Arizona mining has been marked by a long history of industrial strife, especially for Mexican-Americans who have faced community and workplace discrimination. Much has been written about the persistent mistreatment of and prejudice toward Hispanic workers and their families in Arizona. Hispanic workers endured two-tiered wage systems, segregated housing, discriminatory patterns of exposure to hazards and restricted access to just and effective remedies. In this essay we explore some of the stories and struggles we’ve learned from our research, and from Hispanic miners and community members living and working in Arizona’s copper belt.
In the early years of the 20th century, the celebrated jurist Felix Frankfurter served on a presidential commission regarding industrial conflicts. He expressed a studied outrage at how Mexican workers were being treated in mining operations across Arizona.
"The miners feel that they are not treated as men…without a share in determining the conditions of their labor, and their labor is their life …. in a word there is no fellowship for them in the great industrial enterprise which absorbs them" (Parrish, pg. 29).
During World War One, non-compliant workers involved in labor organizing and strikes were blacklisted, especially if they were not U.S. citizens. Mexican miners and smelter workers were often targets for induction into the military, even while their efforts to become naturalized citizens were being undermined. Some faced jail or deportation. During the war and the “Red Scare” that followed, parts of Arizona’s copper belt were described as a police state. The copper companies maintained stringent control of communities where their mines and smelters were sited; according to Parrish, “the copper companies easily maintained de facto control over the substance of local policy” (Parrish, pg. 49).
Between World Wars One and Two, and into the 1950s, a pattern of separation and discrimination hardened in Arizona. The “Copper Collar” tightened as copper barons exerted their brand of industrial peace and progress. This involved structural discrimination in housing and jobs, as well as persistent surveillance and red-baiting. The famous (and famously black-listed) film “Salt of the Earth” portrayed the struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American miners and their families, including the women’s efforts to get the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers Union to add indoor plumbing and hot running water to its strike demands. Both were available to Anglo families, but denied to Mexicans.
The regional disparity in how workers were treated and compensated became clear with the 1944 report of the Federal Equal Employment Commission:
"There is a wide spread between the labor scale in effect in the Southwest, where most of the laborers are of Spanish extraction, than [what is] in effect in Idaho, Montana and Utah fields. The spread becomes significant when it is remembered that the copper companies, whether located in the North or in the Southwest, receive the same return for their product”(quoted in Bustamente, 1995).
Miners and their families continued to struggle with mining companies in Arizona through the 1980’s. In 1983 2400 workers in Clifton/Morenci, members of 13 international unions, went on strike against their employer, the mining giant, Phelps-Dodge. The unions were opposing wage and benefit cuts imposed by the company in violation of an industry-wide contract that had already been ratified by other mining companies. During this protracted and closely observed strike, the laboring communities of ASARCO, Kennecott, Inspiration and Magma Mining Companies saw Phelps Dodge operate with virtual impunity. The company hired replacement workers and worked closely with the state of Arizona to conduct extensive surveillance of the strikers. Governor Babbitt called in state troopers and the National Guard to prevent the unions from enforcing their picket line, and many workers were jailed.
In Holding the Line, Barbara Kingsolver writes of the “ironclad, steel-toed partnership” between the state, the police and Phelps-Dodge that crushed the strike. For many families, the disastrous conclusion to the strike created permanent unemployment and destitution.
In 1995, on the 12th anniversary of the Clifton/Morenci strike, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote about the little-known surveillance strategies adopted by the state through its Arizona State Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency (ACISA) to support Phelps-Dodge in breaking the strike. Rosenblum wrote that ACISA
"Hired union informants, bugged union meetings, and created a computer database on anyone suspected by the agents of being a ‘troublemaker.’"
Rosenblum quoted ACISA Chief Navarrete’s defense of his agency’s activities:
"What happened during the strike doesn’t fall within the definition of organized crime, but from my perspective, it’s organized labor." (http://www.tucsonweekly.com/tw/06-29-95/curr4.htm)
In his book, Copper Crucible, Rosenblum explains how corporate-state response to the strike changed the playing field for unions:
"This old weapon (replacement workers) was upgraded and modernized in ways that tilted the playing field in favor of management and brought back with a vengeance the “fungibility” (or replaceability) of labor" (Rosenblum, pg. 222).
To the mix of persistent ethnic prejudice and strengthened management strong-arming of working people and their unions, add the devolving environmental conditions in mining/smelting communities. In 1982, a community group at one of the Phelps Dodge smelters in Douglas released a blistering account of airborne pollution reaching into a large region of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, as well as growing evidence of on-the-ground impacts of cancer and serious pulmonary diseases. While the cities of Tucson and Phoenix had plans for attainment of Air Quality Standards under federal law, the small smelter towns across the state had no plans, due to limited or shrouded data, the power of the mining-smelting sector and the non-attention of federal regulators. Increasingly, “What are we breathing?” became the question at smelter towns across the state.
Bustamente, Antonio. “Mexican Mine Worker Communities in Arizona: Spatial and Social Impacts of Arizona’s Copper Mining,” Estudios Sociales, v. 5, #10, 1995, pgs. 27-54.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Holding the Line: Women in.the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983: ILR Press, 1996.
Parrish, Michael. Mexican Workers, Progressives and Copper: The Failure of Industrial Democracy in Arizona during the Wilson Years, Chicano Research Publications, 1979.
Rosenblum, Jonathon. Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America, Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1995.
Salt of. the Earth, Dir. Herbert Biberman, 1954.
Photograph from the collection of Frankie and Chuy Olmos