A fair deal for Mexicans

When President Kennedy sent his brother on a worldwide Goodwill tour in 1963, there wasn’t a single country in which Robert Kennedy wasn’t asked about the Civil Rights movement at home.  People in Japan, France and Germany had seen the images of burning buses and Birmingham’s fire hoses, and they wanted answers.

Yet, when President Calderon of Mexico meets with President Obama and addresses a joint session of Congress this week, it’s unlikely anyone in this country will ask him about the human rights of the miners his government has persecuted. He will not stand before Congress and explain why Mexican police shot and killed two striking mineworkers and injured more than 100 others. He will not have to explain why the government has persecuted and exiled the miners’ union leader, Napoleon Gomez, despite multiple rulings in his favor by the Mexican courts. Neither will anyone ask why 44,000 members of the electrical workers’ union were summarily fired last October. He won’t be asked if Mexican workers have a real right to form a labor organization, or even how working people in Mexico are faring economically. 

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President Calderon won’t be asked because, as a nation, we have chosen not to give priority to workers and their families, but instead have favored the multinational corporations who fuel the global race to the bottom in living and working standards. Working men and women, in both Mexico and the United States, need good jobs and a fair economic deal, including the freedom to improve their lives through forming unions.

President Obama and Congress must make human and worker rights issues part of our international dialogue with Mexico, as with every other nation with which we have diplomatic and economic relations. Mexican leaders are correct to criticize the thinly veiled racism of Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation, and to call on the United States to do more to reduce demand for drugs and stop the flow of weapons to Mexican cartels. Our nation must also call on President Calderon to honor workers’ rights, including the freedom to form unions and to earn wages to support a family.

The 80,000 working men and women in Mexico who call their union “Los Mineros” (“The Miners”) are taking a brave stand against Grupo Mexico – the country’s largest mining company. They are demanding the company respect their freedom of assembly and ensure safer mines and family supporting wages. An international team of doctors and public health specialists declared Grupo Mexico’s Cananea copper mine extremely unsafe in 2007, reporting exposure to toxic silica dust at ten times the legal Mexican limit. The workers at that mine have been on strike to protest unsafe working conditions for nearly three years. Although Mexico’s federal labor board declared the strike illegal three times, each time the Mexican courts disagreed. But in February, the courts – without hearing the workers’ evidence – allowed Grupo Mexico to fire the strikers, and Calderon’s government has threatened to send in the Army to evict them.

International labor and human rights groups have called on Calderon to end his persecution of the striking miners and have lodged complaints with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  Political leaders of Mexico’s other trading partners have urged the Mexican government to respect the miners’ rights. The U.S. government’s response, meanwhile, has been utterly inadequate.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s visit this week might also be an important historic milestone. After all, we are still in the early phase of what will be a decades-long globalization of the world’s economy, and we’re still building the legal and moral infrastructure that will govern it for generations to come. The decisions we make today matter deeply. Calderon should end the exile of Los Mineros’ leaders, prosecute those who attacked and killed miners and insist that Grupo Mexico honor international workplace safety and labor norms. The question remains, however: Will our government ask him to do so?


Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIO.