December 31, 1998

Times Are Tough In Striking Mexican Copper Town


CANANEA, Mexico - Ask the children in this copper-mining town what Christmas will be like this year and they answer in one word: ``Triste.''

Since 2,000 copper workers went on strike Nov. 19, it's not only the children who are sad.

Carla Canedo, a miner's wife waiting in a line for a food basket, said her family's gas and electricity was about to be shut off.

When her 4-year-old son asked what Santa Claus would bring, she said, ``I told him, `Nothing, my son. Your daddy's not working.'''

Strikes are nothing new in this town where copper has provided jobs for nearly 100 years. In 1906, seven years after the mine was founded, workers struck to demand a minimum wage, an end to child labor and that Mexican workers' pay equal that of the mine's American workers.

The strike was put down, but it helped give rise to the Mexican revolution four years later. Workers struck for four months in 1983. Bankruptcy closed the mine in 1989. There were work stoppages in 1993, 1995 and early this year.

Once a quasi-governmental enterprise, the mine was sold recently to Grupo Mexico as part of the government's privatization program.

Mexicana de Cananea subsidizes the cost of gas and electricity in many miners' homes. Miners and their families pay only a penny a month to use a company medical clinic. They still receive the benefits while on strike. The company also provides workers with soccer fields, pools and social clubs.

Miners take home an average of $120 a week, more than double what a factory worker makes.

But workers say they fear the gains they've made will disappear under the new ownership.

``The idea of Grupo Mexico is to get by with paying us the minimum that the law provides,'' said miner Luis Armenta. ``We don't want to be indebted to the company. We want our independence.''

Jose Rodriguez Correa, a spokesman for Mexicana de Cananea, said the mine operated inefficiently when it was government-owned. Without government subsidies now that it is in private hands, it must be restructured, he said.

This year the company added equipment and told workers they'd have to increase their output.

The miners complained the company was breaking the labor contract. They said they would lose 5 percent of their wages, mostly in non-cash incentive bonuses that they exchange for goods at the company store. They said overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation time would also be reduced.

When the union didn't agree to the revised production quotas, the company withdrew the new equipment and said it planned to lay off 135 workers.

Negotiations between the mine and the workers have broken down and won't resume at least until after the holidays.

Meanwhile, nearly 350 miles to the northwest in Tucson, Ariz., a stranger named Art was doing what he could to make the children of Cananea happier.

Over a period of two days, he spent nearly $10,000 on 920 toys he then had loaded onto a fruit truck and sent to the striking families.

He had read about the hardship the strike was producing and wanted the children to have Christmas, he explained reluctantly, insisting that he remain anonymous.

``It touched my heart,'' he said. ``I'm a Christian and I thought it would be the right thing to do.''

And he could relate to the strikers, the 45-year-old added, explaining that when he moved to Arizona 20 years ago, his first job was at a copper mine in San Manuel.

``I've always had compassion for Mexico,'' he said. ``They are so close to us. We have so much and they have so little. And even when they work they only get $100 a week.''

Now in real estate, ``I'm blessed,'' he said. ``I've had a good year. I felt in my spirit that the Lord said do this.''

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