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Arizona steelworkers continue strike despite COVID-19

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

 

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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.