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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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  • Anonymous

    “John Coulter had a daughter named Ann. She became very annoying.”

    Sometimes understatement says everything.

    • Ruviana

      Twas me.

    • DrDick

      The poison fruit does not fall far from the tree.

  • Mtrost

    Thank you, the link to Ann Coulter’s homepage was an evil thing to include here. There I clicked on her name and ended up reading the first half of here lates post, why soccer sucks.

    First reason: “Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer.”

    Second reason: “Liberal moms like soccer because it’s a sport in which athletic talent finds so little expression that girls can play with boys.”

    And it doesn’t improve. She’s worse than I imagined.

    • DrDick

      You obviously have a weak imagination.

      • Mtrost

        True that!

  • DrDick

    Interestingly, that collapse in copper prices also gave my state this lovely legacy.

  • malindrome

    Is “Copper Crucible” any good? If not, is there a better source for further reading on the strike?

    • wisclabor

      Did you ever get a satisfactory response to your question? I’d certainly like to know if you got a copy and evaluated it! (I’m the author.)

  • J R in WV

    Spending time in Arizona in the winters we have seen mining towns where the mines have played out, trying to stay alive by opening thrift stores to sell used stuff to each other. Not a successful economic strategy. And mining towns where the copper isn’t economical at current prices and market conditions, so the mines are closed, have been for 30 years, except for tiny operations to extract tiny hi-grade ore deposits higher in gold and silver.

    Most of the older mining towns are either dead or zombies kept alive by the need for gas stations off I-10, like Lordsburg, NM – a ghost town with people on pensions and Social Security, or working at the truck stops. The smelters are mostly gone, which is good, as they were all major polluters with no exhaust controls, poisoning the crew as well as everyone for miles downwind.

    I know there is a major smelter operating, because I see the truckloads of pure copper flying on the interstates – I assume they have new emissions controls in order to operate. Maybe everyone just wears respirators, tho? Nursing mothers and their babies, with respirators on, how does that work?

    Good union jobs! Ha.

    • For most of its existence the territory and later state of Arizona’s economy has been dominated by copper, cattle, and cotton (the three Cs). So it has had a largely primary resource extraction based economy. Like in a lot of Africa, Asia, and Latin America such an economy with its lack of diversity and failure to develop its own manufacturing basis has serious long term problems. It is probable that Michael Hechter’s model of internal colonialism which he used to explain Scottish and Welsh economic marginalization in the UK could also profitably be applied to Arizona versus the rest of the US. When I lived in Arivaca, AZ from 2005-2007 the local economy was very bad and it had not been good since the nearby gold mine at Ruby ran dry long before my birth. The early 1970s saw the town reconstruct itself as a lot of “hippies” brought property from the old Arivaca land grant and devoted themselves to such projects as building a community center, a very good library, a clinic, and other worthwhile institutions. But, there were very few jobs available in the immediate vicinity.

    • Bill Murray

      I know there is a major smelter operating, because I see the truckloads of pure copper flying on the interstates – I assume they have new emissions controls in order to operate. Maybe everyone just wears respirators, tho?

      Most pure copper in the US is produced by hydrometallurgical techniques culminating in electrowinning/electrorefining so smelters aren’t used

    • rea

      Most of the older mining towns are either dead or zombies kept alive by the need for gas stations off I-10, like Lordsburg, NM

      Lordsburg never was much of a mining town–it was always mostly a stop on the stagecoach, railroad, and highway. The mining is over in AZ or up to the north east in Grant County.

  • kmurray

    I love all the Labor History articles, but thanks especially for this.

    I remember reading a retrospective of the strike published in the “Tucson Weekly” some time in the 1990s. The survivors memories were still fresh, they were still understandably bitter.

    It turns out one of my present day colleagues was a scab in that dispute, something I simply cannot understand because his Dad was union through and through. Where has working class solidarity gone, when a son crosses a father’s picket line?

    • It turns out one of my present day colleagues was a scab in that dispute, something I simply cannot understand because his Dad was union through and through. Where has working class solidarity gone, when a son crosses a father’s picket line?

      You haven’t heard of Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, or Evan Bayh, son of Birch?

      • You literally have no other style of comment than hating on the current Democratic Party.

    • Chris

      This article especially stands out to me too, because, well, it’s from the freaking eighties. This is our time.

      I just want to grab every asshole who’s ever said “look, unions used to serve a purpose, but it’s over, we’re all good now” by the back of the neck and rub their nose in this article until it bleeds. Special police units infiltrating people for going on strike (can you imagine if they did the same to every rich asshole who threatened to “go Galt”)? Smuggling arms into a mine? Deploying the National Guard to attack the strikers? Things are different now from what they were in the Pinkerton days how, exactly?

      • They had better fashion sense in the Pinkerton days than in the early 80s.

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