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Labor’s Place in Community History

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

The Past is Never Over

Mining, refining and the smelting of ore into metals are at the foundation of industrial development. Mining is one of the most rough-and-tumble areas of the economy – financially volatile, environmentally damaging, and demanding and dangerous for workers. The expansion and settlement of the West and the U.S. industrial base were shaped by the operations of the great mining interests. The “lead trust” and the “copper barons” set some of the toughest terms for employment, as mining was cultivated from the 19th century into the early 20th. Many communities grew out of the staking of claims, the discovery of valuable ores and their magnetic pull on working people.

In this project we’ve been learning about the labor features of the ASARCO story – the early working conditions, the risks, the emergence of unions at mining and smelting sites, and the volatile and complex relations between labor, community and owners/managers. We don’t know all of these stories deeply and thoroughly. Each community/worksite is in a way its own universe, with its own history of labor strife and triumph, even while it’s connected, either closely or more distantly, to the broader labor movement. As with other aspects of this project, we are finding out how important it is for people to look carefully and critically at their community’s labor story and ensure that past struggles are not forgotten. In a small way, we’re trying to contribute to that recovery of memory, honoring those stories and the strengthening of labor’s position.

In each of the community stories that we’re developing here, we’ve drawn on regional journalism, interviews with labor rank-and-file and leaders, and local history resources to learn how labor connects to environment, community, economy and social justice. In the Community Stories section, we offer reports and stories from present-day labor advocates, smelter workers and miners, injured workers and retirees. In this section, in addition to these community-based stories, we offer more focused commentary on labor’s story, both within and across communities, as unions have shaped strategy dealing with ASARCO, the resource economy and national labor and economic policy.

Labor’s Place in Community History: Ruston

Asarco-Ruston, WA: Workers Pouring Copper

The communities we have been learning with and from each have a distinctive labor story. The town of Ruston, Washington was created for the express purpose of metal smelting. The smelter was built out on the edge of a peninsula at the far reaches of the emerging city of Tacoma, in the late 1890s during Tacoma’s boom years. Inaccessible except by boat for several decades, the smelter community, a classic company town, drew Eastern European and Welsh immigrants to what was then an isolated production site. Ores were shipped in from the Philippines and the Western interior to what quickly became one of the major production landmarks on the Pacific coast. Workers lived in boarding houses, with families eventually arriving to help shape a vital community.

In 1912 ASARCO’s unorganized workers embarked on one of their first recorded strikes over low wages and long hours. The next year ASARCO once again cut wages and lengthened working hours. In 1914 there was another strike, as the Western Federation of Miners began organizing Ruston’s smelter workers. The Seattle Hoboes Union pledged that they wouldn’t scab, and the strike earned the support of other unions, with Tacoma’s Longshore Workers refusing to unload ore at the smelter dock. Following this short period of solidarity, the WFM languished, especially during the war years. But with the challenges of the Depression, Ruston's local rechartered as part of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Smeltermen’s Local 25 quickly grew in strength, gaining support from the vast majority of workers.

Asarco-Ruston. WA-strike

Local 25 rallied for major strikes, particularly in 1946 and 1959. Strikes, with all that they demand of workers and their families, shape and challenge a community, often leaving indelible memories. Although Ruston was an isolated company town, it was also a dedicated union town; when the strike was on, the community sustained and honored the solidarity needed to get through hard times. Many of the community elders and former ASARCO workers we’ve talked to in Ruston hold onto those memories, honoring both their union solidarity and the hard industrial life that built their community.

Mine-Mill went through periods of strain, mirroring tensions between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). There were also internal tensions within the CIO during the red-baiting years of the late 1940s. Mine-Mill was the target of much red-baiting, as ASARCO and other mine owners, the National Labor Relations Board and the courts all worked to demonize the union. Mine-Mill was expelled from the CIO in 1950 for refusing to rid itself of leaders or rank and file members who were alleged to be Communists. By the 1960s, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union had been weakened financially and politically. During the 1950s and 1960s, the union also confronted challenges from the United Steelworkers union which was trying to displace Mine-Mill as the representative of the workforce. In 1967 the Smelter Workers leadership voted to merge with the Steelworkers, a decision that the Ruston local accepted. This marked the end of Mine-Mill’s pre-eminence, while the Steelworkers became a major force in the U.S. labor and economic landscape.

Labor’s Place in Community History: El Paso

Although labor in El Paso experienced similar transformations and shifts of its union base, what’s distinctive about the El Paso labor story is how ethnic divisions, tensions around immigrant workers and the political significance of the border have all contributed to labor politics. Humberto Silex was a Nicaraguan-born labor activist who became a key figure in the ASARCO smelter labor struggle and a celebrated union organizer. Silex fought against the “Mexican wage,” a discriminatory two-tier pay system. His effectiveness as a union leader in the MMSW through the 1930s and '40s led him to be targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice and then systematically blacklisted by virtually all employers in the El Paso area. His anguished story, as well as the systematic discrimination shown toward Mexican and Mexican American workers and their families in Smeltertown, highlight how ethnocentrism and xenophobia were threaded through the already uphill struggle of working people in the mining/smelting sector of the economy of the Southwest.

