IndustriALL Global Union marked a historic moment as Mexican union leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, returned to his country after 12 years in exile to be sworn in as senator, in a ceremony in Mexico City on 29 August.
Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president and general secretary of the Mexican Union of Miners and Metalworkers’ Union, known as Los Mineros, was included on the winning ticket of the Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party in the general elections on 1 July.
Gómez has been a titular member of IndustriALL’s Executive Committee since it was founded in 2012 and IndustriALL affiliates around the world have united behind him and the campaign for democratic unions in Mexico.
IndustriALL general secretary, Valter Sanches, as well as IndustriALL affiliates, the United Steelworkers (USW) International President, Leo W. Gerard from the USA and Canada, and Len McCluskey from UK and Ireland trade union, Unite, were among those present at the ceremony on 29 August. The unions have been unwavering in their support of Napoleón Gómez and Los Mineros, even before he was compelled to leave Mexico.
Valter Sanches said it was a source of great pride to have an elected compañero as part of the new government, which promises to take up the cause of workers. Speaking before the ceremony, he said:
“To all of our brothers and sisters who have fought throughout the years, and for those who have shown international solidarity around the world, today is a day to celebrate because solidarity has triumphed again.”
The story of Napoleon’s exile begins with terrible tragedy on 19 February 2006, after an explosion ripped through Grupo México’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in the northern state of Coahuila, trapping 65 miners hundreds of metres beneath the surface.
Unlike the San José mine collapse four years later in Chile, when 33 miners were miraculously found alive after 17 days trapped underground, rescue efforts at Pasta de Conchos were stopped after only five days. Grupo México and the Mexican government even disconnected the electricity to the mine to stop the search and hide the safety violations that could incriminate the company. This was before they knew the miners were dead.
Before the disaster, Napoleon Gomez, whose union represented miners at Pasta de Conchos, had already warned of the dangerous conditions in the mines, and asked that production be stopped until conditions improved. Now it was too late.
Almost twelve years later, the bodies of 63 of the 65 miners remain in the mine and the Mexican government has failed to investigate or prosecute those responsible.
Following the tragedy, Gómez strongly condemned Grupo México and the Mexican government, accusing them of industrial homicide for neglecting to correct more than 40 health and safety violations in the mine.
In retaliation for his outspoken comments, the Mexican government removed Gómez as union leader and imposed Elías Morales as acting general secretary of Los Mineros. The move sparked international outcry and a global campaign was launched by IndustriALL’s predecessor organizations, in support of Gómez and union autonomy in Mexico.
After receiving death threats for criticizing Grupo México, and under increasing oppression from the authorities, Gómez and his family fled Mexico in early March 2006 with the aid of the United Steelworkers. On 18 and 19 March 2006, Los Mineros rank and file membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of Gómez as their general secretary, renouncing Morales.
Gómez was then persecuted through the courts on sham charges of corruption of Los Mineros funds. Gómez successfully contested the accusations eleven times until a federal court finally put an end to the case, denouncing the charges as baseless and unconstitutional.
Los Mineros leaders were targeted and imprisoned by authorities, including Juan Linares, who was illegally incarcerated for more than two years. A week of action by global unions and their affiliates was a determining factor in securing his release from prison in 2011.
In 2013, Gómez was finally taken off Interpol’s red alert list of wanted suspects and the Mexican government was heavily criticized for using Interpol for its own political purposes. It meant Gómez was able to leave Canada, where he had taken refuge with his family under protection of the USW, for the first time since 2006 and attend a meeting of IndustriALL’s Executive Committee in Geneva, Switzerland.
In May 2014, Napoleón Gómez was awarded the prestigious Arthur Svensson International Prize for trade union rights for his leading role in the struggle for democratic unions in Mexico.
In the years that followed the Pasta de Conchos tragedy, the government continued its attacks on Los Mineros by freezing the union’s financial accounts, imprisoning the union’s leaders on false charges, attempting to eliminate the union’s legal right to strike, and using police and military force in violent attacks on workers, resulting in the deaths of at least four union activists and injuring many more.
Yet despite this, Los Mineros has continued to be the most successful trade union in Mexico. Gómez successfully concluded collective bargaining agreements from abroad negotiating the highest wage increases of any union in the country.
Gómez, who has been unanimously reelected as leader of Los Mineros multiple times, says that one of his first tasks when he returns to Mexico is to reopen the investigation into the Pasta de Conchos tragedy. He will also lead the fight against protection contracts in Mexico, (negotiated between corrupt unions and employers behind workers’ backs), as well as other violations of trade union rights that form the basis of IndustriALL’s complaint to the International Labour Organization.
Speaking on the occasion of Gómez’s inauguration, Leo W. Gerard, from United Steelworkers, said:
“The fight of Napoleón Gómez and Los Mineros is a critical struggle for workers in North America and around the world. With Napoleón in the Senate, Mexico’s new government is poised to overcome decades of corruption and corporate domination and make real improvements to the rights and living standards of Mexican workers. The global labour movement must support these efforts and demand accountability for the victims of decades of repression, including the families of the Pasta de Conchos miners.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “For 12 years Napoleon Gomez resisted the efforts of the Mexican government and Mexico’s largest corporations to destroy him and his union. Napoleon’s return to Mexico to be sworn in as a senator for the Mexican republic is not only a victory for his and Los Mineros’ courageous and dignified campaign, but for global solidarity in the face of injustice. Unite is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Napoleon and his union. His fight is our fight and we wish him every success in transforming Mexico in the fight for a better world.”