Standing with the unions
My wife and I recently participated in a rally and picket on behalf of the United Steelworkers and other unions representing nearly 2000 employees who work in ASARCO copper mines, smelters and refineries in five facilities in southern Arizona. Besides the Steelworkers, the unions involved in the current contract dispute with ASARCO are the Teamsters, Boilermakers, Electrical Workers, Carpenters, Machinists & Aerospace Workers, and Operating Engineers.
Contract negotiations began in June 2013, but ASARCO (a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico) refuses to address the major issues raised by the unions. Instead, ASARCO unilaterally implemented its so-called “last, best and final” contract proposal on December 1, 2015. It’s noteworthy that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently prosecuting ASARCO for unilaterally changing working conditions on multiple occasions without first negotiating over the changes with union representatives as required by law.
Coincidentally, December 6 was National Miners Day, which pays tribute to American miners, past and present. In light of the prominent role of mining in Arizona’s history, many Arizonans have a connection to miners through family, friends, neighbors, or personal experience. As eminent Arizona historian Christine Marín, who hails from the “Copper Belt” mining town of Globe, proclaims: “Mining town kids, we’re everywhere!” Both my wife and I are from Arizona mining towns—she from Winkelman, I from Douglas.
Copper: The first C of Arizona’s 5
National Miners Day was proclaimed in 1907 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and by Congress in 2009. National Miners Day is a quiet holiday—no parades, no fireworks, no City Council proclamations. It is acknowledged only by the hundreds of thousands of American mining families. Many of these are in Arizona.
For, mining and miners are integral aspects of Arizona history. Copper mining in Arizona goes back to the late 1800s, when the national demand for silver was replaced by the need for copper. By making it simpler and more economical to ship the material to market, the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 was a huge boost to copper mining, making Arizona the nation’s largest copper producer and the second-largest producer of molybdenum, a copper byproduct used primarily in the steel industry.
Entire towns in Arizona, particularly in the “Copper Belt” were built around the mines, which sustained thousands of families. In their heyday, the mines employed close to 20,000 workers. Today, copper mining and refining provides about 10,000 jobs in Arizona. No wonder, then, that Copper is the first of Arizona’s five (5) Cs—the others are Cattle, Cotton, Citrus and Climate.
Support of miners and unions is personal
Ours is a union family. Over the years my wife and I have walked hundreds of miles on picket lines and marches, sometimes in great weather, other times in the cold and rain or under the scorching Arizona sun. Many of these picket lines and marches have been on behalf of unions and the workers they represent. To us, being union is not an intellectual, romantic, abstract notion—it is woven into the fabric of our lives. We support unions from a personal-experience, human perspective, viz.
My wife’s father was a founding member of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) in Hayden-Winkelman, one of the mining towns in the heart of Arizona’s “Copper Belt.” The Western Federation of Miners union had morphed into the IUMMSW in 1916. The IUMMSW, popularly known as “Mine Mill,” was a very militant union, fiercely protective of workers and their rights and was not shy about wielding the power of workers through strikes. During the 1950s and 1960s Hayden-Winkelman’s IUMMSW Local 886 sponsored several strikes and work actions in support of workers (wages, benefits, work conditions, etc.). Since the union culture of the mining towns encompassed the miners’ families, entire families participated in the union’s actions. Thus, my wife and her sister grew up on the union picket lines.
For my part, I was born into and raised in a union household. Both my parents were union members—my Dad in the Plasterers and Cement Masons union, my Mom the Electrical Workers. I myself joined my first union when I was a teenager. I have organized unions (sanitation workers) and have negotiated union contracts. My political mentor was Maclovio Barraza, a native of the Arizona “Copper Belt” mining town of Superior. The son and grandson of miners, Maclovio himself went to work in the mines as a youngster and went on to become an organizer for the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and then a regional vice president for the United Steelworkers.
While both my wife and I had a few rough times—when there were strikes or layoffs—growing up, the fact that we had a decent life is due to our parents’ having had a decent union-negotiated salary.
IUMMSW takes on the “yellow dogs”…
Intertwined with the role of mines in Arizona history is the role of mining town unions. Not only have these brought stability and prosperity to thousands of families, they have been major players in the political and civil-rights arenas.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began organizing in the Arizona mines, posing a threat to the mining companies, who controlled virtually every aspect of life in the mining towns. The companies overtly fomented racism against the Mexican American miners: the company housing was segregated along racial lines as were the company-owned recreational facilities, and the companies maintained a “Mexican Wage” system under which miners of Mexican descent were paid less than their Anglo counterparts for the same jobs.
To maintain their domination of workers, including their racist policies and practices, companies created company-controlled organizations known derisively among unionists as “Yellow Dog worker associations.” These were patterned after the common practice in the early 1900s of employers forcing workers to sign “yellow dog contracts” promising not to join a union as a condition of employment. Unions maintained that any worker who signed one of these contracts was reduced to the level of a yellow street dog in that he signed away all of his rights.
[“Yellow dog contracts” were forbidden in the private sector by the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932 but were allowed in the public sector, including many government jobs, such as teachers, until the 1960s.]
The IUMMSW, a CIO union, was holistic in its ideology and did not limit itself to fighting for workers on the job. While other unions in the country turned a blind eye to racist policies and practices of employers, the IUMMSW confronted the mining companies and demanded that all workers be treated equally in all aspects of life—wages, work conditions, housing, etc. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, racial equality was perceived to be a “Communist” notion. Thus, the IUMMSW was seriously red-baited not only by politicians and mining company officials, but also by some unions for fighting for racial equality. [My wife’s Dad, organizer and official of the IUMMSW, was called before the House Un-American Committee inspired and fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his infamous witch hunts.]
Despite the fierce opposition, criticism, and red baiting it faced, the IUMMSW succeeded in obtaining good contracts for its workers, and it was a key player in desegregating the mining towns in Arizona. The IUMMSW merged with the United Steelworkers (USW) in 1967.
Unions should respect their history and heritage
The unions fighting ASARCO-Grupo Mexico are respecting their history and heritage and acting in the tradition of real unions—they are standing tall and fighting for workers. At a local community college, the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) union is also fighting on behalf of workers. Sadly, that cannot be said of all unions today. It seems that too many labor organizations interpret “labor” as meaning they should “labor” on behalf of the Democratic Party establishment.
In the recent presidential election unions were falling over themselves to support Hillary Clinton, who was paid handsomely to fashion and implement union-busting policies for Wal-Mart; who pushed NAFTA, the union job killer, and who chose Tim Kaine as her running mate. As governor of Virginia, Kaine militantly supported his state’s anti-union Right-to-work law and denied public-sector workers the right to form unions that could engage in collective bargaining. And Clinton promised that if elected she would put miners “out of business.” There was a time when it was not even conceivable that unions would support candidates with this kind and level of anti-union baggage.
But the Democratic establishment and their minions are so out of touch with the working class that they are still wondering why union members in the rust belt and elsewhere abandoned Clinton. The Democratic Party and unions are bleeding unionists. As long as the Democratic Party continues to ignore and disrespect the working class and unions favor the Democratic establishment elite over workers, their true constituency, the bleeding will continue. c/s
Copyright 2016 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org