From September through December 2005, the United Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other unions – all part of the Solidarity Council for Justice – were on strike at ASARCO, provoking “the rumble in copper” in the Southwest. A month into the strike, ASARCO, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, declared bankruptcy. 1500 workers in Hayden, Kearny, Marana and Sahuarita, Arizona, as well as Amarillo, Texas, challenged the company over a range of issues: reneging on retirement benefits; refusing to pay earned vacations; changing work policies; workplace hazards; and overall violation of worker rights. The National Labor Relations Board issued complaints against ASARCO for threatening and intimidating workers and refusing to negotiate with union bargaining committees. The USW also objected to the company’s attempts to reject an effective “successor” clause that would oblige a potential purchaser to recognize the union and honor labor agreements.
Terry Bonds, USW Regional Director denounced the company’s plan:
"The Company’s so-called successor proposal is absolutely worthless. Our members must have a contract that protects them, their families and their jobs. ASARCO’s owners and creditors only have some of their money at stake. Our members have invested their lives, their blood, sweat and tears, in this company. Our members’ communities, their families and their futures are at risk. We will not gamble with our members’ lives by depending on ASARCO to encourage potential buyers to recognize and deal fairly with them. " (USW website, 9-21-05)
The strike got the attention of many groups – from the Alliance of Retired Americans to the NAACP. Workers walking the picket line not only had to sustain themselves under the usual demands of a strike, they also had to sort out who they were striking against and what ASARCO’s corporate morphing would mean on the grand stage of international labor. Both ASARCO and Grupo Mexico are formidable forces in international copper and the two companies together had amassed a horrific labor/environmental record.
Most importantly, the strike drew the support of the USW’s sister union in Mexico. Los Mineros, the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, crossed the border for solidarity pickets, and the two unions started to shape a cross-border solidarity movement. The USW and the Mineros understood how porous and malleable the border was for the company, allowing ASARCO/Grupo to relocate company records, rearrange patterns of ownership, and evade corporate accountability, all the while trying to play on the fears of both U.S. and Mexican workers. Instead of letting the company pit them against each other, the USW and the Mineros forged a solidarity movement.
Over these past five years, the USW/Mineros link has strengthened. The labor situation is dire in Mexico. Miners in the historic mining town of Cananea have been on strike since 2007 against Grupo Mexico’s systematic assault on the contractual protections that safeguarded worker and community health, safety and the environment (see the section on Cananea on this website). Grupo Mexico is notorious for the 2006 Pasta de Conchos mining disaster in which 65 miners were killed. It is also widely distrusted and feared because of its systematic attempts to break union locals in Mexico and replace them with “white” (company) unions. Although the Mexican courts initially supported the Mineros’ efforts to maintain the legal legitimacy of the Cananea strike and their union, Mexico’s Ministry of Labor has twice used federal police to break the strike and enforce Grupo Mexico’s agenda. In June 2010, federal police blocked union access to the mine, allowing the company to hire replacement workers; they attacked workers who sought refuge in the union hall, and called for the arrest of union leaders (several of whom have gone underground). At the same time federal police evicted grieving families who have maintained a multi-year vigil at the Pasta de Conchos mine, hoping to recover the bodies of their loved ones. Only two of the 65 bodies have been recovered, and the company has consistently refused to search for others.
In an increasingly complex global context, in which corporations can readily shift resources across borders, the Steelworkers continue to explore possibilities for building cross-national unions. As part of the growing solidarity between the USW and the Mineros, the USW in the US and Canada provided support and refuge to the exiled leader of the Mineros, Napoleón Gomez Urrútia. According to USW President, Leo Gerard:
"Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, has launched a reign of terror against working people. Our American union members' tax dollars should not be used to support a union-busting government in Mexico." (USW@Work, summer 2010, pg. 20)*
In August 2014 a poorly maintained Grupo Mexico dam collapsed near Canaea, sending thousands of tons of toxic waste into the Sonora River. PROFEPA, Mexico's equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, filed suit against Grupo, finding the company to be solely responsible for the release of toxins into the river. In 2016 the AFL-CIO, a major umbrella organization for U.S. unions, wrote:
"Grupo México and the Mexican government violated international standards and Mexico’s own labor law to declare the strike illegal, and ... reopen the Cananea copper mine using strikebreakers from the Mexican Workers’ Confederation (known by its Spanish acronym CTM). The mishandling of critical operations at the mine by strikebreakers led to a catastrophic spill of toxic chemical waste into the Sonora River, and the contamination of the river led to immense physical harm to the people in the towns along the river, destroying their ability to farm and earn a living."
*In 2018 Andres Manuel Obrador was elected president of Mexico. Obrador has promised to open the Pasta de Conchos mine in order to find and rescue the bodies of the 63 miners who remain entombed there. Obrador also invited Napoleón Urrútia to return to Mexico and join his goverment as a Senator.
See the section on Cananea for more on the situation facing workers, their community the environmental health of their region and the movement for cross-border solidarity.
See the section on ASARCO's Bankruptcy for more information on the impact of the bankruptcy and the challenges it poses to the labor movement.
Return to Part 1: Labor's Place in Community History
Bacon, David. “Mexican Miners Strike for Life,” American Prospect, October 1, 2007. http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=mexican_miners_strike_for_life
Bacon, David. “Right to Strike Imperiled in Cananea,” The Nation, February 11, 2008. http://www.thenation.com/article/right-strike-imperiled-cananea Grupo Mexico and Asarco: The Record Speaks for Itself. A Report by the United Steelworkers, April 2008.
“Steelworkers Condemn Grupo Mexico for Bankrupting Asarco,” August 10, 2005. USW press release. “USW Condemns Fox Government’s Suppression of Mexican Miner’s Union as ‘Naked Aggression’” March 3, 2006 USW press release.
USW@Work, Summer 2010 issue. “Reign of Terror in Mexico: Striking Copper Miners Evicted by Police;” “Los Mineros: Why It Matters;” “Los Mineros Greets USW with Applause;” “Solidarity! USW, Los Miners Announce Unification Commission;” “Los Mineros Arrest Warrant Dismissed by Mexican Court;” “Timelines: USW, Los Mineros Build Power Together”