For many years ASARCO in Ruston was one of the largest employers in the county, employing 1300 workers at its peak. The smelter’s operations helped build and shape the economy of the region and were central to the development of port operations in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. ASARCO’s slag (a metallic waste product derived from smelting) built up the tideflats around the bay, enabling industrial development.
In Ruston, ASARCO's taxes provided virtually all of Ruston’s municipal revenues. Most Ruston residents had family members who worked at the smelter or at one of the nearby businesses which depended on smelter workers' income. Smelter workers who lived in the community generally walked to work, but at the end of a shift, when workers were tired, it was a long walk back up the hill to town. On payday there were other temptations as well. On the walk home workers had to pass several bars, any one of which would cash a check and start a tab for an ASARCO employee and his friends. Attentive spouses tended to head off this problem by picking up their men as they left the plant on payday.
The smelter regularly hired the children of its employees; and young men from the community and nearby Tacoma often worked at the smelter in the summer and joined the permanent workforce when they left school. After World War II, ASARCO had a policy of requiring its workers to have high school diplomas. The work was known to be hard, hot, and dangerous, but it paid well, in part because of an active union, which could mobilize the support of virtually the entire town during strikes. There was a major strike in 1946, a lockout in 1950 and another lockout and major work stoppage in 1959. After the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers union merged with the United Steelworkers in 1967, the union struck for 9 and ½ months. According to Chuck O’Donahue, the last business agent for the Steelworkers, “Strikes were a common thing to us. Every 3 years we would strike.”
O’Donahue recalls that the Steelworkers had established coordinated bargaining systems with the steel and aluminum industry. Under coordinated bargaining a single contract was negotiated with multiple employers and the contracts expired simultaneously. Coordinated bargaining was a powerful tool used by unions to bring pressure to bear on recalcitrant companies. After the Steelworkers took over the Mine-Mill locals, they attempted to introduce coordinated bargaining into the copper industry, but were unsuccessful. He told us:
We are going to have consolidated bargaining; we would all sit at one table-- Kennecott, Anaconda, Phelps-Dodge, ASARCO … But there was no coordinated bargaining … ASARCO would say, “I don’t care what those sons of bitches from Phelps Dodge say … I don’t care what they got, don’t expect to get it in your contract.” They hated each other! … It took the Steelworkers 6 months to finally realize that was never ever going to happen.
After the 1979 contract was signed, some employees’ wives sued ASARCO for gender discrimination. The company had no female employees. The company responded by hiring several women, all of whom received letters from the plant’s doctor–ASARCO’s medical director, Sherman Pinto. The letter warned that arsenic in plant emissions was potentially harmful to women’s reproductive systems. One of the new employees showed Chuck the letter.
I read it. And I said, “Well, are you thinking of having children? It’s telling you that if you’re gonna work down here, you shouldn’t. That arsenic is harmful to the reproductive organs of the female. So I called [Dr. Pinto] the next day and I said, “Now all the time I thought it took two organs to reproduce..’ And he says, ‘Well, I didn’t put it in there for men, but it’s just as dangerous to men as it is to women.’ And I said, ‘How long have you known this?” It was a study that he had done and never disclosed to anybody until that particular time. But it was just the way ASARCO did things. If the CIA could get into ASARCO and find out how they kept their secrets, they’d have a wonderful thing.
Next: ASARCO's Emissions
Interview with Chuck O’Donahue, Ruston, WA. May 2006
Photographs used by permission of the Tacoma Public Library