Copper miners strike against Asarco union busting nears six-month mark

By Bernie Senter
April 13, 2020

Picketing is “constitutionally protected” activity, United Steelworkers Local 886 President Greg Romero said in a March 31 letter to strikers, affirming that pickets remain 24/7 at Asarco’s Hayden complex. Pickets at Mission and Silver Bell mines have been suspended by union locals there due to the coronavirus pandemic, but affirm the strike continues. Food pantries are open, strike benefits continue.

“We still get people swinging by the strike picket lines donating water and food,” Lyle Murphy told the Militant by phone March 30. Murphy has worked at Asarco’s Ray Mine near Kearny, Arizona, for 16 years and is president of United Steelworkers Local 5252.

Some 1,700 copper miners in Arizona and Texas are heading toward their sixth month on strike against Asarco. They face bosses determined to impose steep concessions in wages and health benefits and to bust the unions.

Union members and their supporters continue to maintain 24-hour picket lines at all Asarco mines and processing facilities. But the United Steelworkers, Teamsters and members of five other unions have thinned the number of picketers in response to government urging during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We limit the picket line to a maximum of 10 people now with what’s going on,” Murphy said. And weekly dinners at the Mission and Silver Bell mines that drew many miners with their families and supporters have been temporarily suspended.

Because of runs on food stores, the union’s food bank in Kearny was closed March 16 and the one in Tucson is short of supplies.

“We’re going to get the food pantry going again soon,” Murphy said. “We got a call a few hours ago from a food bank in Superior. They had 60 boxes of food left over they wanted to contribute. Our members are going to get them.”

Asarco is owned by Grupo Mexico, one of the giant international mining conglomerates that dominate the industry worldwide. The company is seeking to continue its decadelong wage freeze for most workers and to limit the unions’ right to protect workers on the job.

The bosses have continued some production at its three open-pit mines in Arizona — Ray, Mission and Silver Bell — with workers who have crossed the picket lines, replacement workers, nonunion contractors and supervisors.

At the Ray Mine, bosses run two buses of scabs every day from Tucson and Phoenix. “From what we can tell, they’re running six to nine haul trucks and one to two shovels each shift,” Murphy said. “When we were out there we operated 30 trucks and five shovels and loaders.”

The company’s smelter in Hayden has been idle since the beginning of the strike. “They say they want to fire up the smelter in May but we’ll see,” Murphy said. Before the strike the company poured in $229 million to upgrade the smelter after the Environmental Protection Agency fined them for pollution.

As part of its effort to bust the union, Asarco petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to decertify USW Local 937 at the Silver Bell Mine. Nearly 150 workers are employed there. The company says over 90% crossed the picket line and only 11 workers on strike are members of the union. This isn’t the case at the other mines where a big majority joined the strike.

The NLRB on March 5 dismissed Asarco’s petition. The company “only establishes that a very small minority of unit employees have made statements about their dissatisfaction with the Union,” the NLRB regional director said. The company appealed the ruling.

Arizona, where most copper mining in the U.S. takes place, has a long history of miners fighting to unionize against stiff resistance by the copper barons backed by the state.

In 1983 Phelps Dodge forced workers at its Morenci mine out on strike. Union picket lines of over 1,000 repulsed company efforts to herd scabs into the mine. Then the governor called up the National Guard and posted sharpshooters at the mine to escort scabs in.

A year after the strike started, the federal government orchestrated a union decertification election without the strikers able to vote. Asarco is seeking to do something similar at the Silver Bell Mine.

These copper miners standing up to Asarco deserve your support and solidarity. Send messages and donations to USW Local 915 Strike Assistance, P.O. Box 550, Kearny, AZ 85137; USW Local 5252 Strike Assistance, P.O. Box 896, Kearny, AZ 85137; USW Local 5613, 4230 Texas Hwy 136, Amarillo, TX 79108; or via for Tucson-area strikers. Solidarity messages can be sent to Contribute to the food pantries at: USW 915 and 886 hall, 107 Hammond Dr., Kearny; IBEW Local 570 hall, 750 S. Tucson Blvd., Tucson; USW Local 5613, 4230 Texas Hwy 136, Amarillo, Texas.