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This Day in Labor History: June 30, 1983

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On June 30, 1983, workers at the Phelps-Dodge Corporation copper mines in Arizona went on strike. Led by the United Steelworkers of America, miners fought bravely against Phelps-Dodge’s decision to bust their union, but faced with overwhelming odds, they lost the strike, bringing in the heyday of corporations busting the unions and moving aggressively toward a completely non-union workplace.

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The Phelps-Dodge mine in Morenci, Arizona had a long history. Phelps-Dodge and other big mining corporations had operated in the southern Arizona/northern Sonora borderlands for a full century by this point. Hating unions every second, they had engaged in some of the most loathsome anti-union tactics in American history, but had eventually caved to the inevitability of union representation. Phelps-Dodge had long run a workmonth of 26 days on and 2 days off before the United Steel Workers of America ended that bit of oppression, which corporate leaders always resented.

The copper industry was in deep trouble in the early 1980s. Pressure from abroad, especially the giant mines of Chile, led to a reduction in copper prices. U.S. mining corporations responded both by investing overseas and laying off workers in the United States. Phelps-Dodge had made some bad investments and was in some trouble, with its leadership taking a lot of criticism. The mine closed for 5 months in 1982.

It reopened in 1983. But Phelps-Dodge decided to use the situation to bust the union. Seeing that the USWA had caved in recent negotiations with U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, Phelps-Dodge leaders thought they would like some union contract relief as well. Instead of cost of living adjustments, workers wages would be tied to the worldwide price of copper, forcing them to bear the direct brunt of fluctuations of commodity prices. The union was flexible in its negotiations. It agreed to a wage freeze for the entirety of the three-year deal. But it would not change its COLA requests. It had good reason not to. The other mining companies had agreed to this very reasonable offer from their unions. Phelps-Dodge said they could not afford a union workforce. Others noted that despite the recent downturn in copper prices, the company had made $550 million in the previous decade and that it was the company’s own mines in Peru, Australia, and South Africa that had undercut both prices and union work in the United States.

The company terminated the 40-year continuing agreement with the USWA, an 87-page contract that had been used the whole time with moderate changes. It immediately announced not only a $2 an hour wage cut for new workers but major changes in grievance procedures, disciplinary actions, and the other day to day operations that make unions work. They also began the unprecedented step within union contracts of forcing a medical co-pay on workers, something that we see as inevitable in 2013 but which was outrageous for many workers thirty years ago.

Immediately, the unions (vast majority were USWA but there were 13 total unions) voted to strike. 2400 union members walked out and surrounded the miners to not allow strikebreakers to enter. They were immediately subjected to widespread harassment led by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency, a Tucson-based state-run undercover police force. Using tactics from the violent days of the early 20th century Phelps-Dodge executives longed for, the ACISA quickly infiltrated almost every union meeting, wiretapping about 1/2 of the union meetings. The ACISA shared intelligence information directly with Phelps-Dodge officials. Phelps-Dodge began smuggling arms into the mine.

Pretty quickly, divisions rose within the workforce. About 400 of the 1480 workers scabbed quickly. George Mungia could stay on strike or potentially lose his pension. Or he could scab for 2 months and have worked long enough for the pension his union fought to give him. He went for self-interest, knowing that Phelps-Dodge would never have a union back in the mines. This number actually disappointed Phelps-Dodge, for it thought it could break the strike easily.

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On August 5, the USWA decided it had to raise the level of struggle in order to survive. On August 8, about 1000 strikers and supporters surrounded the mine entrance, chasing away the strikebreakers and forcing others to remain inside the mill. Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt called for Phelps-Dodge to announce a 10-day work stoppage to settle tensions. But this just gave time for Phelps-Dodge to plan its next maneuver. On August 19, the corporation brought in a military force to end strikers’ resistance. Calling it “Operation Copper Nugget,” 426 state troopers and 325 National Guard members, assisted by helicopters, tanks, and military vehicles, retook the entrance to the mines. They used strikers’ “violence” as the reason, which primarily consisted of a lot of swearing and some thrown eggs. Strikers could no longer keep strikebreakers out. Eight days later, 10 strikers in Ajo were charged with rioting. The strike collapsed quickly after this overwhelming display of corporate, military, and legal power.

Among Phelps-Dodge’s leaders was John Coulter, vice-president for personnel. When the company used force to end the strike, it decided to never hire the old workers back. According to Coulter, “As far as we’re concerned the strike is over.”

The strike lasted three years but was basically over in three months. In September 1984, the workers voted on whether to work without a union or maintain their union without a job. They voted out the union. In 1986, the NLRB rejected the last union appeals. It was a complete victory for Phelps-Dodge. The company became entirely union-free in Arizona.

Some labor scholars call the Phelps-Dodge strike the private sector equivalent of the air traffic controllers in 1981. From this point forward, corporations became far more aggressive about busting unions, using increasingly sophisticated tactics with tacit support from the federal government.

Almost as soon as the strike ended, copper prices rose dramatically. While this was no conspiracy, Phelps-Dodge happily combined rapidly increased profits with a union-free workplace.

John Coulter had a daughter named Ann. She became very annoying. She loves her papa though because he was a unionbuster.

The ACISA was disbanded in 1984 after state legislators thought having an undercover agency was a waste of state money.

The mines of Arizona remain union-free today.

This is the 112th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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