Copper Workers Strike to Stop Concessionary Trend

Two thousand workers have been on strike since October 13 at ASARCO’s five copper mines and smelters, four in Arizona and one in Texas. Photo: United Steelworkers. For more photos from the strike, see this Flickr album.

If you stand on the corner of Pima Mine Road near ASARCO’s Mission Mine at sunset, you might feel a chilly breeze sweep across the desert. You’ll also smell a grill and hear the chants of ASARCO miners on strike as scabs cross their picket line for the evening shift change.

On October 13, 2,000 workers walked out at the company’s five copper mines and smelters, four in Arizona and one in Texas. After the company spent months stonewalling at the bargaining table—and recently even refused to meet—the seven unions at ASARCO voted to authorize a ULP strike. The company is demanding more concessions after years of deep cuts. Under its proposals most workers would see no wage increases while their individual health insurance premiums more than double and their pensions freeze.

DIFFICULT ORGANIZING CONDITIONS

 

In 2017, workers had just accepted another concessionary contract after a seven-year wage freeze, watching the company raise their health care premiums, two-tier their pensions, and continue to withhold the bonuses that they had refused to pay since 2006. That contract, which expired last November, closed new-hires out of the pension system and set the stage for the company’s current demand to freeze pensions across the board.

After the contract, “lots of guys were wondering: What does the union do for me? Why am I paying dues?” said Eduardo Placencio, recording secretary for Steelworkers (USW) Local 937 at Mission Mine, 18 miles south of Tucson. Placencio and his coworkers handle flotation in the concentrator, where finely ground copper ore is “floated” in a chemical solution that concentrates it.

Local 937 decided to hit the ground running after the 2017 contract, using the loss as an opportunity to begin organizing around a different strategy for the next round of negotiations.

In 2017, the unions had pursued a legal strategy. They had hoped that a series of ULP charges would increase their leverage by forcing the company into arbitration where their chances were better than at the deadlocked bargaining table. But the rulings didn’t pan out under Trump’s pro-employer Labor Board.

A NEW STRATEGY

At Mission Mine, Local 937 revamped its meetings to try to introduce a stronger movement culture, drawing on the history of miners’ militancy in the West all the way back to Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They experimented with different meeting times and locations to draw in members who hadn’t participated before. In addition to regular union business they added segments on labor history, with a particular focus on militancy and strikes, showing movies like Bisbee ‘17 and Matewan. They trained new stewards and used their structure to prepare for a walkout.

“Ultimately it was the shop talk that was the foundation,” said Placencio. It was important to “have stewards in the shops getting people ready for a fight this time around as soon as we signed the last contract.”

The shift to a more militant attitude happened in other locals at ASARCO, too. For Carson Carrillo, similar worksite conversations with his steward and fellow Teamsters made all the difference. Only a year into his job as a crusher operator at Mission Mine and with no background in the labor movement before joining Teamsters Local 104, he now says he’ll get another job sooner than cross the picket line. “I’m out here because some of the older guys explained how much we have at stake. I want to be able to teach the young guys when I’m their age,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said, most of his 20 or so immediate coworkers scabbed. They operate the crusher—a house-sized cylinder which churns copper ore into smaller particles before it reaches the mill. It’s not just the “crushermen” either. Workers in the pit, where ore is lifted from the ground, have proven most resistant to joining the union and most prone to scabbing. They work in isolation from the other units and often barely interact with each other after hopping into their respective vehicles and machines at the start of their shifts.

About 15 percent of workers at the five facilities on strike in right-to-work Arizona and Texas don’t carry a union card. Workers on the picket lines estimated that one or two in every 10 have scabbed.

To make matters more complicated, they’re represented by seven different unions: USW, the Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Machinists, the Operating Engineers, the Boilermakers, the Teamsters, and the Pipefitters. Some workers say the different unions have been hamstrung by internal disputes in the past, although most agree that they haven’t seen this kind of solidarity and coordination between the locals since their last strike, a four-month walkout in 2005. Placencio credits the statewide AFL-CIO and county labor federations for helping to facilitate the unity. 

In spite of challenges like these, the striking workers estimate they’ve reduced the production of the mines by between 30 and 50 percent, and they’ve completely shut down ASARCO’s two smelters.

CHANGING OUTLOOKS

At a picket line rally at Mission Mine with workers from other sites, the mood felt split between optimism and resolute pessimism. But everyone shares a sense of rage, and the striking workers say they’ll stay out as long as it takes. Many feel that ASARCO simply has no respect for their lives.

“I make $23 an hour and I’ll eventually die from the experimental chemicals that they use here,” said a Local 937 member known as Dos Elotes. He repairs equipment in the North Mill at Mission Mine. Several workers cited the company’s failure to properly maintain their equipment, or a late coworker who was split in half by a many-ton load improperly set down by a crane. For others, it’s the fact that they haven’t seen a raise since 2009.

It doesn’t help that ASARCO is a subsidiary of the world’s third largest copper producer: Grupo Mexico, which is owned by the multi-billionaire German Larrea Mota-Velasco, Mexico’s second richest person.

Maintaining morale for the last four weeks has been difficult, but among all the challenges there are hopeful signs. In addition to shutting down the smelters, the striking miners have recently gotten a commitment from the company to resume bargaining on November 14. Workers also won a victory on the bonuses they are owed, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear ASARCO’s appeal of an arbitrator’s ruling that they pay more than $10 million in copper price bonuses to workers hired since 2011. The Steelworkers reported that the company would make the first round of these long-overdue payments, plus interest, on November 6.

Win or lose, Placencio has already seen the experience shape many of his coworkers’ outlooks. “When you have the camaraderie here that you have, people start talking about why things are happening. People start to realize why they deserve more. Dots are getting connected and people are realizing who their real enemy is, that it’s not some other guy at work who maybe they had a problem with or who’s a different race than they are.”

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