatization. That created chaos, as thousands of miners and their relatives sought a share of the money. Many filed lawsuits.
The union now has receipts for about $23 million in payments made to 5,000 workers, Mr. Gomez said. Another $7 million went to legal fees. The remaining money is in the bank.
Mr. Gomez and his supporters, in Mexico and Pittsburgh, said the government decided to use the confusion over money as a pretext for ousting the union leader. Both government and Grupo Mexico officials say they do not get involved in internal union affairs.
In February, the labor secretary's office received a complaint from the union's vigilance committee accusing Mr. Gomez of stealing the $55 million settlement. The government quickly, and quietly, granted recognition to a new leader -- Elias Morales.
Mr. Gomez's supporters say the signatures on the complaint were forgeries, and that Mr. Morales had been expelled from the union years ago.
In the middle of all this wrangling came the massive explosion Feb. 19 at Pasta de Conchos mine, killing 65.
When Mr. Gomez arrived at the accident scene, he said, government and company officials welcomed him as the union head. A few days later, he accused both of "industrial homicide."
The government then announced it was conducting a criminal investigation of Mr. Gomez.
The Mexican press soon ran stories on Mr. Gomez's lifestyle -- his large homes and luxury vehicles -- and the government said it had evidence that the labor leader distributed his union's money to personal offshore accounts.
But Mr. Gomez said the accounts belong to the union and that they were used to make payments to international mining organizations. Mr. Fernandez said USW has similar accounts.
Dan La Botz, who teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, says the government has a history of distorting evidence against political enemies.
"I think everything the Mexican government says is a lie," he said. "And I think they're out to destroy Napoleon [Gomez]."
Mr. Gomez does have substantial support within his union. A May convention in Mexico City overwhelmingly backed him. Workers at the country's biggest steel mill recently ended a four-month-long strike on the condition, among others, that the company recognize Mr. Gomez as union leader.
Still, the labor department's Mr. Sarmiento says that many miners support Mr. Morales.
"The May convention was not valid because Napoleon called it," he said. "Only Mr. Morales can call for a meeting. He's the leader."
First Published September 10, 2006 12:00 am