The El Paso smelter, destroyed in 2013 because of its high pollution, is emblematic of the sprawling ASARCO franchise.
The United Steelworkers(USW) and several other unions—Teamsters, Boilermakers, Electricians, Machinists & Aerospace workers, Automobile workers, and Operating Engineers—representing nearly 2000 employees who work in ASARCO copper mines, smelters and refineries in five facilities in southern Arizona as well as in Texas are on strike against ASARCO, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico.
All of us who value workers, who value families, who value fairness, who value civil rights, who value history should support the strike and the workers. Ours is a working-class community, and labor history and Mexican American history are greatly intertwined.
Below are details about how you—whether you live in Tucson, in Arizona, or anywhere else—can support the strikers.
Strikes: a longstanding American tradition…
Strikes are an American tradition. The first documented strike in North America occurred in 1619. Craftsmen recruited from Poland to the Virginia colony to produce pitch, tar, and turpentine used for shipbuilding became an important part of the local economy and the colony. But when the first colony elections were held in 1619, the Polish workers were not allowed to vote. The craftsmen called a work stoppage and demanded the right to vote. The workers won the strike and the right to vote.
Workers have been striking since then. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were over 20 major labor strikes in 2018. There were teacher strikes in Arizona and elsewhere in 2018. These generated much public attention and support because teachers are justifiably deemed to be very important workers and contributors to society. The ASARCO strikers are also important workers and contributors to society and merit our support.
What’s the ASARCO strike about?
The National Labor Relations Board has cited ASARCO for unfair labor practices.
ASARCO has been acting in bad faith for years. The National Labor Relations Board cited ASARCO for unfair labor practices such as unlawfully implementing portions of its “last, best and final” contract proposal, refusing to bargain, unilaterally changing working conditions, and other violations of federal labor laws.
ASARCO’s “last, best and final” contract proposal:
* Would freeze the existing pension plan …
* Would more than double the out-of-pocket contribution individual workers already pay for health care …
* Did not include wage increases for nearly two-thirds of workers—the last wage increase for ASARCO workers was in 2009 …
* Also, ASARCO was refusing to pay a negotiated quarterly bonus (up to $8,000 a year per worker) based on the price of copper to the hundreds of employees hired after June 30, 2011.
An Arbitrator ordered ASARCO to pay the bonuses in Dec. 2014. ASARCO refused to pay the bonuses. The matter went to court, and in 2016, U.S. District Judge Stephen M. McNamee ordered ASARCO to pay the bonuses. Judge McNamee’s order was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court denied ASARCO’s petition to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision. ASARCO has now exhausted all its appeals and must comply with the arbitrator’s decision—five (5) years after the original decision.
Standing with the unions…
Arizona has a long history of miners striking for fair pay as in this picket line in 1983.
Ours is a union family. Over the years my wife and I have walked hundreds of miles on picket lines and marches, a good portion of these have been on behalf of unions and the workers they represent. Being union is woven into the fabric of our lives.
My wife Cecilia’s father, Roberto Cruz, was a founding member of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), popularly known as “Mine Mill,” in Hayden-Winkelman, one of the mining towns in the heart of Arizona’s “Copper Belt.” During the 1950s and 1960s Hayden-Winkelman’s IUMMSW Local 886 sponsored several strikes and work actions. Entire families participated in the union’s actions. Thus, my wife and her sister grew up on the union picket lines. The IUMMSW evolved into the United Steelworkers.
For my part, I was born into and raised in a union household. Both my parents were union members—my Dad in the Plasterers and Cement Masons union, my Mom the Electrical Workers. I myself joined my first union when I was a teenager. I have organized unions (sanitation workers) and have negotiated union contracts.
Arizona miners and their unions have a rich civil-rights history…
Mining and miners are integral aspects of Arizona history. Copper mining in Arizona goes back to the late 1800s, when copper replaced silver as an essential metal. Entire towns in Arizona were built around the mines, which sustained thousands of families. In their heyday, the mines employed close to 20,000 workers. Today, copper mining and refining still supports thousands of jobs in Arizona. Miners have been a huge economic force in Arizona and they are still. But their value to our state is more than economic.
Entire communities, such as this one in Clifton Morenci, developed around Arizona’s mining industry.
Mining town unions have not only brought stability and prosperity to thousands of families, they have been major players in the civil-rights arena. Let’s take a stroll down history lane and pull up a sampling of this aspect of the union (space limitations prohibit a full discussion):
* In the late 1940s, early 1950s the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began organizing in the Arizona mines. The mining companies fomented racism against the Mexican American miners: the company-owned housing and recreational facilities (e.g., swimming pools) were segregated, and the companies maintained a “Mexican Wage” system under which miners of Mexican descent were paid less than their Anglo counterparts.
The IUMMSW, a CIO union, confronted the mining companies, demanding that all workers be treated equally. In the Cold War era, racial equality was perceived to be a “Communist” notion, and the IUMMSW was seriously red-baited. Despite the fierce opposition, criticism, and red baiting it faced, the IUMMSW/USW succeeded in obtaining good contracts for its workers, and it was a key player in desegregating the mining towns in Arizona.
* From the 1920s to the 1950s, the KKK purveyed its agenda of hate in Arizona, influencing state and local elections and creating fear and anxiety among the citizenry. Catholics were targeted by the KKK. This hate campaign encompassed Mexican American miners in that most of them were Catholic. Up through the 1950s, there were several cross burnings by the “Ku Klanes” in the Arizona mining towns, including in my wife’s hometown of Hayden-Winkelman. The IUMMSW/USW stood up to the KKK and was instrumental in driving the KKK out of Arizona.
In the 1960s unionists invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak to their convention underscoring union support for civil rights.
* In the early 1960s, the IUMMSW invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at its state convention in Tucson. At this time the powers-that-be were labeling King a communist and were discouraging people and groups from associating with King and his movement. The unions rose above that smear campaign and stood with MLK and his movement.
As noted, this is merely a sampling, but it illustrates the unions’ longstanding commitment to civil rights during times when standing for civil rights was not a popular thing to do.
The strikers deserve your support—here’s how…
The unions who today are fighting ASARCO-Grupo Mexico are respecting their history and heritage and acting in the tradition of real unions—they are standing tall and fighting for workers. To reiterate: the striking workers deserve the support of those of us who value workers, who value families, who value fairness, who value civil rights, who value history.
* Send a check to the Strike Fund … make it out to PALF Community Services and mail it to PALF 877 S. Alvernon Way, Tucson, AZ 85711 …
* If there is a Kroger-chain store or a Safeway (these are union stores) where you live, send a gift card from these stores to the Strike Food Pantry at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), 750 S Tucson Blvd, Tucson AZ 85716 …
* Those of you who are based in Tucson/Pima County:
Take some non-perishable food—or gift cards from union grocery stores like Safeway or Fry’s—to the Strike Food Pantry at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), 750 S Tucson Blvd Tucson AZ—this is south of Broadway, south of St. Ambrose Church/School …
You can go picket with the workers. Call (520) 347 3336.
You can go picket with the workers. Call (520) 347 3336 to find out what the best time to go is and other relevant information.
The 1930s union song “Which side are you on?,” written by a union activist during a fierce struggle between the United Mine Workers of America and the mine operators in Harlan County, Kentucky, is as relevant today as it was then. The current strike against ASARCO offers a great opportunity for us to be on the right side of history. Support the strikers! c/s
Special Thanks to eminent Arizona historian Dr. Christine Marín for her invaluable assistance.
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Photos of 1983 strike and Labor on the March copyright by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.