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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 46November 28, 2005


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(lead article)
Copper workers in Southwest
push back company concessions
Return to work confident after four-month strike
AP/John Miller
Members of United Steelworkers and other striking unions picket Asarco’s facilities near Hayden, Arizona, July 8. The 1,500 workers returned to work November 16 after pushing back proposed cuts in wages, pensions, and health-care coverage.

KEARNY, Arizona—Some 1,500 copper miners in Arizona and Texas overwhelmingly approved an agreement with Asarco November 13, ending a four-month strike that pushed back company concession demands. It was the first walkout in U.S. copper mines in 15 years. “We forced Asarco to back off of all their take-back demands,” said Martha Sharp, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 915 and a mill operator, as she picketed at the entrance of the Ray open pit mine here. “The company sought to cut our wages by $4 to $5 per hour, make huge cuts in medical coverage, do away with pensions for new hires, and freeze pension payments for the rest of us.”

Strikers returned to work at the five Arizona sites and one Texas site November 16 under an existing contract that has been extended until Dec. 31, 2006. Although the unions did not win a new contract, miners explained that the agreement shows the miners were strong enough to prevent across-the-board concessions. At the same time, workers said they realize they may be back on the picket lines next year.

“We conducted a disciplined strike and are proud of what we accomplished,” said Tony Pizano, a member of USW Local 915 and union veteran for 28 years. “There were no unnecessary firings and, after months of stalling, we forced the company to agree to a successorship clause that requires any buyer of Asarco to recognize the union.” This clause was the major sticking point in negotiations until recently. Former Asarco chief executive officer Daniel Tellechea argued that such a clause would diminish the company’s market value. Days before the settlement Tellechea resigned as CEO. His hardball stance became an obstacle in the eyes of Asarco’s creditors.

On November 14, a bankruptcy court in Corpus Christi, Texas, approved the settlement. Asarco had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection there shortly after the strike began.

With copper prices at record levels of about $2 per pound, 50 cents higher than when workers walked out, Asarco has been losing ground to Phelps Dodge, its main competitor and the largest U.S. copper producer. In the first nine months of this year, Phelps Dodge’s net income reached $1.4 billion, roughly double that of the same period in 2004. Phelps Dodge bosses broke the unions in a 1983 strike with the aid of state authorities, who sent in the National Guard to help herd scabs into the mines.

The unions also forced Asarco to resume payment of both long- and short-term disability payments to former employees and surviving spouses, according to The Rumble in Copper, a union newsletter. Asarco had used its bankruptcy status to halt payments to 117 workers, many of whom are out of work due to on-the-job injuries.

The copper giant got a black eye October 6 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a formal complaint against the company, charging Asarco with violations of labor law related to “the withholding of accrued vacation benefits, interrogation of union workers and surveillance of union activities,” the Arizona Daily Star reported. “We found the violations were serious enough to have provoked the strike,” the NLRB director in Phoenix told the media.

No love is lost between the town of Kearny and Asarco, either. The Copper Basin News, a local daily, reported November 9 that Asarco has used bankruptcy laws to skirt paying property taxes to the town for the second time in three years.

During the four-month walkout, thousands of working people in the surrounding copper towns backed the striking workers. Strikers who had to take jobs elsewhere are streaming back to their jobs in the mines. The mood here is upbeat as the union and its supporters prepare for the next stage of the struggle.

Dean Hazlewood contributed to this article.
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