Napoleon Gomez, leader of one of Mexico’s independent trade union, Los Mineros, has won the 2014 Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights.
The prize is awarded annually by Industri Energy (IE), Norway’s energy sector union, to recognize people whose work has strengthened and promoted trade union rights.
Gomez is the general secretary of Los Mineros, one of Mexico’s most militant and successful independent unions in a country where most unions have close ties to employers, the government, or both.
Los Mineros has worked hard to organize workers and give them a collective voice on the job. It also has a consistent record of winning solid contracts that raise wages and benefits for its members.
As a result of its work, Los Mineros’ leaders and members have faced government repression and employer reprisals. Gomez himself has been forced into exile by the government.
A recent Los Mineros victory shows how the union has been able to persevere and win victories in the face of intense opposition.
Los Mineros on May 4 was recognized as the union representing workers at Teksid Iron in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The workers stopped work on May 2 to protest the company’s refusal to bargain with Los Mineros.
The company previously had an agreement with CTM, a company union, but CTM failed to address workers’ grievances.
When the company agreed to recognize Los Mineros, it also agreed to make a profit sharing payment owed but not paid to the workers by the end of the week.
In addition, three Los Mineros members who were fired for union activity were reinstated.
In April, Los Mineros supporters at Teksid were attacked and beaten by thugs as the workers left a union meeting.
Gomez recently wrote a book, The Collapse of Dignity, about the tragic deaths of 65 miners, buried alive in 2006 by a mine explosion at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Coahuila.
After the explosion, Grupo Mexico, the mine’s owner, spent most of its time and resources on a public relations campaign that sought to absolve the company of responsibility for the explosion. In the meantime, the company dragged its feet on rescue efforts.
Gomez writes that the neglect that led up to the disaster and the cover up that followed are glaring examples of the corruption that defines labor relations in Mexico.
Gomez and Los Mineros have exposed this corruption in their struggle to build an independent and democratic trade union movement.
As a result, the Mexican government, which has worked with companies like Grupo Mexico to repress the independent union movement, has tried to jail Gomez on trumped-up charges.
In 2005, Gomez was charged with illegally transferring pension funds to the union’s bank account.
Five appellate courts ruled that the charges had no legal foundation, but the Mexican government continued to pursue charges forcing Gomez into exile.
The Mexican government has a history of colluding with employers to use the law enforcement system to harass and intimidate independent union advocates.
In the book Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, Martin Barrios tells his story of government harassment.
Barrios, a founder and leader of the Commission for Human and Labor Rights in Tehucan Valley, was helping garment workers in the Tehucan Valley organize.
One day he was arrested and charged with blackmailing the employer of a small garment factory. According to Barrios’ arrest warrant, Barrios had demanded that the employer pay Barrios $150,000 or the labor organizer would mobilize the employers’ workers to strike.
When the police asked the owner to identify Barrios as the culprit, the owner refused to do so.
Nevertheless, the police kept Barrios in jail for months as they tried to build a case against him. Despite attempts to force a confession from Barrios, the authorities failed to make their case and eventually had to free him.
Gomez instead of rotting in jail decided to leave Mexico. He found refuge in Canada where he continues to lead Los Mineros in absentia.
In June, Gomez will travel to Norway where he will receive the prize, which includes a monetary award of more than US$87,000.