Asarco

Unions led by the United Steelworkers say the bonuses owed to about 750 current and former Asarco employees have grown in value to more than $10 million, including interest.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has again rejected Tucson-based Asarco’s bid to avoid paying millions of dollars in copper-price bonuses to hundreds of workers in Arizona and Texas.

The ruling means Asarco’s last hope to delay the payments is to win a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court, a process that could take several months.

The dispute between Asarco and unions led by the United Steelworkers stems from a 2014 ruling by a federal labor arbitrator that Asarco must pay quarterly bonuses based on the price of copper to workers hired after the company ended pension coverage for new workers in mid-2011.

The arbitrator ruled that the workers in question were inadvertently excluded from the bonus plan under the company’s 2011 labor contract due to a mutual mistake by the company and the unions.

Asarco disputed the ruling but lost its case in federal court before appealing to the Ninth Circuit in 2017. A three-judge panel of the appellate court upheld the lower-court ruling in June, but Asarco filed to have the ruling reviewed by a larger, “en banc” panel of Ninth Circuit judges.

But in December, the original three-judge panel issued a new majority opinion upholding the lower court ruling, along with a new dissenting opinion, giving Asarco another chance to ask for a rehearing.

On Thursday, the judges rejected Asarco’s latest request on a 2-1 vote.

Asarco now has 90 days from the date of the order to file for review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Asarco officials could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

On the line is more than $10 million, including interest, that the unions say is owed to more than 700 workers under an agreement negotiated in 2010 and 2011.

The unions represent more than 2,000 hourly workers at five Asarco locations in Arizona and Texas, including the Mission Mine in Sahuarita south of Tucson, the Silver Bell Mine in Marana, and the Ray Mine and Hayden Smelter in Central Arizona.

United Steelworkers District 12 director Bob LaVenture said the union will continue to work to secure the bonuses for the affected workers.

“Asarco’s debts will only continue to grow until they are settled once and for all, and time is running out,” LaVenture said in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, Asarco’s union employees are working without a current contract, after a 14-month collective bargaining agreement with United Steelworkers Local 937 and other unions expired Nov. 30.

In December, Asarco’s union employees voted to authorize a strike if negotiations fail.

Last week, the Steelworkers said the two sides had not met since Dec. 19 and the company hasn’t responded to requests for new meeting dates.

The union members are working under the current agreement on a day-to-day basis, with 48 hours’ notice to terminate, the Steelworkers said.

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

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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.