Pending Miner Strike Taxes Law Enforcement

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Law enforcement resources in the Rim country could feel the impact of a labor dispute in the southern tip of Gila County.

Contract negotiations between copper-mining giant Asarco and employees at the Ray copper mine and Hayden smelter have stalled, increasing the chances of a strike when the current wage and benefits pact expires Thursday at midnight.

Several deputies from the Gila County Sheriff's Office in Payson are being deployed Wednesday to act as peacekeepers, Gila County Undersheriff Adam Shepherd said.

"We are going to have to pull our deputies out of here to go down there, so it will thin our coverage," Shepherd said. "We have to respond to this. It's not like we have a choice to go."

"Three patrol officers and two canine officers from our office will be going down to Hayden," GCSO Sgt. Tim Scott added. "We will be down some officers, but we do have everything covered the best we can. We will still have about six deputies staying up here and we have asked the Payson Police, DPS and the Forest Service to assist us if we need any help."

The Forest Service will be bringing in extra officers for security patrols in the forest, Scott said.

"We are prepared to help (the sheriff's office) with their calls and, if need be, actually cover the calls for them," Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said. "That would include taking reports, making arrests -- the whole gamut of what comes with law enforcement services."

Although the Ray mining pit is actually located in Pinal County, the copper is processed at a plant in Hayden. Entrances to the mine lie in Gila County.

"Pinal County has their deputies handling their areas and they are willing to assist us on our side if we need them and vice versa," Scott said.

Asarco is the second-largest copper producer in the United States. It was purchased in 1999 by Grupo Mexico, based in Mexico City in 1999.

Although Grupo Mexico's first-quarter profits were up 59 percent from a year ago, the company is asking for a three-year wage freeze and a reduction in pension and medical benefits.

Grupo Mexico said they need the freeze to maintain long-term profitability when the price of copper declines.

Gila County taxpayers will also pay the price, Shepherd said.

"We are deploying quite a bit of resources down there and deputies will be working 72-hour weeks," Shepherd said. "We are talking about a lot of money a week -- not just in overtime but facilities to house (officers) and keeping security and communications. The taxpayers are going to bear the burden."

The rationale for utilizing local law enforcement rather than calling in the National Guard is based on past strikes in which a heavy police response ended up being counterproductive, Shepherd said.

Shepherd said they are making an effort to maintain the situation as the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard did in the Clifton-Morenci strike in 1983.

Accounts from families in Morenci and Clifton in Barbara Kingsolver's book, Holding the Line, describe an "occupation" by law enforcement which resulted in more violence than peace.

"All that show of force in Morenci cranked things up and we are trying to avoid that," Shepherd said.

Shepherd said Globe's Silver Belt newspaper has been running ads for replacement workers to take the place of those on strike, amounting to possible breaking of the picket lines.

The GCSO has borrowed riot gear from other Valley agencies to prepare for the possibility of violence.

"It's a difficult position for law enforcement to be in because you may have some sympathy for the workers yet you have to maintain the peace and make sure the law is enforced," Gartner said.

"Hopefully it will be a quiet environment in the southern part of the county, but you never know. It could be hairy."

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