Labor Court Denies Injunction Sought by Striking Miners in Sonora; Workers Continue to Blockade Cananea Copper Mine

SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, February 24, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Labor Court Denies Injunction Sought by Striking Miners in Sonora; Workers Continue to Blockade Cananea Copper Mine


In the latest salvo in the nearly 30-month strike at the Cananea copper mine in Sonora state, a labor court ruled in early February that mining company Grupo Mexico has the right to terminate workers' contracts at the facility. The ruling escalates the threat of violence at Mexico's largest copper mine, which striking workers have held since July 2007. Grupo Mexico has talked about resuming operations at the facility but has not yet taken any action because of the threat of violent clashes with the strikers. The court ruling came just days before the fourth anniversary of the fatal explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila, also owned and operated by Grupo Mexico. Critics say the company and the government have not done enough to clarify the causes of the accident, compensate the families of the victims, and recover the bodies of the 63 workers still in the rubble.

Decision allows company to nullify collective-bargaining contract

The decision by the Segundo Tribunal Colegiado en Materia de Trabajo to grant Grupo Mexico the right to terminate the striking workers' contracts gives the company the upper hand in the conflict with strikers from Local 65 of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros, Metalurgicos y Similares de la Republica Mexicana, (SNTMMSRM).

The court decision is the latest development in the tug-of-war between Grupo Mexico and SNTMMSRM members, who walked off the job in July 2007 to protest low pay and poor health and safety conditions at the open-pit mine. In January 2008, the Secretaria del Trabajo y Prevision Social (STPS) declared the strike illegal, but workers were able to win an injunction (see SourceMex, 2008-01-16).

Grupo Mexico, which had been responsible for about 40% of Mexico's copper production, then brought the matter to a federal labor arbitrator (Junta Federal de Conciliacion y Arbitraje, JFCA) in 2009, invoking a clause in the federal labor law (Ley Federal del Trabajo, LFT) that allows a company to declare force majeure because of damage to its facilities (see SourceMex, 2009-04-15).

The JFCA agreed with Grupo Mexico's argument that the LFT clause was applicable in this case, giving the company the right to end a collective-bargaining contract and dismiss striking workers.

The union then appealed the JFCA ruling to the federal labor court. In February of this year, the court rejected the union's request for an injunction, allowing Grupo Mexico to proceed with its plan to dissolve the collective-bargaining contract with the SNTMMSRM.

"As of today, the collective-bargaining contract with the mining union does not exist," Cristina Rocha, an attorney for Grupo Mexico said on Feb. 12, the day the court announced its ruling. "They have to turn over the installations at the Cananea mine."

SNTMMSRM attorney Carlos de Buen said the court's decision exhausts all legal avenues in Mexico for the union. And even if other legal options were available, the union has very little money left to mount another appeal, said the lawyer.

The union, which denied the company's charges that workers damaged equipment and electrical and water systems, insists that the takeover will continue. "Of course we will not leave the mine installations," Javier Zuniga, a spokesperson for SNTMMSRM Local 65, said in an interview with Reuters.

A group of strikers turned on several pieces of machinery and equipment to dispute the company's claim that the strike had made the facility inoperable.

Strikers fear government will use violence to dislodge them

Zuniga said the union fears that the court decision gives Grupo Mexico and the federal government an excuse to send police or military personnel to retake the facility. "We will respond with our hands to any aggression by the security forces....We are on red alert," Zuniga said.

Grupo Mexico says it plans to eventually reopen the mine and at that time rehire some of the skilled workers who had previously accepted severance pay.

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