Photo: Striking Asarco workers rally outside a mining convention in Phoenix, Arizona
By Destinee Fuerte
On Monday, striking copper workers from the American Smelting and Refining Company LLC (Asarco) staged a protest outside of the Phoenix Convention Center as their employers attended a national conference of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration. After 4 months on strike, there is no end in sight for the 1700 Asarco workers in Arizona and Texas, who are still standing strong in their demand for a fair labor contract.
Asarco, headquartered in Tuscon, Arizona, deals in copper mining, smelting, and refining, and is owned by Grupo Mexico, one of the largest mining corporations in the world. The strike began on October 13 last year and has been led by the United Steel Workers Union (USW). The Asarco workers on strike are based in three mines and a smelting facility in Southern Arizona, as well as a copper refinery in Amarillo, Texas.
The latest strike began after Asarco proposed a contract that would continue a decade long pay raise freeze, double out-of-pocket health care costs, and end existing pension plans. The plan, described by Asarco as their “last, best, and final offer,” went into effect in December 2019 even after it was rejected by 77% of workers.
Over the past four months, the community has been supporting the striking workers through food and monetary donations, and various community organizations have joined a “sponsor the picket line” initiative. Aid has also come from other unions, but many of the workers have been forced to rely on side jobs to pay the bills. “It’s been hard, a lot of pressure on the family just trying to get by day by day,” said Julio Cabrera, one of the strikers at the Phoenix protest.
Bourgeois politicians have attempted to co-opt the workers’ struggle to serve their own political ambitions. This week, Julián Castro, former HUD secretary and Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, stopped by the ASARCO picket line in Tucson to promote Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination for President. Castro claimed that Warren “wants to invest in American workers,” an empty phrase used by both Democrats and Republicans to appear ‘worker-friendly’ while doing everything possible to uphold the decaying imperialist system that necessarily pushes them into destitution and further exploitation.
Recently, there have been concerns that the National Labor Relations Board may determine that the workers are not striking for ‘unfair labor conditions,’ but for higher pay in what they term an ‘economic strike.’ From a legal standpoint, Asarco must reinstate striking workers once a deal is reached. However, if the Board decides that it is an ‘economic strike,’ the workers could be fired and replaced.
Still, the workers show no signs of stopping. A member of the USW, Alex Terrazasa, said, “[the strike is] a fight for our future, for our families. Right now we’re dealing with this corporate tyrant that is all about greed and doesn’t care about the workers. We’re tired of being disrespected. We’re gonna take back our futures. We’re gonna take back our children’s futures. We are the working class. We are the people that matter. We keep this country going. We are the backbone.”
This is not the first time workers have struggled against Asarco and the Grupo Mexico conglomerate. In 2005, Asarco was facing bankruptcy and attempted to freeze wages and reduce pensions and medical benefits, leading to a four-month strike. Workers from Texas and Arizona formed tight bonds during the strike, creating the Solidarity Council for Justice and publishing a joint newsletter named The Rumble. There were also several displays of solidarity from across the border in Mexico, with thousands of miners holding an hour-long work stoppage and approximately 50 workers from Grupo Mexico’s Cananea copper mine visiting the picket lines in Arizona in support.
The workers ultimately won a new contract back then as Asarco filed for bankruptcy and was put into the hands of the creditors by a judge, eventually being bought back by Grupo Mexico in 2009. This same company returned to squeezing its workers in order to pay back its debts as quickly as possible, despite Asarco’s already high profitability.
Grupo Mexico was also the target of violent protests from poor peasants in the Arequipa region in Peru over the construction of the massive Tia Maria copper mine. Local residents fought tooth and nail as the mine was expected to have a negative impact on farming land and the water supply. Grupo Mexico pushed for its construction for over ten years, facing violent resistance every time, until it was eventually green-lit on October 30, 2019 after being briefly suspended due to protests and roadblocks.
While Asarco workers have been steadfast in their strike, strikebreakers and scabs (replacement workers) have continued to work, limiting the effectiveness of the strike as copper production continues. The leadership of the USW and other sellout unions has condemned the strike by keeping it within legal boundaries, which includes preventing workers from blocking or confronting strikebreakers.
USW in particular pushes electoral politics that are only capable of leading the workers back into the dead-end of bourgeois elections. These reformist solutions ultimately cannot solve the root of the problem, which is the exploitation that lies at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. It is the workers themselves, not the union leadership, who are the heroes in this struggle, and while their desire for better working conditions is justified, without political power they will continually run into the same obstacles created by the bosses and the obscenely rich capitalists that own Asarco and Grupo Mexico.