The conveyor belt that cuts through town frame the Asarco Hayden Complex smelter, Hayden Ariz., Oct. 24, 2019.

The strike by about 2,000 union employees of Tucson-based copper producer Asarco LLC appears to be stretching into its third week with no immediate end in sight.

No new negotiations have been schedule since members of the United Steelworkers and seven other unions began picketing Oct. 13 at the Mission Mine near Sahuarita, three other company facilities in Arizona and a copper refinery in Texas.

“We’ve told them we are ready to go any time they are, and we haven’t had any response,” said Manny Armenta, subdistrict director for the United Steelworkers.

Asarco, which is owned by Mexico-based Grupo Mexico, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the strike and the status of its operations, but a spokesman said the company is planning to respond in the near future.

In a prepared statement last week, Asarco expressed disappointment with the decision to strike and said the company “continues to negotiate in good faith” and is “committed to reaching a new agreement.”

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. Besides the Steelworkers, other unions represented at Asarco include the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, United Automobile Workers, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Asarco said it provides competitive pay and benefits package to attract and retain employees.

“Asarco has offered wage increases for skilled workers and provides on-going training for employees to expand their skills and advance their knowledge and careers in the industry,” the company said.

Bonuses paid to employees based on the prevailing price of copper also are a major sticking point.

About 740 current and past employees of Asarco are due more than $10 million in back bonus payments, after the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review prior court decisions requiring the company to pay them in a dispute dating back to 2014.

The disputed bonuses still have not been paid and the company has not responded to the union’s request to pay them, Armenta said.

In its last contract offer, Armenta said, the company proposed raising the benchmark price at which the bonus is paid to nearly $3 a pound from $1.60 per pound currently.

Copper last topped $3 a pound in June 2018 and with recent copper prices in the $2.60 to $2.70 range, Armenta said the bonuses would disappear.

Asarco has reportedly suspended some operations at Mission and its smelter operations in Hayden and Winkelman, but Armenta could not confirm the status of the operations.

Asarco also operates the Silver Bell Mine in Marana, the Ray Mine near the Hayden operations in Central Arizona and a refinery in Amarillo, Texas.

At the picket line at the Mission Mine entrance in Sahuarita on Friday, about a dozen union members waved signs and occasionally shouted at vehicles entering and leaving the site.

Picket captain Alex Terrazas, president of Steelworkers Local 937 in Tucson and a pit utility worker at the Mission Mine, said the union members feel Asarco’s contract offer is unfair.

“This is a multi-billion-dollar company, and they’re telling us they have to increase our insurance, they have to cut our pensions, they have to cut our copper price bonuses, they give no raises to two-thirds of the workforce, so they can be more efficient,” said Terrazas, who has worked at Asarco for nearly 13 years.

Grupo Mexico, which besides the Asarco operations in the U.S. operates mines in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Spain, is one of the world’s third-largest copper producers and reported a profit of $1.3 billion in 2018.

“It’s tough because I have a child in daycare, prices for daycare are going up, the price of insurance is going up, groceries are going up, and so to be stuck with no wage increase for 10 years, it makes it impossible to get by,” Terrazas said.

The average union wage at Asarco is about $25 to $26 an hour, Armenta said.

Another union Asarco worker on the picket line at the Mission Mine, Teamsters member Adrian Teran, said the unions agreed to no raises in their last contract in 2017 and saw their insurance premiums rise.

“They raised our insurance on that one, and we didn’t get any raises so we took a pay cut,” Teran said.

Teran, who works as a mechanic at the Mission Mine, said the company’s proposal to give only skilled trades workers like mechanic and electricians raises is unfair.

“I’m willing to stand on the picket line until we get a fair contract where we all get a raise,” he said.

Terrazas said the union members would rather be working than walking picket lines but feel they have no choice.

“We all want to get back to work — this is how we get them to go back to the table and take us seriously,” he said.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz

Reporter

David joined the Star in 1997, after working as a consumer and business reporter in Phoenix for more than a decade. A graduate of Ohio University, he has covered most business beats focusing on technology, defense and utilities. He has won several awards.