Copper strikers fight Asarco union busting

Bitter strike battle enters 8th week, no end in sight

By Seth Galinsky
and Bernie Senter
December 16, 2019
Striking copper workers picket at Asarco Ray Mine near Kearny, Arizona, in November.
United SteelworkersStriking copper workers picket at Asarco Ray Mine near Kearny, Arizona, in November.

As the bitter strike by some 1,700 workers against Asarco copper bosses’ union-busting drive entered its eighth week, the company claimed there is an “impasse” in negotiations. It is implementing its “best, last and final” offer as of Dec. 2.

Asarco’s final offer includes doubling or tripling health insurance costs, freezing wages for three-quarters of the copper workers — who haven’t had a raise in nearly 10 years — freezing pensions and eliminating contractual protections for union activity on the job. The only people toiling at the company’s mines, smelters and refineries today are a growing number of strikebreakers and some workers who’ve crossed the picket lines.

In a letter to Asarco, Manny Armenta, United Steelworkers District 12 sub-director and lead negotiator for the seven unions on strike, objected to “the Company’s unilateral implementation” of its contract, saying the unions have put a new proposal on the table. Since the strike began, Asarco has only agreed to one meeting, Nov. 14, at which it refused to negotiate. The company hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment from the Militant or any other media.

“Asarco’s intention is to write the union out of the workplace,” Steelworkers Local 937 President Alex Terrazas, told the Militant by phone Nov. 30. “For the guys out on strike it’s no surprise.” Terrazas is a utility worker at the Mission open-pit mine. The unions are “gearing up for Christmas, reaching out and making sure no striker’s family goes without gifts,” Terrazas said.

“The company is taking a stance of take it or leave it,” Greg Schuett, Steelworkers unit chair at the Silver Bell Mine, said by phone, adding “Grupo Mexico [which owns Asarco] is notorious for doing stuff like this.”

Strikers at Asarco’s four Arizona mining complexes and its refinery in Amarillo, Texas, continue to win broad solidarity and aid. Unions and working people made sure all strikers’ families had Thanksgiving meals at the picket lines.

High stakes involved

A lot is at stake in the strike. Asarco is the last unionized copper company in Arizona at a time when mining bosses are pouring billions of dollars into expanding copper production for anticipated new markets.

Before the strike Asarco spent $229 million modernizing its Hayden, Arizona, smelter. Nonunion Freeport McMoRan is completing a $250 million modernization of its smelter near Globe, Arizona. Resolution Copper is spending over $2 billion to open a new mine shaft and restart production at the Magma Mine.

Asarco is willing to forego substantial profits today in their drive to defeat the strike and break the unions, and make up the “loss” and then some afterwards.

Century of union battles

There is a long history of fights for union protection and job safety by workers in Arizona copper mines, as well as vicious attacks by the copper barons backed by the government to block advances by the union.

Between 1906 and 1907 some 1,200 men were fired for fighting for a union in the copper mines, many of them workers of Mexican and southern European descent. In July 1917 armed vigilantes at the service of Phelps Dodge and other copper barons rounded up more than 1,000 copper workers on strike for better wages and safe working conditions and forcibly “deported” them to New Mexico. The Bisbee town government mounted guards on all roads into town to make sure “troublemakers” couldn’t return.

Workers succeeded over time in battling and winning the union at the major copper complexes in the state. But in 1983, Phelps Dodge decided it would no longer go along with “pattern” bargaining agreements reached between the unions and bosses at Kennecott and Magma, forcing the workers out on strike.

When the bosses brought in scab labor to reopen their Morenci mine, a thousand strikers and supporters blocked the gates, shutting down production.

Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, traveled to the area and pressured the unions to agree to a 10-day cooling off period, promising this would lead to an acceptable settlement.

The strikers found they’d been bamboozled. On the morning of Aug. 19, 1983, a miles-long convoy of armored tanks, other vehicles, armed national guard and SWAT teams made its way up the mountain road to the mine entrance, ensuring the scabs could go back to work.

In October 1984, Phelps Dodge engineered a government-monitored vote — with the strikers excluded — that decertified the union. By February 1986, the strike was officially over after the National Labor Relations Board rejected the unions’ appeal.

The mine is now owned by Freeport-McMoRan and is still run nonunion.

Over the next decades the remaining unionized mines closed, leaving Asarco as the only major unionized copper company in the state.

International solidarity

The striking unions have filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which hasn’t said when it intends to take it up. But with the bosses planning to crank up production with strikebreakers, strike solidarity is needed more than ever.

Solidarity has begun coming in from around the world. “We support your struggle for fair pay rises, fair bonuses and fair treatment after years of austerity and pay freezes,” said a resolution sent by the Mining & Energy Workers division of the CFMEU of Australia. The union represents 20,000 coal and metal-ore mining workers.

The Fensuagro agricultural workers union and the USO oil workers union in Colombia as well as indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups there sent solidarity videos in both Spanish and English to the Asarco strikers.

More is needed. Strike supporters are encouraged to come strengthen the picket lines, which are up 24/7. Urge your union to send a generous contribution to the strike fund and food pantry, to the Pima Area Labor Federation Community Services via

Circulate solidarity messages, cards and holidays greetings for coworkers to sign and send them to the strikers at