Hardball. That’s the best way to describe generations of collective bargaining between unions and the U.S. copper mining industry.

For two years, members of eight unions, including the IBEW, have bargained over a new contract covering miners and maintenance workers employed by Asarco in Arizona and Texas. IBEW members maintain equipment in the company’s mines, smelters and processing facilities in Hayden, Ray, Sahuarita and Silver Bell, Ariz., and Amarillo, Texas.

Tucson, Ariz., Local 570 Business Manager Mike Verbout says the unions stood their ground as the company sought to renegotiate the entire labor contract.“We turned them around on most of their demands,” says Verbout. Asarco is a division of Grupo Mexico, the third-largest copper producer in the world,

Despite progress in negotiations, Grupo Mexico is insisting upon a three-year contract with no wage increases for workers whose last boost in hourly pay was in 2009.The company’s last, best and final offer includes large increases in co-pays and deductibles for active employee health insurance coverage, the eventual termination of retiree health care benefits for the active employees and the termination of pension benefits for new hires. Health and welfare benefits for current retirees will be addressed with class counsel.

On June 1, members of eight unions from several Asarco mines and processing facilities, including activists from three IBEW local unions, rallied in Tucson, Ariz., in support of representatives who have been negotiating with the company for two years to win a decent contract.

On June 5, unions at Asarco announced in their newsletter, “Unity in Copper,” they have given the company the agreed-upon 15-day notice of their desire to terminate the extended labor agreement. The contract ended on June 20, 2015.

While workers have benefited from collectively-bargained quarterly bonuses triggered by the price of copper, Asarco is trying to limit the bonuses by raising the base that triggered the bonuses previously held.

In 2014, the unions won a multimillion dollar arbitration award for hundreds of new employees who were denied the quarterly bonuses. The company has refused to implement the settlement, so new hires are still excluded from bonuses.

“It creates resentment among newer employees,” says Troy Worrell, Local 570 steward and executive board member. Worrell, who previously worked as a USW electrician at another Asarco facility, now represents about 20 IBEW electricians at the company’s open-pit mine at the Mission complex in Sahuarita, Ariz.

Worrell says he’s proud of the unions’ safety record at the mine, one of the best in the copper industry, but shares the feeling of his more senior co-workers that Grupo Mexico’s greed could sink the improvements as morale declines and experienced workers look for jobs with other nearby mining companies.

While termination of the extended labor agreement means the union will lose its ability to arbitrate grievances, says Verbout, management also loses the power to assert its management’s rights clause. And, as in past struggles, the unions will be poised to file unfair labor practice charges if Asarco retaliates against union activists or overreaches in trying to quell the unions’ momentum. That’s just what happened in 2005 when the unions filed a complaint alleging some managers illegally interrogated members and spied on union advocates.

Verbout says members of the IBEW, including Globe, Ariz., Local 518 and Amarillo, Texas, Local 602, and members of the other seven unions at Asarco (Steelworkers, Teamsters, Boilermakers, Plumbers and Pipefitters, Carpenters, Machinists and Operating Engineers) are confident they will win their latest battle. They are inspired by their history of solidarity.

In 2005, Asarco served retired workers with court papers advising them their health care benefits would be terminated. The unions built support in their communities, winning favorable coverage in local news outlets. 

After holding rallies and spreading the word about Asarco’s abandonment of retirees, the eight unions struck. If walking out was not challenging enough, Asarco declared bankruptcy six weeks into the strike. The company hoped workers would be overwhelmed by fear, but they stood strong for four months and won a 13-month contract and continuation of retiree health care benefits.

In the most recent negotiations, the eight unions have already agreed to terminate retiree healthcare benefits for retirees who are Medicare-eligible, saving Asarco approximately $89 million over the years. That makes the company’s insistence upon no wage increases, terminating health care for younger retirees and refusal to increase pensions for workers, who currently receive only  $40 per year of service in retirement,  all the more repugnant, says Verbout.

Once again, local unions are holding informational meetings and rallies.

While only 800 union members were employed in the mines during the 2005 strike, there are now more than 2,000 working in Asarco’s operations. The majority of new hires are first-generation mine workers.

“A lot of the newer guys didn’t come from union backgrounds, so we have to explain to them that everything we have was fought for by those who came before us,” says Worrell, whose grandfather was a retired union railroad worker and whose wife’s family worked in union mines.

Members of the four unions at the Mission complex cooperate in new-hire orientations and meet jointly on all grievances.  While freshly-hired workers have the option of not joining a bargaining unit in the right-to-work state, all four unions, says Worrell, advise them they are best served by looking at each union as a “team,”  one of which they should join. 

“We are in a battle,” says Worrell. “But we have enough solidarity to win.”

The copper region of Arizona has a history of vicious labor-management conflict from a 1917 strike and another pivotal strike at Phelps Dodge in 1983. The company hired replacement workers and eventually decertified locals of the United Steelworkers of America, a move that has been cited as a turning point in U.S. labor relations.

In an effort to gain more influence for unions at Grupo Mexico, the USW has established links with Los Mineros, the union representing mine employees across the border. “We took this opportunity to bring like-minded workers together to discuss like-minded ideas as we face a common employer, Grupo Mexico,” says USW District 12 Director Robert LaVenture.

As Local 570 mobilizes more new members to win the immediate skirmish with Asarco, Verbout  says  the IBEW is fighting for a future for even more  Arizona workers in the copper industry.

A Canadian-based copper producer, Hudbay Minerals, is looking to open up a new mine near Tucson, fighting to get permits to begin operations.

Local 570 is supporting Hudbay’s efforts, making the case for good jobs to local politicians and environmentalists and reminding them the company plans to employ state-of-the-art technology to reduce any potential damage to the surrounding ecosystem.