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Organizing Miners: An Interview with a Mexican Copper Miner
by Nacozari Miners Support Committee
‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 5, September/October 1979, p. 34–36
“The dangers of organizing are nothing compared to the price we pay in misery.”
These are the words of a miner from Nacozari, Mexico. This open pit copper mining town of 18,000 is situated in the Mexican desert seventy miles south of Douglas, Arizona, in Sonora State. In this largest and richest area for copper mining in North America is La Caridad (Charity) mine. Managed by the Mexican affiliate Mexicana de Cobre, the major controlling interest of the operation is a financial combine made up of A.S.A.R.C.O. (“American Smelting and Refining Co.”), Anaconda and U.S. banks.
Nacozari is a runaway mine. ASARCO pays their Mexican workers low wages, so mines in the US can lay workers off. This does not mean that “Mexicans are stealing US jobs”, but rather that both groups of workers are subject to the same multinational exploitation, i.e. labor costs as low as possible. Increased tonnages of ore are being shipped north to the Phelps-Dodge Smelter in Douglas and ASARCO refineries in Arizona and Texas.
Most of the miners are housed in the infamous “Paper Shack Town Colony” on company property. Malnutrition and dysentery are rampant, there are no sanitary facilities, the people drink water from spigots fed by a reservoir containing raw sewage, chemical wastes, and radioactivity from a nearby pilot copper processing plant. The hardship on children is compounded; there is room for only half of them in half-day sessions at town schools.
The 5,700 miners at La Caridad work hours at wages worse than U.S. miners of 90 years ago. Five dollars a day for a twelve-hour day is common and company stores price food out of the reach of worker’s families. The miners face the day-to-day violence of working without safety measures and one death occurs every ten days. They also suffer from silicosis and a host of other pulmonary ailments from the mine dust.
In response to these intolerable conditions, a general meeting was called in 1974. A local executive Board of the National Mine and Metal Workers of Mexico was elected by the miners. The company responded by firing those elected, and replacing the union with a government protected company union which signed a secret, sweetheart contract. Conditions did not improve and in 1977 the miners formed the 60-member Coordinating Committee to organize for recognition of their union. The company tried to crush the movement with labor spies, paid thugs and gunmen. In February 1978 a strike was called but it was lifted after promises were made by President Lopez Portillo that the Labor Ministry of Mexico would give the miners a fair contract. This promise and subsequent promises made by the company, Secretary of Labor and the government mine workers union all proved to be empty ones. The conflict intensified as striking workers and townspeople met with repression by the Mexican Army and company police.
Throughout the five-year struggle, the miners and their families have been united and militant in their demands for the basic rights of safety and health and democratic union representation. So far, the company has not recognized these rights and the people are readying themselves for another strike. The following is part of an interview made in San Jose, California last June with Rolando Martinez, a young miner from Nacozari, gathering support for the struggle there. He commented on the union busting tactics of the company, “They put guards, police, soldiers — to rescind our contracts.”
SftP: Then are workers afraid of openly identifying themselves with the union?
Rolando: It’s not fear — it’s fear of being fired from our jobs more than fear of being physically attacked.
SftP: Are women actively participating in the workers’ organizing?
Rolando: Yes they are, naturally. The women who do the cleaning (in the offices and manager’s dormitories) more than the secretaries. The secretaries, if they do that, very secretly. Otherwise, they might get fired from their jobs.
SftP: Could you describe the job dangers encountered by workers everyday?
Rolando: Workers are subject to working at high levels without any physical security.
SftP: High altitudes?
Rolando: 30,40 or 50 meters. There is also the danger of the dynamite explosions. Also, during our transportation from one place to another, some of the workers get thrown out of the vehicles and are hit by other cars. There’s the dust we have to breathe daily. The water we drink that’s full of waste and chemicals. Just an endless number of dangers to enumerate.
SftP: What are some of the occupational related diseases that workers are getting?
Rolando: Silicosis. Gastro-intestinal dieseases. Skin diseases. Other diseases, being a simple worker, whose names I don’t know. Asthma, emphysema, all those lung related diseases. Many people have had to have limbs amputated because of the lack of medical care, they get gangrene.
SftP: Typically, at what age do workers stop working and why do they stop?
Rolando: Usually when the company decides that the person isn’t doing their job the way they had been doing before, maybe about fifty or fifty-five years old. Others, because they’re trying to protect their rights, trying to ask for better conditions.
SftP: You mean they’re fired?
Rolando: Yes. Others, because they can’t continue to live under that kind of system, under those conditions.
SftP: Where do they go?
Rolando: To different places, different cities — construction, fields.
SftP: And some to the U.S.?
SftP: Could you describe the housing for the miners’ families?
Rolando: Cardboard houses. They’re sustained by wood. But they’re made out of cardboard and, of course, the floors are dirt. It’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer and a good snow will tumble the whole thing down.
Rolando discussed the demands put forth by the union addressing the health and safety of workers and families: “We want security in the work areas, food that is not decomposed, a better form of transportation, more sprinkling with water in the areas where we’re working so there’s not so much dust, electricity, drinking water, doctors that have enough instruments in order to better meet the medical needs of the workers and families. These are not doctors yet…”
SftP: The ones who do the medical work aren’t doctors?
Rolando: It’s like their last year before they become doctors. 5,700 miners and we don’t have enough facilities. There are accidents everyday, pregnant women to be taken care of, and children. We don’t have any place to put them to sleep because there are only seven beds.
He was asked how people in the U.S. could support the efforts of the miner’s union: “The medicine provided here for all these problems is to provide solidarity — political, moral, and economic. Politically speaking, to send letters to President Portillo of Mexico advising him to start finding some solutions to the miners’ problems. Send letters to Jimmy Carter so that he can put pressure on the ASARCO mine so that we can find a peaceful and a speedy solution to these problems, and denouncing the conditions of the miners and their families in national newspapers and magazines such as these (SftP); and letting people know in Mexico that you’re with them. Morally speaking, we should understand that in Mexico as well as here, we’re exploited by the same boss. When production increases over there, not only in mines but fields, in agriculture, the people who are affected are the workers here, because they prefer to pay laborers in Mexico when it will cost more to pay American workers. We’re trying to work beneath these critical conditions. Here work is being closed and unemployment is rising and it doesn’t matter what race, what color, you’re still being exploited. So the struggle is the exploited against those who are exploiting. Economically, there are 1,500 miners that have been laid off, and they have to be supported in order to continue the struggle.”
SftP: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Rolando: Only that we hope the solidarity that we’re looking for, economically, politically and morally becomes a reality, and that if we have a triumph in our demands, our basic demands, it’s in recognition of Section 277 of the Miners Union, drawn up and voted on democratically by the miners themselves. We want to see the problems of health come first. That’s what we wait for in Nacozari.
Letters from individuals and organizations and resolutions from unions (the miners already having such support from the United Mine Workers of America and the I.L.W.U.) expressing protest, and solidarity with the Nacozari Miners should be sent to President Carter, members of Congress, and President Jose Lopez Portillo, at Residencia Presidencial de Los Pinos, Calzada Molino del Rey, Mexico, D.F. Copies of these letters, to be forwarded to Nacozari, and tax deductible contributions should be sent to:
Nacozari Miners Support Committee
c/o Sacred Heart Church
974 Palm Street
San Jose, CA 95110 Tel. (408) 292-0146