US labor leader arrested in Mexico under suspicious circumstances

Mexican police on Monday arrested a leader of the United Steelworkers (USW), who was crossing the border to meet with lawyers of the militant and independent National Union of Mine and Metalworkers (Los Mineros).

A Mexican customs officer stopped Manny Armenta, a USW sub-district director in Albuquerque, and accused him of driving a stolen vehicle. The vehicle Armenta was driving was a rental car. Armenta showed the officer the rental car’s document but to no avail.

The officer suggested that Armenta pay a fine of 185,000 pesos ($15,000) on the spot to avoid arrest. Armenta refused and was taken to jail. He was released on bail the next day.

“It is ironic that although Mexican courts have issued 20 warrants for Germán Larrea – the owner of Grupo Mexico – the government has never been able to arrest him,” said USW President Leo Gerard . “Yet they can arrest Manny because he is in Mexico helping the  mine workers defend their rights.”

Larrea is chair and CEO of Grupo Mexico, one of Mexico’s largest companies that owns mines, smelting operations, and railroads. Grupo Mexico and Los Mineros have been in a long battle that goes back to 2007 and before.

Miners belonging to Los Mineros have been on strike at the Cananea copper mine since 2007. They walked off the job to protest safety conditions at the mine. Last June and September, police attacked the miners’ picket lines to break the strike.

A year earlier, 65 miners were killed in a cave in at Pasta de Conchos, a Grupo Mexico owned mine in the northern state of Coahuila. Los Mineros blamed the explosion on the company’s lax safety standards that allowed methane gas to build up and trigger an explosion.

Los Mineros’ criticism of Grupo Mexico’s safety record at Pasta de Conchos and the strike at Cananea touched off a collaborative effort between the Mexican government and Grupo Mexico to break Los Mineros, an independent union that has consistently negotiated contracts with wage gains that exceed the wage ceiling that the Mexican government would like companies to adhere to. The Mexican government has implemented a low-wage strategy in order to attract foreign investment.

According to a 2008 report by the International Metalworkers Federation, “The line between the Mexican government and Grupo México has remained blurry since (President) Calderón took office … and the two have worked in concert to plan and execute the assault on los Mineros.”

The USW has been a strong ally of Los Mineros and Armenta has been a key figure in building ties between the two unions. The week before his arrest Armenta, members of USW, and leaders from Los Mineros met in Tucson, Arizona with officials of ASARCO in a “sound off ” event to kick off contract negotiations between USW and ASARCO, a Grupo Mexico company that owns copper mines in the US. The contract between USW and ASARCO expires in June.

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