In the northern Mexican state of Sonora lies a quiet mining town called Cananéa. In 1906 this town witnessed a violent social struggle between labor and American capital. In June 1906 miners employed by Colonel William Greene, owner of the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company, declared a work stoppage in the mines of this usually quiet town. As the workers went on strike over wages and salaries, Greene pleaded with the national government of Porfírio Díaz for help in forcing the striking workers to return to their jobs. The result was catastrophic, as Greene imported American troops from the neighboring American state of Arizona. As the troops were called in, violence broke out, and more than 10 miners were killed in the process. The social turmoil that would later become known as the Mexican Revolution had begun in this small mining town.
- 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
- 1891: Construction of Trans-Siberian Railway begins. Meanwhile, crop failures across Russia lead to widespread starvation.
- 1896: Nobel Prize is established.
- 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
- 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
- 1906: After disputes resulting from the presidential election in Cuba, various Cuban parties invite the United States, under the 1901 Platt Amendment (which limits the terms of Cuban independence), to restore order. American troops begin a three-year occupation of the country.
- 1906: German neurologist Alois Alzheimer identifies the degenerative brain disorder that today bears his name.
- 1906: An earthquake, the worst ever to hit a U.S. city, strikes San Francisco on 18 April. It kills some 2,500 people, leaves another 250,000 homeless, and destroys more than $400 million worth of property.
- 1906: The British Labour Party begins.
- 1908: The Tunguska region of Siberia experiences a strange explosion, comparable to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, whose causes will long be a subject of debate. Today many scientists believe that a comet caused the Tunguska event.
- 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
- 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
Event and Its Context
On 30 September 1899 American capitalist William Greene founded the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company with operations centered in Sonora, Mexico. The Cananea Company was one of Greene's international capitalistic ventures, which focused on agriculture and livestock. Greene's mining operation in Cananéa transformed the small town into a booming mining town. In 1891 Cananéa had a population of 100 villagers. By 1900 the town's population had expanded to over 14,000.
The mining community in Cananéa manifested economic and political inequalities with the emergence of this new operation. It became increasingly evident to many Mexican miners that their American counterparts would receive higher wages and better living conditions. The mining labor force included more than 3,500 men, of which 33 percent were Americans. The American workers held the higher-paying jobs such as camp supervisor. Moreover, when Mexican miners and American miners provided the same labor, the Mexicans received half the pay of the Americans. In Cananéa a common Mexican miner received three pesos a day while the American worker performing the same duties received between six and eight pesos a day. Clearly, the wage discrepancies were problematic for the Mexican workers.
In early 1906 workers clamored for some form of labor organization to redress their grievances against the American company. This association would be led by Manuel Diéguez and Esteban Baca Calderón, two miners who became aggravated by the social conditions of the working class in Sonora. Diéguez and Calderón assumed the leadership of the workers' movement. The miners association—which incidentally was influenced by the radical Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), whose leader, Ricardo Flores Magón, was exiled in Saint Louis, Missouri, for his radical views—specified certain social changes that needed to be implemented within the mining camps. The workers publicly demanded a minimum daily wage of five pesos; called for an eight hour workday; stated that 75 percent of the work force in the camps must be Mexican; and demanded equal pay for American and Mexican workers. This last demand was instrumental in the strategy of the leadership, which reflected a growing nationalism among the workers. They were manifestly disgruntled with the unfair and at times unequal treatment received by their Mexican colleagues. This sense of nationalism played a major role in the development of the strike. Within days, the association sent a petition to company representatives. After deliberations, the company refused the demands, citing the high comparative wages of the miners. In his response to the workers' demands, Greene intimated that the workers' job security was threatened by the aggressive actions of their leaders. Moreover, company officials in Cananéa increased the workloads of many of their workers in the mines. Once again, the actions of Greene seemed arbitrary and repressive to the Cananéa mining community. In response to the difficult work regimen, Diéguez and Calderón called for a strike. Mexican President Porfírio Díaz sent a telegram to the Sonoran governor stating that a work stoppage would not be tolerated by the national government. Diaz implied that any action taken by the workers would be met with the full force of the national government. Greene was also contemplating alternative forms of labor relations, specifically the deployment of American troops. Clearly, labor relations were intensifying in the northern mining community. On 31 May 1906 the night shift of the mines decided to begin a work stoppage in the camps. These night workers dropped their mining tools and walked out of the mines in an open act of defiance against both Greene and Díaz.
