Brook D’Angelo, a member of Local 9434 in Niagara Falls, N.Y., knows that sometimes a shirt is more than just a shirt.
“Shirts can be more than just a means of fashion or to cover yourself from the elements,” D’Angelo wrote in an essay describing her experience visiting the USW’s partner union, Los Mineros, in Mexico. “They can hold power.”
That power was especially evident when 100 USW members, including D’Angelo, a public sector worker for the city of Niagara Falls, met last April in Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico, with members of Los Mineros to commemorate 65 workers who were killed in the Pasta de Conchos mine disaster.
The USW entered into a strategic alliance with Los Mineros on April 13, 2005.
On Feb. 19, 2006, an early morning methane explosion rocked a Grupo Mexico-owned coal mine in the Mexican state of Coahuila, killing dozens of workers. There has never been a thorough investigation of the disaster, and only two bodies were recovered before the mine was sealed by the government.
Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president of Los Mineros, denounced the killings and the unsafe working conditions that caused them, calling for strikes across the country.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox ordered police and military forces to attack the strikers. Two members of Los Mineros, Hector Ấlvarez Gómez and Mario Alberto Castillo Rodríguez, died in the encounter on April 20, 2006.
Every year, thousands of Los Mineros members joined by their USW brothers and sisters march through the streets on the anniversary of the disaster to commemorate the fallen workers and remind the world that the fight for safe and decent working conditions is not over.
The annual gathering is a show of cross-border unity, where members of the USW and Los Mineros share a meal and solidarity. They also share something more: their shirts.
“Though many of us don’t speak Spanish, and most Mineros don’t speak English, there is a mutual understanding of how it works,” wrote D’Angelo.
“A union member usually seeks out someone who may be roughly the same size, they point to their shirts, and after a handshake, they exchange the shirts off their backs, right there, on the field! There’s no need to shield your eyes, as women often bring an extra shirt to share.”
“I brought my shirt to the picnic in hopes of trading. I was blessed to be able to trade with a Minero – one union family to another in international solidarity,” said Heather Szymaszek from Local 1010 in Chicago, Ill., who traded shirts with Victor Mendez Sosor of Los Mineros Section 271.
“For us, it is very nice to exchange the shirts because we have a great memory forever. We thank our USW brothers and sisters,” said Riccardo Torres Oregon, who exchanged shirts with Del Vitale, assistant to District 4 Director John Shinn.
“It is such a great feeling to show a true connection and solidarity by exchanging shirts. It is the final touch to show how united we all are,” Shinn said as he traded with MaDelia Huerta, wife of Los Minero member Jaime Rodriguez.
“There was something that truly crossed the language barrier. The feeling of true international solidarity was bright and evident,” D’Angelo wrote.
“If any Steelworker was lucky enough to get a Los Mineros shirt at the picnic, it will not get buried in the closet, but will be worn often, with reverence and pride.”