TUCSON - More than 1,200 workers at five Asarco coppermining facilities in Arizona were on strike Tuesday, with still others in Texas likely to join in, as the impact of a walkout started during the weekend continued.
The strike action began the day after a contract for some 750 workers belonging to seven unions at the Ray Mine at Kearny and the Hayden Concentrator expired. Union officials said the strike was precipitated by what they asserted were violations of fair labor practices by Asarco in refusing good-faith negotiations.
Union employees at the company’s Hayden Smelter and its Mission Mine in Sahuarita, Silver Bell Mine in Marana and its refinery at Amarillo, Texas, who had been working for a year without a contract — since its expiration on June 30, 2004 — then began voting the next day to join the strike.
Nearly 300 hourly workers were on the payroll at the Amarillo facility, according to the company; some 250 belong to unions, United Steelworkers’ officials said, and they voted overwhelmingly Tuesday ‘‘in favor of a strike’’ as of midnight, said David Lawrence, recording secretary for Steelworkers Local 5613.
In all, unions represent about 1,500 of Asarco’s 2,000 employees at the Texas and Arizona sites.
Asarco, a Tucson-based subsidiary of the Mexican mining company Grupo Mexico, had asked its unions to accept a three-year salary freeze and medical benefits and pension reductions, though copper prices had reached $1.74 a pound last week before falling back. Prices on the London commodities market Tuesday were above $1.56 a pound, an industry analyst said.
‘‘Asarco is one of the highest cost companies in the industry,’’ the company said in a release. It said it was ‘‘extremely disappointed’’ that the unions had chosen to strike ‘‘rather than continue trying to negotiate a new contract.’’
Asarco has not recovered fully from previous low copper prices ‘‘and must be prepared for the future,’’ the statement added. Net firstquarter 2005 profits were $2.05 million compared with $16.4 million, despite lower prices, for the same period a year earlier. Asarco cited higher asbestos liability and environmental costs, pension and health care expenses and maintenance costs, as well as mine development costs.
In New York, copper industry analyst Charles Bradford of Soleil-Bradford Research, said copper prices have been strong all year but began weakening a week ago.
‘‘We think there’s too much copper out there, or there will be soon, anyway,’’ with old mines being reopened because of the prices the commodity has been commanding and demand increased particularly from China, now a major copper importer.
‘‘This would be a great time from the union standpoint because companies are making so much money they may be more willing to pay up. It would be a bad idea for the company to do that, because a lot of us think that copper prices are going to come lower,’’ Bradford said. ‘‘The amount of copper that is available is going to be increasing, and we think there is going to be a surplus next year.’’