Heeding the call of the night workers for a work stoppage, the other sectors of the mining community joined the strike. On 1 June 1906 these workers walked the streets of Cananéa toward one of the many company stores located in the city. These company stores sold consumer goods at discounted prices to the workers. For many workers, they symbolized the negative influence of the American capitalist culture. Nevertheless, the workers entered the store and looted it. In the process, they set fire to the store and destroyed it. The actions angered the storeowner. Incensed by these actions, the American storeowner opened fire and killed two workers. Other workers throughout the city burned other buildings owned by the Greene interests. The local police forces were losing control of Cananéa and the Greene camps, as 3,500 workers walked the streets and threatened American interests in the city. Greene was incensed at both the actions of the workers as well as the inactivity of the state governor and Díaz in dealing with the impending crisis. Greene and the American consul in Sonora decided to assume responsibility for dealing with the striking workers. Greene imported a detachment of American Rangers to deal with the crisis. By 3 June 1906 the rioting had stopped and Cananéa was once again in a peaceful state. On the same day, many miners either returned to work or fled into the neighboring hills. The leaders of the striking workers were captured and sent to prison as political agitators.
The actions of the workers in Cananéa were neither historically nor socially isolated. The arbitrary nature of the regime of Porfírio Díaz inspired the actions of the workers. As the workers went on strike in Cananéa, workers in the mining town of Río Blanco in Veracrúz also declared a general work stoppage against the arbitrary powers of the local mill owners. Second, the Cananéa strike must be understood within the context of an intensification of the relationship between foreign capital and the regime of Porfírio Díaz. Díaz had invited foreign capital into Mexico to develop the nation's infrastructure and economy. By the end of Díaz's regime in 1910, American capitalists like William Greene owned close to 75 percent of the Mexican national economy. This elicited a nationalistic response not only from the workers in Cananéa but in other areas of the Mexican working force. This nationalism, first expressed overtly by the workers in Cananéa, proved to be a major force in the development of the Mexican political and social arena over the next few years.
The events in Cananéa had both short-and long-term ramifications for the Mexican economy and polity. To a large degree, the strike and the ensuing repression shocked the Mexican political system. The Díaz system prided itself on stability and order. The actions of the Cananéa workers undermined this stability by threatening foreign interests. Moreover, within three years opposition leaders such as Francisco I. Madero would be influenced by the actions of the Cananéa workers and the PLM. Madero would become the initial leader of what came to be known as the Mexican Revolution, a social revolution that began in 1910 and lasted 27 years. In the long run, however, the actions of the Cananéa workers indicated a growing nationalism against foreign capital. Workers in the mining community responded to the alliance between American capital and the national elites in Sonora and Mexico City. This alliance symbolized a parasitical relationship for the workers. Díaz's vendepatria policies offered fuel to the nationalistic tendencies of the working class. His defense of foreign interests in the labor conflict fed the nationalistic interests of not only the Cananéa workers but, more importantly, the entire working class. The arbitrary actions of the Díaz regime led to its downfall in 1910. Finally, the actions in 1906 indicated a growing awareness by Mexican workers of the impact of industrialization and modernization on their economic system. To a large degree, the economic policies of the past 35 years and the introduction and ubiquity of foreign capital in Mexican territory forced a reevaluation of these policies, especially after 1906. The reevaluations involved deciding whether industrialization provided benefits and goods to the worker or whether industrialization merely increased the intense nationalism of the workers who were charged with carrying out this industrialization. Essentially, the actions of the Cananéa strikers highlighted the danger of rapid industrialization in a society ill-equipped to handle such complex processes.
Díaz, Porfírio (1830-1915): President of Mexico from 1876 to1910, Díaz was instrumental in the pacification of the Cananéa workers. He was toppled in a coup in 1910 and forced to flee the country.
Diéguez, Manuel: Leader of the Cananéa Mining Workers Community, Diéguez was instrumental in calling a general work stoppage in the mining centers. A former miner, Diéguez was imprisoned after the strike.
Greene, Colonel William (1851-1911): American owner of Cananea Consolidated Company, Greene was also owner of numerous multinational enterprises specializing in cattle and agriculture.
Anderson, Rodney. Outcasts in their Own Land: Mexican Industrial Workers, 1906-1911. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.
Hart, John Mason. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.
Trueba Lara, José Luis. Cananea, 1906. Sonora: Gobierno del Estado de Sonora, 1989.
—Jaime Ramon Olivares