The summer of 1917 was tense in the United States. The entrance of the nation into World War I that spring seemed to place the entire nation on edge. Progressivism, a diverse movement with widely mixed motivations among its members, showed its dark side like never before, using the increasingly activist federal government to suppress all perceived threats to middle-class, patriotic America. The Wilson Administration cracked down on dissent, passing the Espionage Act in June, a law used, along with several other laws passed during the war, to crack down on any criticism of the war. Anti-immigrant movements increased their activities–after nearly 40 years of intense immigration, Americans’ feared more than ever immigrants’ impact upon the nation. The prohibition movement also took advantage of the war, using the connection between immigrants and alcohol to push through the 18th Amendment. Vigilante attacks against labor organizers, particularly radical labor, increased. To name one notorious incident, I.W.W. organizer Frank Little was lynched in the summer of 1917 in Butte, Montana and probably by Pinkertons (a future topic in this series).
Corporations were quick to see the opportunity wartime hysteria offered. Among them was Phelps-Dodge. One of the nation’s largest mining conglomerations, Phelps-Dodge operated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, mining a number of minerals, but especially copper. As the company moved on both sides of the border, so did workers. Phelps-Dodge operations in southern Arizona were staffed by native-born American, Mexican, and eastern European workers.
Bisbee, Arizona was one of the major operations. The copper companies completely controlled Bisbee. Mine safety was a major problem. Housing conditions were extremely poor for most workers. Remembered miner Fred Watson:
It was a pretty tough town. The conditions in the mines were intolerable. Absolutely. They never mentioned anything the miners asked for. Their demands were never mentioned.
In response to the terrible conditions in Bisbee and around the border mining belt, the Industrial Workers of the World organized the miners. The I.W.W. began in 1905 out of the Western Federation of Miners, which had represented workers in a number of brutal mining strikes in the previous years. Building off those experiences, the I.W.W. took their message of a world controlled by workers, a world without rapacious capitalists brutalizing workers to the nation and the world. The I.W.W. was particularly successful with the itinerant and desperate laborers of the Pacific Northwest–miners, loggers, and agricultural workers. The I.W.W. was involved in Bisbee for some time before 1917, as were other unions. After repeated crushed attempts to unionize the miners, in 1916, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers did successfully organize about 1800 miners. These were mostly native-born Americans. The I.W.W. meanwhile had more success with the most marginalized workers–the Mexicans and eastern Europeans.
As it did with its actions throughout the nation, the I.W.W. took a flexible approach to its organizing, subsuming its larger ideological desire for worker control over the means of production to whatever local workers needed. On June 24, 1917, the I.W.W. in Bisbee presented the copper companies with a list of demands. Among them were better living and working conditions, more men per machine, and nondiscrimination against union workers. The copper companies refused to negotiate. By June 27, about 50% of Bisbee miners were on strike.
Phelps-Dodge and the smaller operations in Bisbee decided to use the war as a pretext to crack down on the Wobblies once and for all. Newspapers in Bisbee and around the nation accused the I.W.W. of pro-German sympathy. This was absurd, though the Wobblies did oppose the war. However, I.W.W. leadership also told workers to make up their own mind about the war. Local elites created the Citizens’ Protective League under control of the sheriff. And it decided to round up the Wobblies and ship them out.
On July 11, 1917, the Citizens Protective League put out a call to the surrounding areas for deputies. 2000 men assembled by the next morning. They took over the Western Union office to prevent word getting out about their actions. They then went around to the miners’ cabins and rounded people suspected of radicalism or of being Mexican or eastern European. They collected 1186 men many of whom were not on strike or even miners. They marched them to waiting trains, where they were pushed into cattle cars knee deep in manure. The train took off, went to the New Mexico-Arizona border, and dropped them off in the desert.
By this time, people heard about what was happening, largely because the vigilantes wanted to drop them in Columbus, New Mexico (a town already famous for being burned by Pancho Villa), but Columbus wouldn’t take them. A train did go out to give them some food and water, but the 1186 men were abandoned out there for 2 days, when finally the U.S. military collected them and placed them in pens near Columbus.
Nothing really happened to the copper companies for this action. The Wilson Administration ordered a cursory investigation, but clearly did not care a great deal given its lack of respect for civil liberties of radicals. The Federal Mediation Commission did say that the copper companies were at fault, but said that the state of Arizona should deal with it.
Not surprisingly, Arizona did nothing.
Although it became a cause celebre among unions throughout the nation, the Bisbee Deportation crushed the miners union. Of course, those rounded up had done nothing wrong. Most were soon released by the army to go back to mining or to slip back to Mexico.
These wounds don’t heal easily. As late as 1985, in an oral history, Walter Douglas, the grandson of Phelps-Dodge founder James Douglas, and a witness to the deportation, made light of it:
So then they backed a cattle train in on that siding by the ball park, loaded them all in, and put in water and food and everything else and sent them to Columbus, New Mexico. And when they got them over there they put the train on the siding and took the engine and caboose off and brought it back and they deported twelve hundred and some people. I was seven years old at that time and our house was up on a hill and I remember the baby-sitter we had taking my brother and I up there in the window and we could watch them going down Bisbee Road. Twelve hundred people’s quite a few, you know, plus the cowboys that were herding them. (laughs) They put them all on the train and that was the last of it. But, of course they brought suit against the company, they brought suit against my dad. They threatened him with jail and everything because he violated their civil rights and enslaved them, they said, because they didn’t give them any food and water. Federal investigators came out and they had court hearings in El Paso and in Bisbee and they proved that they had been fed and watered and everything else was given to them, even the transportation.(laughter)
Douglas went on:
WD: Yes, free transportation. So it just fizzled out, but there’s still some people that say we were violating civil rights. Well that might have been so, in a way by making them . . . but they were not residents of Bisbee and what people don’t realize is the company was working as hard as it could because there was a war on, WWI, and they depended on that copper, and these people trying to tie up the mine and the smelter, it just didn’t go over so big. And people look at it now, well it was terrible with all these people . . . The conditions, circumstances were entirely different and the state itself was only five years old at the time. The governor did his best, he sent the guard down there to help out, but they didn’t have much of a guard, a five-year-old state didn’t, but they did have the Arizona Rangers. They were the equivalent of DPS, and they took care of the situation pretty well. There was nobody killed or anything. I think one person got killed–two people got in an argument–but aside from that for that much of a disturbance, it was pretty good.
They took men out of the barber shops. Why is it they went to the barber shops and trampled them under foot on the streets that morning? Why did they go in restaurants where we had cooks and waiters with their white jackets and big hats [and put them] in line? Why did they get those? They didn’t work in the mines. There was a fellow in a white coat that worked in there, and he used to work in the mines. They went in there and they wanted to know, “Are you with these guys or against them?”
He said, “I’ve made my living off those fellows for ten years. Why wouldn’t I be with them?”
His pool hall was wrecked because he was in line with us. It was union busting and a good opportunity.
They got me out of bed looking down a double-barrelled shotgun and I don’t believe one of them was a citizen. I believe Tommy Madden was, but the others – I have my doubts. I don’t think Joe Holt was a citizen. I wouldn’t swear to that but I went to school with him. They got me down to the street. I had a pair of pants and my shirt and underwear on, and I had sense enough to grab my wallet that was in my good clothes. I wasn’t even broke.
Sadly, this would be far from the last time vigilantes took advantage of World War I hysteria and the Red Scare to intimidate unions, deport radicals, and murder union members, as future entries in this series will show.
Previous posts in this series can be viewed under the “This Date in Labor History” tag.