By Gary Dillard
It was a strike unlike any before or after it.
The Phelps Dodge strike of 1983 changed the company, changed the unions and changed many relationships among the people of Greenlee County.
And it’s still a touchy subject for many.
But it’s also — like it or not — a piece of the area’s history, no less than similar events in the first two decades of the 20th century. For that reason, it needs to be studied, and understood, and talked about.
Its causes, activities and effects are far too complicated to cover in any detail in a short article, so this is simply a brief resume of that event, and of another strike back in 1903, with the purpose of stimulating interest and discussion.
Organized labor and copper
Organized labor began playing a role in the mining and processing of copper at Morenci at the opening of the 20th century. While there were many unions involved at any given time, it was usually the largest who ran negotiations and made decisions about actions.
In the strike of 1903, for example, that was the Western Federation of Miners, but by the teens, the leadership role was taken over by an offshoot of the WFM, the Industrial Workers of the World.
The IWW’s activities came during World War I, a politically charged era, and that left many Americans with a bad feeling about many of the unions. Phelps Dodge would operate relative union free for a while after that, until it was organized by Mine Mill, which was the new name of the WFM.
By the time the strike of ’83 rolled around, Mine Mill had been replaced by the United Steelworkers.
Many companies, many unions
Phelps Dodge was not the only copper producer in Arizona in 1983. Among the other major players were Kennecott, Magma and Asarco, all with union-represented workers. The multi-year contracts that were negotiated all expired at the end of June, and negotiations among the companies and the union coalition generally started several months before that.
Each company negotiated separately, and when the first reached an agreement, that became the “pattern” for the others to accept. Kennecott was usually the first to reach a deal, and that was the case in 1983. It was then expected that other companies, including Phelps Dodge, would fall in line and the deal for the next three years was done.
But 1983 was a tough time for copper, especially Phelps Dodge. Most of the other majors had become subsidiaries of oil companies, so the parent firms had deep pockets to weather the expected cyclical downturn in the industry. Phelps Dodge did not. It was the last of the big independents.
Times were tough enough that Phelps Dodge wanted concessions, including changes in work rules and the elimination of the COLA, or cost-of-living adjustment. The Kennecott pattern had none of what Phelps Dodge wanted, so talks stalled. A couple of other major firms also held out of the pattern. But as the deadline approached, one gave in, as did the second, literally in the 11th hours.
Phelps Dodge was alone in being struck by the unions. But the company had different plans. It believed it couldn’t afford a strike; instead, it would use salaried employees to keep its operations in Arizona and Texas running. (New Mexico was on a different schedule for negotiations, so Tyrone was not impacted. The Hidalgo smelter was non union.)
On July 1, the midnight shift of union workers did not show up at Morenci. The company kept the facilities operating using two 12-hour shifts of salaried workers and some union employees who chose not to strike. Executives and secretaries even came from the headquarters in New York to work in the plants. The unions laughed at the efforts.
Violence escalated, however, forcing Gov. Bruce Babbitt to send in large numbers of officers from the Department of Public Safety to ensure that those who did work could safely cross the picket lines.
It wouldn’t be long, however, before the long, daily shifts began to wear out the replacement workers. Phelps Dodge then made the decision to hire new workers to replace the strikers. That caused the conflict to escalate, and the company agreed to shut down operations for 10 days for a “cooling off” period.
On Aug. 17, when that shutdown was ending, more pleas to Gov. Babbitt finally forced him to call up the Arizona National Guard. Within a few days, 375 guardsmen were heading to Morenci to back up 425 DPS officers already in place.
Many workers came back, while others asked to be placed on a list for rehiring should a position become available. Technically, the strike would last 20 months, but for all practical purposes, it was over by the end of August, two months after it started.
Strike of 1903
The strike at the Clifton and Morenci mines was similar to the one in 1983 in several ways, including the fact that both state law officers — in this case the Arizona Rangers — and the Arizona national guard were called out.
By June 6, the strike that had begun June 2 had grown large enough, with some 3,500 men idle, that Gov. Alexander O. Brodie had called out the Arizona Rangers, the only state police agency at the time. Most of them were at Tombstone at a trial, and a special train was called up to haul them to eastern Arizona.
In addition, three cases of rifles were shipped from the Copper Queen company at Bisbee to its sister organization, the Detroit Copper Mining Co., in Morenci. Graham County (Greenlee hadn’t been created yet) Sheriff Jim Parks had 25 deputies on site as well.
No problems were reported that day. Detroit Copper was working a few men, but Arizona Copper was making no effort to resume work at its mines, mills and smelters.
Walkout over wages
It appeared that the strike was over wages. A new eight-hour-day law took effect in Arizona on June 1. The companies offered the men nine hours’ wage for eight hours’ work, which was less than they more per hour than they made in the past, but less than they made working a 10-hour day.
The companies argued they would not afford to pay more on an hourly basis. The new pay rate took it back to what it had been about six years earlier. At that time, the miners struck for higher pay and were successful.
Interestingly, there were no labor unions active in Morenci at the time. The strike was spontaneous, with men from one operation talking with those from others, getting them to quit work. The closest thing to an organization most of the men had was “mutual societies,” or safety nets and social groups. Most of the workers at the time were of Mexican heritage, a situation unusual in Arizona mining.
While news reports on June 6 indicated the strike was peaceful, a story datelined June 4, in the Bisbee Review, said that the “men at Morenci are beginning to get sore at the officers, who protect those who work.” It also said that two men were arrested the prior day for attempting to prevent men from going to work. The two were fined $50 each.
By June 9, the situation had become “more alarming,” the Bisbee paper said, but there still hadn’t been any violence. Some 2,000 miners were marking “through camp in a pouring rain and hail from one o’clock until two. The strikers express determination and confidence. In the parade today, many carried guns and all are armed with knives and revolvers.”
Asks governor for help
The demonstrations of that day caused Sheriff Parks to ask the governor for help, and the National Guard was given orders to head for Morenci.
By June 10, federal troops were also on their way to Morenci, coming from Fort Grant and Fort Huachuca on a special train, scheduled to arrive by midnight. Other troops would come from Fort Bliss, near El Paso. By 9 p.m. that day, six companies of National Guard had arrived in six coaches, numbering 300 men, and company from as close as Thatcher and as far away as Yuma.
Sheriff Parks had withdrawn his deputies, the Review said, “to prevent a battle which would have been disastrous to his men in a conflict with 1,300 armed strikers.”
By June 11, the strike was effectively over. Martial law had been declared, soldiers and militia surrounded the town and leaders of the strike were arrested.
On Saturday, June 13, work restarted at the various mines and plants, and 14 men, considered leaders of the strike, were under arrest.
The article in the Review which reported the restart of mining ended with this paragraph: “Law and order prevails in Arizona.”