Exiled Labor Leader Honored by AFL-CIO

On November 16, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, General Secretary of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros, Metalúrgicos y Similares de la República Méxicana (National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers of the Mexican Republic), commonly known as "Los Mineros," received the AFL-CIO's 2011 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award. The ceremony was held at the AFL-CIO's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The annual Meany-Kirkland award (named after the AFL-CIO's first two presidents) was established in 1980. Previous winners include Zimbabwe union activist Wellington Chibebe, Ela Bhatt, founder of India's Self-Employed Women's Association, and the Independent Labor Movement of Egypt. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was joined by Leo Gerard, President of the United Steel Workers (USW) in making the presentation, and U.S. Congress members Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Mike Machaud (D-ME) also gave brief remarks.

Since 2006, Gómez Urrutia has lived in exile in Vancouver, Canada, forced to seek asylum after the Mexican government filed numerous criminal charges against him. The government not only went after him with a vengeance, they launched an ugly, aggressive attack on the union itself, freezing its bank accounts, declaring all strikes to be illegal (including sending in federal troops to break them up), and exhorting mine employers to replace Los Mineros with company-sponsored lackey unions.

Gómez Urrutia got himself put on the Mexican government's hit list because of his response to a February 19, 2006, mine explosion that killed 65 miners. He publicly accused the Vincente Fox administration of committing "industrial homicide." While his accusation may have been melodramatic, it was not inaccurate. As for the criminal charges, not only have Mexican and international human rights and labor groups called them baseless, all but one has been subsequently dismissed by Mexican courts, and all government appeals have been denied.

The 2006 explosion at Grupo Mexico's Pasta de Conchos coal mine will live forever in the sorrowful annals of labor history. Prior to the explosion, union officials had repeatedly warned the company of serious safety concerns, notably the prevalent odor of flammable methane gas. Those warnings were ignored and the work continued. After all, there was coal to be mined, money to be made, and, as company officials like to remind the workers, coal miners are tough... they can handle it.

Then, following the shattering explosion, and after just a few short days of rescue attempts, the government abruptly declared the rescue operation to be futile, and, with the miners' wives waiting helplessly outside, ordered the mine to be closed and sealed. That was it. Those 65 bodies were entombed on the premises.

Los Mineros (a sister union to the USW), has a proud history of challenging the Mexican government on labor issues, many of which will doubtlessly sound familiar to American workers -- e.g., safety and health concerns, declining wages, and the replacing of permanent employees with temps. In his press release, Richard Trumka described Gómez Urrutia as a "truly courageous man who has shown us how difficult and how important it is to be an independent leader of a democratic union."

Being named recipient of the Meany-Kirkland Award was a great honor. Unfortunately, Gómez Urrutia wasn't there to accept it. Alas, the Obama administration refused to grant him a travel visa. It's true. His wife, Oralia Casso de Gómez, had to accept on his behalf. Just when we thought President Obama couldn't be any more gutless or jelly-legged when it comes to defending the underdog, he goes and proves us wrong.

David Macaray, an L.A. playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net