Arizona steelworkers continue strike despite COVID-19

After more than a decade without a raise, workers are asking for a better contract.

  • Community organizers provide tacos and a movie for a community night at the Silver Bell Mine picket line.

  • A retired union member pickets in solidarity with the USW 915.

  • Asarco Ray Mine in Kearny, Arizona.

  • The sun sets over the picket line outside of the Ray Mine entrance in Kearny, Arizona.

  • The crusher building sits idle at the Asarco complex in Hayden, Arizona.

  • A haul road at the Asarco Ray Mine sees little to no traffic after roughly 800 workers walked out on strike in October of last year.

  • A cross memorializing the death of a miner rests on the edge of the Asarco Ray Mine in Kearny, Arizona.

  • Copper Basin Railway, owned by Asarco/Grupo Mexico, delivers sulfuric acid to the Ray Mine from Mexico. The Hayden Smelter produces acid for the mine, 20 miles away, but has closed due to the ongoing strike.

  • Gregory Romero, USW 915 President, cooks lunch for the workers on strike at the union hall in Kearny, Arizona.

  • Contractors arriving by bus to cross the picket line at the Asarco Ray Mine.

  • List of scabs inside the USW Local 915 union hall.

  • Picketers gather for a community night at the Silver Bell Mine picket line.

  • The children of striking union workers play on the picket line at the Silver Bell Mine outside of Tuscon, Arizona.

  • A contractor crosses the picket line to deliver sulphuric acid to the Silver Bell Mine outside of Tuscon, Arizona. Sulphuric acid has to be brought in by truck since Union Pacific refuses bring trains across the picket line.

  • Work continues inside the South Mill at the Asarco Mission Mine outside of Tucson, Arizona.

  • A scarecrow depicts scabs at the entrance of the Mission Mine outside of Tuscon, Arizona.


 

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In October 2019, Arizona steelworkers decided they had had enough. Their employer, the mining corporation Asarco and its parent company, Grupo Mexico, had made a final offer: a contract that would have raised workers’ health-care premiums by two-thirds, reduced their pensions and denied what would have been their first salary increase in more than decade. Arizona’s last unionized copper workers rejected the offer. 

“This is a fight for our future and for our families,” said Alex Terrazas, president of United Steelworkers Local 937, in a video produced by the union. “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.”

Workers describe the company’s cutthroat negotiation techniques as an attempt to break one of the last vestiges of labor power in Arizona, which has passed right-to-work laws and other anti-union measures over the past few decades. So they went on strike, and they have stayed on strike.

Since last fall, about 2,000 teamsters and steelworkers have refused to return to work at Asarco’s copper mine, mill and refineries until the company negotiates a fairer contract. To support them, unions from around the country sent financial aid and shipments of food and presents for families of workers, who continued to strike even during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But now, the novel coronavirus has disrupted the strike. COVID-19 complicates the picket line and communal gatherings that embodied the union’s collective power. The Tucson picket lines have been halted because of the virus, but workers are still picketing an Asarco mine and smelter. The union says it is still waiting for Asarco to resume negotiations, and the workers plan to continue the strike. These photos from early February show the community’s resilience as well as the solidarity that made the extended strike possible — even now, as the coronavirus has made gathering together more difficult. —Nick Bowlin, editorial fellow

Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the picket line in Tucson has been halted, but picket lines at two other Asarco locations are continuing. 

Justin Hamel is a documentary and editorial photographer based in El Paso, Texas. Follow him on Instagram. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.