The Thirtieth Anniversary of the Phelps Dodge Strike

This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of the long, often violent, community-rending—but for women, in particular, sometimes empowering—Phelps Dodge Strike in the copper towns of Arizona. Cornell University/ILR Press authors Barbara Kingsolver (Holding the Line) and Jonathan Rosenblum (Copper Crucible) both wrote books about the Phelps Dodge strike that continue to be taught today at universities like Gonzaga, University of Minnesota, George Mason, and elsewhere. Professor Anna O’Leary, a leader of the women’s auxiliary of Morenci Local 616 who teaches at University of Arizona in Tucson, writes in a letter to the Latinopia blog that “…[M]any striker families moved on to other places in search of work and a new life. For many, it was a period of uncertainty and struggle and adaptation. However, being able to keep our heads held high in knowing that we were on the right side of history, helped in this period of adjustment as they brought other rewards to our children and a different future that had been difficult to envision at the time.

Rosenblum asked Morenci Miners Local 616 former president Angel Rodriguez to write a few words about why, alongside economic matters, his members belonged to the union:

“30 years ago on June 30, 1983, over 2,000 miners went on strike against the copper giant, Phelps Dodge (PD) Corporation at its Morenci, Ajo, Douglas and Bisbee operations and its refinery in El Paso, Texas. Copper miners at PD had gone on strike every three years. The general feeling among union leaders was optimism that in this round of negotiations we could avert a strike. The copper industry was feeling the effects of a slow economy and a market glut of copper worsened by foreign copper imports. According to the industry, the price of copper was not enough to cover the costs of producing the red metal and still make a profit. At the time, I had been President of Local Union 616 since 1977.

The company was proposing to terminate the 1980-83 contract and all other agreements, settlements, letters of understanding, dating back to the 1950’s…The company’s proposals were an obstacle to any meaningful negotiations on any level as they were steadfast and unbending. They weren’t looking for concessions, they wanted total capitulation. Thinking back, this was one time where our unity worked against us. At the time, we were firm in our position that whatever pattern was set by one of the other copper companies, that would be the basis for a settlement not only for us, but all the other copper industry negotiations. . . . The company had hired scabs to replace us and eventually led them to petition for a decertification vote. Needless to say, all the unions overwhelmingly lost the election, After 32 months, strikers were placed on the preferential hiring list and eventually many were recalled and resumed working for the company without union representation. The strike was a bitter strike with striker on scab and scab on striker violence and police brutality. In short, the aftermath was a divided community where families and long-time childhood friends remained bitterly divided. A way of life was destroyed.”

Rodriguez underlined what that way of life had meant to the mining community, especially the political participation of Mexican Americans:

“The union became the vehicle for Mexican Americans to run for political office and win elections to city, county and school boards and in some cases, state offices. It instilled the value and importance of being registered and voting in elections to elect their supporters to public office. Membership in the union was an empowering experience that gave the miners and their families the ability to standup and fight for the right for their children to speak Spanish when not in class at school without being punished. They fought for the right to walk into the movie theater and sit in any area other than designated/segregated area. They fought for the right for their children to go to the swimming pool on any day of the week, not only on the day before the pool was to be drained, so the Anglo kids could go swimming in ‘clean’ water the following week. They were able to go bowling where previously that had been denied service at the bowling alley, unless they were working there. The union empowered the miners to desegregate the restaurants that didn’t serve ‘Mexicans’ and be served. The miners’ families fought for the right to use the public library in Morenci.
In the midst of the hardships on the miners and their families, they always found a way to alleviate their hardships by engaging in community events that entertained them and helped them mix the good with the bad. It strengthened their bond.
What workers could accomplish once they felt the power a union could bring them!”

The Thirtieth Anniversary of the Phelps Dodge Strike