El Paso-aerial view of ASARCO smelter

In her doctoral dissertation Monica Perales argues that ASARCO’s rise was dependent on “the interplay of immigration, labor and transnational capitalism” and that “the arrival of the railroad and the expansion of mining corporations like ASARCO … created a larger industrial zone of which Mexican workers were an integral part.” The expansion of transnational mining industries “facilitated the formation of a permanent working class community, and promoted the creation of a larger industrial economy defined in part by … ethnic Mexican residents.” It is clear that Mexican migration and settlement in El Paso and other parts of the Southwest helped to build the US industrial economy, even while Mexican-American workers were slotted into a discriminatory wage structure.

Labor’s Place in Community History: Hayden, Arizona

The copper mining region of southeast Arizona was also riven by anti-Mexican and anti-labor patterns of discrimination and abuse. In Ray, a valley that was once an underground copper mine, is now fully stripped out as an open pit mine. Three communities once existed in this valley, sharing a common location and employer, while separated from one another by language, ethnicity and national origin. The actual town of Ray was populated only by Anglos. The residents of nearby Sonora were primarily of Mexican ancestry, with some Lebanese-American residents, including the Basha family, founders of what is now a chain of large grocery stores. The third town, Barcelona, was reserved for those who traced their heritage directly back to Spain. Today, the former residents of Sonora still speak of the segregation that ruled their lives. There was little socializing between the communities; each town had its own schools, community pageants and churches. Even the cemetery was segregated; as people told us. “We could not be together even in death.”

In the late 1950’s the underground mine was transformed into a vast open-pit mine. As the mine opened and expanded, the three towns were swept away. Some workers and their families moved to the new community of Kearny that had been created for them, while others moved to Hayden. The ores extracted at the Ray mine traveled 17 miles down the road to Hayden, site of two copper smelters owned by Kennecott and ASARCO.

Hayden smelter

Hayden, founded in 1910, struggled with its own patterns of racial discrimination. The town was divided into two sections, with Mexican-American workers and their families living in San Pedro, the upper–and poorer–section of town, while white residents, many of whom were smelter managers and white-collar workers, lived in Hayden proper. After World War II some of the rigid boundaries that separated Hispanics from Anglos began to collapse. Mexican-Americans had participated in the U.S. military, and they were not about to accept subordinate status in the town their parents and grandparents had helped to build.

"There was discrimination. The Mexican workers and the Anglo workers did the same type of work, but they got paid differently. The Anglos got a dollar more for doing the same work and the same amount of work. That’s the way the company policy was! In those times discrimination was very strong.

"After the Second World War when the soldiers came back, they put their foot down and said, “Enough is enough.” They fought for their rights and things started getting better."

Frank Torres Amado, retired high school schoolteacher,

Hayden/Winkleman, Arizona

Still, patterns of discrimination persisted in Hayden long after World War II. Some elder residents remember the Ku Klux Klan visiting the community in the 1950's. There is evidence that ASARCO purposefully created health policies for workers that exploited—and allowed the company to profit from–ethnic differences. In 1994 a Steelworkers union local and its president, Willie Craig, documented and successfully contested ASARCO’s policy of automatically raising the lung function test scores of Hispanic workers by 15%. Long after legal protections were established by the Civil Rights movement, the “Hispanic 15% Rule” targeted and damaged a vulnerable community, abusing medical science and the trust of ASARCO’s workers. (See Community Stories, Workplace and Environmental Hazards in Hayden for more on the “Hispanic Factor”.)

When you walk into an old mining/smelting community in the U.S., you are brushing up against a powerful, dramatic and enduring history. Whether it’s urban El Paso at an international border, or the once remote, now urbanized Ruston transforming into a post-industrial center of affluent condominiums, or the still relatively isolated Hayden – each community has stories that need to be told. Each community bears the marks of a strained inheritance.


Arnold, Frank. “Humberto Silex: CIO Organizer from Nicaragua,” Southwest Economy and Society, v. #1, 1978.

Lars, Lawrence (pseudonym for Philip Stevenson), The Seed (trilogy): Morning Noon and Night (1954), Out of the Dust ( 1956), The Hoax (1961)

Lens, Sidney, “The Mine Mill Conspiracy Case,” published by Mine-Mill Defense Committee, Denver CO, @ 1960.

“Steelworkers Local 25,” To Live in Dignity: Pierce County Labor. Tacoma, WA: Pierce County Labor Council, 1989.

“Union Demands Fairness at Bargaining Table,” 9-21-05.


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