Asarco agrees to pay workers millions in disputed copper-price bonuses, union says

Asarco agrees to pay workers millions in disputed copper-price bonuses, union says


Asarco must pay $10 million plus interest to about 750 current and former employees hired after June 2011, at four Arizona locations and one in Texas.

Tucson-based copper producer Asarco LLC has agreed to pay union workers some $10 million in disputed copper price bonuses and will make an initial payment Nov. 6, the United Steelworkers union said Thursday.

Asarco had fought payment of the bonuses to about 750 current and former employees hired after mid-2011, since an arbitrator ruled the company must pay them in 2014.

After losing several appeals, Asarco was forced to pay the bonuses when the U.S. Supreme Court in early October decided not to review an appellate decision upholding payment of the bonuses.

"I'm delighted they're going to pay it — it's been long overdue and the members deserve it," said Manny Armenta, subdistrict director for the United Steelworkers.

Asarco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The first round of bonus payments to workers hired on or after July 1, 2011 will be made Nov. 6, company lawyers said in a letter to lawyers for the United Steelworkers and seven other unions representing about 2,000 Asarco hourly employees in Arizona and Texas.

The initial payments will include all bonuses owed for the third quarter of 2011 through the first quarter of 2015, the Steelworkers said.

All current and former employees who are owed bonuses for those quarters should receive a bonus payment, plus a separate check for interest, on Nov. 6.

Current employees will receive their payments through direct deposit or by paper check, whichever method by which they are normally paid, the union said.

Former employees will receive paper checks sent to their last known addresses, the Steelworkers said, urging former employees to contact their unions to update their addresses.

Interest will be calculated from March 3, 2016, the date of the federal district court’s original judgment enforcing the arbitrator’s decision, through the date of payment.

Asarco also owes bonuses for most of 2015, but the amounts owed and the individuals who are eligible for payments, have not yet been calculated, the Steelworkers said.

The company and unions have agreed to work in good faith to determine the amounts owed for 2015, which also will include accrued interest.

Asarco resumed paying the bonuses to current eligible workers in December 2015, Armenta said.

Those employees were dropped from the company pension plan and later denied bonuses after negotiation of a contract extension in 2011.

But the union said it believed the workers would be eligible for the bonus regardless of their pension eligibility, and an arbitrator found the provision was left out of the agreement by mistake and ordered payment.

The quarterly bonuses were to be paid when the average price of copper reached $1.60 per pound.

After losing twice at the district court level, Asarco appealed but was found liable for the bonuses by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in separate rulings in 2018 and January 2019.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 8 declined to review the case, exhausting Asarco's options to avoid paying the bonuses.

Meanwhile, the Steelworkers, the Teamsters and the other unions representing Asarco production and maintenance workers remain on strike after walking off the job Oct. 13, though new contract talks are planned for Nov. 14.

Asarco operates the Mission Mine in Sahuarita south of Tucson, the Silver Bell Mine in Marana, and the Ray Mine and Hayden smelter in Central Arizona, as well as a refinery in Amarillo, Texas.

The Asarco production and maintenance workers have been working without a new contract since their last contract expired in November 2018, and they have had no wage increases since 2009.

The Steelworkers say Asarco’s final, four-year contract proposal includes no wage increase for nearly two-thirds of workers, freezes the existing pension plan, and more than doubles the out-of-pocket contribution individual workers now pay for health care.

About 85% of Asarco’s hourly workers are union members.

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