MINERS STAND UP TO GOV. “SCABBITT.”
The 1983 copper miners’ strike in Clifton-Morenci, AZ, happened 30 years ago last month. But reminiscing about the strike conjures up powerful memories and emotions even now. My wife, Ceci Cruz (whose father was one of the co-founders of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers union in Arizona, which evolved into the United Steel Workers), and I were involved in that strike. Ceci headed one of the local strike support committees that emerged, and I went to Clifton to rally with the strikers.
The strike pitted workers against the giant Phelps Dodge (PD) Corporation, which has the nefarious distinction of having engineered the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. In that reprehensible action, PD broke a miners’ strike by conspiring with the local sheriff to arrest 2,000 strikers, who were then herded into boxcars and railroaded out of town and dumped in the New Mexico desert.
In May, 1983, Local 616 of the United Steel Workers of America and PD were negotiating a new contract. The union agreed to a wage freeze but was pushing to hold on to cost of living adjustments. In recent years, similar agreements had been accepted by other mining corporations in Arizona and elsewhere.
But PD was riding the anti-union sentiment initiated in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of striking air-traffic controllers and broke their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).
The negotiations failed to reach an agreement, and on July 1, 1983, a strike involving over 2,000 workers from Clifton, Morenci, Ajo, and Douglas, Arizona, began.
Soon, miners were subjected to undercover surveillance and unlawfully arrested; those who lived in PD-owned homes were evicted. By month’s end, PD announced that striking workers at the Morenci Mine would be permanently replaced. And injunctions limiting both picketing and demonstrations at the mine were obtained.
Then all hell broke loose. In August, Arizona’s Democratic Governor, Bruce Babbitt, staged an invasion of the town. He sent in hundreds of state troopers and combat-armed National Guard members, backed up by military vehicles and helicopters, to break the strike so that PD could continue operating with non-union workers. Which is why in all of Arizona’s mining towns, Babbitt is to this day known as Governor Scabbitt. Machinists and other AFL-CIO unions stood with the United Steel Workers, so Babbitt’s invasion was against many unions.
Unions nurture a culture of community. Being part of that culture and participating in a collective action such as a strike are empowering experiences. Thus, even in the face of what amounted to a military occupation of their community and soldiers and police shooting tear gas bombs in their midst, the miners and their families maintained their solidarity and their resolve.
Fortunately, a photographer and an artist captured the dynamics of the strike. Former Tucson City Councilman and current Arizona State Representative Bruce Wheeler went to Clifton-Morenci to support the strikers and took some great pictures, some of which are embedded in my blog.
Chicano artist David Tineo captured the dynamics of the strike in an iconic mural he painted in the Local 616 union hall. Fortunately, when the union moved, the mural was preserved by the building’s new owner, retired dentist Jeff Gaskin. Dr. Diana Uribe took the pictures of the mural I include here.
Many heroes and heroines emerged from the strike. A sampling of these: The Clifton-Morenci women. As in the 1951 strike by the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers union against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico (on which the movie “Salt of the Earth” is based), the miners’ wives and daughters in Clifton-Morenci walked the daily picket lines and stood up to the occupying army of the National Guard when PD obtained injunctions barring union men from picketing.
The Irish-Yaqui doctor Dr. Jorge O’ Leary and his wife Anna opened up a free People’s Clinic (staffed by volunteers and supplied by donations) after PD fired him for the “offense” of providing medical care to the sick child of a striking miner.
Although Babbitt had convinced the Democratic establishment to abandon the strikers, Democratic State Senator Luis Gonzales and Democratic State Representatives Peter Ríos and Jesús “Chuy” Higuera picketed with the workers and held a press conference on the hill overlooking Clifton and demanded that Babbitt withdraw his troops.
Attorney Michael McCrory, who represented the miners during the strike and never lost a case he fought on their behalf.
Angel Rodriguez, the President of United Steel Workers Local 616, led the strike and had to deal with everything: providing leadership and inspiration to his members, the press (the strike garnered national attention), PD and its minions (local law enforcement and politicians), the many and sundry crises that arise during a strike. And he did it superlatively.
Despite the valiant stand of the miners and their families, PD, in collaboration with Governor Babbitt and the Democratic and Republican establishments (who says there’s no bipartisanship in Arizona politics?), succeeded in breaking the strike and having the union decertified a couple of years later.
But the people’s pride and resilience remain strong. I saw those on a recent visit to Clifton-Morenci. Neither greedy corporations nor unprincipled politicians can destroy those.
Copyright 2013 by Salomon Baldenegro
Salomon can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org