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Labor Fights Back

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

Big Picture Labor Movement

By 2000, the United Steelworkers had grown into a large amalgamated organization, pulling in other unions that sought strength in numbers. Especially significant was the inclusion of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, a path-setter in workplace and environmental health. In 2004-05 this broader union movement began to explore new strategies to strengthen labor communities; it has also played a major role in the formation of broad coalitions and solidarity movements. The USW’s struggles with ASARCO, before and during the four-plus years of its bankruptcy involved several significant efforts.

Fighting Asarco’s “Right to Pollute”

In Arizona, ASARCO sued residents in Hayden and neighboring Winkelman who were trying to hold the company accountable for unusually high levels of pollution which posed clear public health risks to the workers and the community. ASARCO’s legal assault on residents was based on its claim that its 1912 deed gave the company the right to discharge unlimited amounts of dust, smoke and other contaminants onto the town without incurring any responsibility for damages. The company’s story came down to this: the copper companies got there first; people who settled in the area to work at the mine and smelter did so at their own risk. Manny Armenta, who was born in Hayden, and is now the Sub-District Director for USW, Region 12, condemned ASARCO’s abuse of the town:

"I knew that ASARCO was desperate to escape responsibility for its legacy of pollution, but this marks a new low. Citing a nearly century old agreement between two companies to provide legal cover for jeopardizing people’s health is an abuse of our justice system. ASARCOs legal argument of ‘We were here first’ is a slap in the face to the hardworking residents of our communities."

Although some elements of the political right denounce “frivolous lawsuits,” it is clear that the law is a tool citizens must be able to use to defend themselves and their communities from corporate abuse. ASARCO has been part of an effort to legislate “tort reform” to stifle and block these democratic routes of redress. ASARCO’s legal maneuvers against retirees and citizens opposing public health hazards pose a fierce threat to workers’ rights, retirees’ rights and the public’s right to a healthy environment. That the union stepped up to defend retirees’ benefits and the rights of townspeople to investigate their environment is a credit to their capacity to shape a broad social justice approach to the needs of the labor movement today.

Fighting the Government’s Dismissive Approach to Community Health in Texas

On occasion the Steelworkers Union has lent its strength to supporting quality environmental health research and community protections. In October 2004 the union discovered that internal EPA documents regarding children’s lead exposure (which the agency attributes to ASARCO’s emissions) were not being used to develop protective measures in the community. By ignoring their own staff scientists and the standards recommended by independent scientists, the EPA was failing the El Paso community. Agency research on 2,000 El Paso soil samples and medical testing of area children suggested that the widely agreed-upon 500 parts-per-million lead level should guide cleanup efforts in the area. (While broadly accepted, the 500ppm standard is not universal; in Washington State, the Department of Ecology made 250ppm the action level—the level at which remediation is required. This level is consistent across the state—except in areas of federal jurisdiction, like the Superfund site in Ruston, where 500ppm was negotiated between ASARCO and the EPA).

Despite staff recommendations and wide agreement about safe standards, the EPA, along with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, proposed a more lax 640ppm cleanup level. Diane Heminway, USW Environmental Projects Coordinator, challenged the agencies:

"The truth is out. EPA is ignoring its own internal analysis and standards and publicly advocating a less stringent cleanup that will not protect El Paso children from lead poisoning."

Arguing that the EPA was resorting to a highly questionable model, Heminway added,

"The key question is, why is EPA using a model that relies on assumptions and guesses when they have real human and environmental data on the community?"

Manny Armenta pointed to the discriminatory features of the EPA/TCEQ approach:

"EPA is publicizing October as Children’s Health Month and claims that it is …protecting children from lead poisoning and doing outreach to Hispanic communities. Lead-contaminated areas of El Paso are predominantly Hispanic. So why is the EPA now backtracking on a thorough cleanup?

Armenta added:

"EPA recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Urban League, in which the EPA expressed its concern about protecting children’s health and providing clean land for all citizens, including socioeconomically disadvantaged ones. Well, EPA backtracking on a thorough cleanup suggests that its commitment to upholding this agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is difficult to believe EPA would ever propose this in a predominantly rich, white community.” (USWA, October 25, 2004)

In 2005—the year ASARCO declared bankruptcy—the USW continued to challenge the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, calling into question the TCEQ’s review of ASARCO’s air permit. ASARCO closed its El Paso smelter in 1999 and applied for a renewed air permit in 2002—an action that generated intense community discussion and led to the creation of a coalition opposed to the permit that included environmental activists, former ASARCO employees, public officials, and residents of El Paso, Juarez, Mexico and Anapra, New Mexico. Opposition to the permit centered on the dangers of ASARCO’s emissions and its known record of exceeding national health standards. Noting inconsistencies and a weakening of agency protections of the public, the USW aggressively challenged the agencies to take the public’s vulnerability more seriously. In a USW press release, District 12 Director Terry Bonds took a community health protective stance.

"Corporations that have been trusted with air pollution permits should be held strictly accountable to the communities where they operate, so we must demand answers to these and other questions before we allow ASARCO the privilege of a renewed permit."

This environmental and community protective position, with its challenge to uphold science and stringent cleanup standards, is somewhat unusual for a U.S. union. It shows how labor can, with sustained research and strategy, help build broader community-environment-workplace linkages. As ASARCO’s complex, opaque bankruptcy progressed, however, the USW, challenged by the economic vulnerability of its members and the grueling legal process of dealing with a morphing, mobile company, moved away from its earlier emphasis on public health. Still, the union’s work in and around Hayden and El Paso reveals the possibility that unions can craft policies, and forge alliances that link economic and environmental justice politics.


“Copper Communities Gear up to Fight Asarco Actions,” USWA Strategic Campaigns, retrieved 6/24/2005

“EPA Ignores Own Research on Health Threats from Asarco Pollution,” October 2004, USWA Strategic Campaigns. Retrieved 6/24/05

Mines and Communities, “News from the United Steelworkers: USW Condemns Asarco’s ‘Right to Pollute”; Union Pushes for Responsible Operation and Environmental Cleanup.” 5-19-05

“Union Questions Legality of Asarco Permit Renewal of TCEQ,” July 13, 2005.


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