New Solutions: The Drawing Board is a monthly feature produced by the journal New Solutions. Read more about it here.
By Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson
We write to you as teachers and researchers concerned about the environmental and occupational health hazards impacting communities living and working in mining sites across North America and the world.
Through our project, “No Borders: Communities Living and Working with Asarco,” we have spent the last 5 years looking at those affected by and affecting the work of the Asarco corporation, one of the oldest and largest mining, smelting and refining companies in the U.S. While our work is based at the Evergreen State College, we are committed to reaching beyond academia and working with communities who face industrial pollution and irresponsible corporations.
As part of our project, we recently had the opportunity to join a labor solidarity group in order to visit striking miners and their families in Cananea, Mexico, 60 miles south of Tucson. Our aim was to obtain first-hand information about the three-year action against mine operator Grupo Mexico, as well as to lend support to an emerging solidarity effort.
Grupo Mexico has a complex history. Facing an onslaught of financial troubles–stemming in part from increased environmental liabilities and labor grievances–Asarco has been transforming and rearranging itself for years. As such, Asarco, once Grupo Mexico’s parent, is now its subsidiary. The Asarco/Grupo complex recently emerged from a five-year bankruptcy process, now notoriously known as the most environmentally impactful bankruptcy in U.S. history due to its reduction in the size and scale of clean ups and erosion of the local tax base. Asarco got off paying just pennies to the dollar what was owed affected workers, communities, and unions, and thus acts as a model for other companies to evade responsibility. 90 US communities, several tribes, thousands of asbestosis claimants, thousands of workers and several unions have endured repercussions from this complex corporate reorganization.
During our trip to Cananea, we saw how the landscape has been reshaped by decades of uncapped mining operations, with tailings channeled into the San Pedro River and transported to a vast holding pond, now a frothy white inland sea that once was a pristine valley. Currently, the community of Cananea, which helped launch the Mexican Revolution, is compressed between the expanding open pit copper mine and a watershed commandeered to serve as an industrial waste system. Metal-bearing mine waste blows through the town, with billowing white gusts that mar the vision and choke the lungs.
Silicosis, the great industrial scourge mistakenly considered a thing of the past, is persistent in Cananea. We visited Dr. Luis CalderÃ³n, medical director of the aging Ronquillo Hospital, previously operated by Grupo. CalderÃ³n was direct about conditions that miners and residents face. “Those with silicosis have a very bleak future,” he told us. “Grupo Mexico cares nothing about the safety of workers. The workers are machines. When they break down, Grupo throws them away and gets another one.”
Before Grupo Mexico began operations, Cananea had an extensive array of health care offerings. But now the union-operated, company-funded clinic that offered maternity and infant care services is shuttered, a casualty of economic abandonment by the company. Ronquillo Hospital was also closed by Grupo, but then re-opened by the state; it currently operates under stringent conditions, with limited salaries, sporadic access to medications, and intermittent stretches without power. While patients needing specialty care were previously transported to the state capital for treatment, they now must beg and barter for transportation. Dr. CalderÃ³n worries not only about the long list of occupational hazards threatening workers, but also the diseased ecology shaped by a century of mining. “We see the destroyed mountains…the contaminated environment, the toxic dust,” he says. “We need international public health support – there’s not nearly enough.”
The situation in Mexico, resulting in the prolonged strike, is linked to the Asarco saga. A globalizing, mobile, and morphing company moves easily across borders, while unions – Los Mineros in Mexico, the Steelworkers in the US and Canada, and the Federation of Metalworkers in Peru – strategize ways to deal with health risks and political assaults resulting from changing corporate power. Since Grupo took possession of the mine in 1989, the union has reported a growing number of safety hazards. As copper prices rose, Grupo ramped up production and allowed less and less time for protective maintenance. Workers soon began reporting missing hazard signage: one new worker lost an eye because no warning existed around high-pressure, scalding water; another fell through metal flooring that wasn’t maintained; and still another died when he fell into a processing tube that carried his body to another building. Additionally, appropriate “lock out” procedures were not followed; faulty machinery was left on during repairs; and guard-rails were not installed. Cardio-pulmonary tests were not done regularly, and the miners don’t trust company-assigned doctors and clinics, fearing they’ll skew results. Out of desperation, the union turned to independent diagnosticians, but the company rejected their findings. If a worker was found to have serious respiratory exposure and respiratory distress that impaired his work, he was reassigned to another post, then quietly let go. There is also a serious lack of effective record-keeping, or at least a lack of records made available to workers who request them.
Workers are using their right to collective action in order to voice their concerns over a degraded work place and environment. But on June 6 of this year, federal police seized the Cananea mine to bring it back under corporate authority and to better serve the Mexican government’s economic plans. The government and company subsequently introduced a company union, also known as a “white union,” to break the strike and re-start production. Thankfully, on August 11, 2010, a Sonora District Judge ruled the Mineros a legal entity entitled to continue their strike.
The struggle for legal status and international support continues, with the United Steel Worker’s international president Leo Gerard calling for teams of international observers to monitor threats to the 1300 miners and their families. Meanwhile, Mineros president NapoleÃ³n Gomez lives in exile in Vancouver, Canada, supported by international labor advocates. Gomez has accused Grupo of “industrial homicide” for negligence at its Pasta de Conchos mine, where 65 workers died in an explosion.
Facing a daily assault on their health and rights, the people of Cananea have supported their striking workers who are fighting against a long legacy of poor working conditions and degraded environment and health. The miners are fighting to once again make the collective bargaining agreement a strong and honored framework for themselves and their community. Fundamentally, they are fighting for their lives, for justice at work and for the environment that they depend on.
For more information, please visit:
“USW Announces Observers for Strike at Mexican Copper Mine,” United Steelworkers, August 20, 2010.
For coverage of the Asarco story, “Bankruptcy as Corporate Makeover,” Dollars and Sense, May/June 2010.
For detailed health information, “Workplace Health & Safety Survey & Medical Screening of Miners at Grupo Mexico’s Copper Mine, Cananea, Sonora, Mexico,” Oct 2007; final report, Jan 2008. Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.
Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson work at The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. A project website, “No Borders: Communities Living and Working with Asarco,” will be available in late September 2010.