On June 1, 1906, copper miners in the city of Cananea, Sonora, a few miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, went on strike against the American companies dominating the mines and Porfirian Mexico. Widely seen as one of the most important events influencing the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Cananea strike is also one of the most important events in Mexican labor history.
In the early twentieth century, the U.S.-Mexico border was quite fluid for both workers and capital. Mining companies like Phelps-Dodge had major investments on both sides of the border. The government of Porfirio Díaz committed itself to bringing in foreign capital as part of its modernization plans that included reshaping everything about Mexico to look as European as possible. In the north, this meant granting enormous economic concessions to American mineral and cattle companies.
On the U.S. side of the border, mining operations required Mexican labor. The Southwest was lightly populated and while some Italian and Greek immigrants made it all the way to Arizona and Colorado to work in the mines, for the most part, the mine operators recruited Mexican labor. On both sides of the border, the mines operated with American capital and Mexican workers. As was typical of mine labor throughout the United States and especially mine labor that was not white, the conditions and pay for Mexican workers were very bad. Mexican miners engaged in a tough 1903 strike against Phelps-Dodge at the Clifton-Morenci mines in southern Arizona and that strike was well known throughout the region, helping to create an atmosphere of general resistance to the racist treatment by the mining companies.
After 1900, overall resistance to the Diaz regime grew. Many dissidents moved to the United States, usually just over the border. This allowed them to influence the border workers. The most influential group was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) headed by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Magón, along with his brother Enrique, were dissidents who had served time in Díaz’s prisons. They moved to San Antonio and then St. Louis, where they sent followers back to the border. Clifton and the nearby town of Douglas was the center of this agitation and the PLM began to influence workers on both sides of the border.
Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón
This was certainly true in Cananea, about 25 miles south of the border. The town and everything for ten square miles around was owned by Bill Greene and his Consolidated Copper. There was a lot of racial tension on the border early that year, with significant anti-American sentiment and a race riot at a baseball game where four Mexicans were killed. Greene has received enormous concessions from Diaz, including 350,000 acres of timber, 37,000 acres of mineral lands, and thirty miles of railroad. The Cananea Mine employed 5360 Mexicans and 2300 foreigners, primarily American managers and executives. On May 31, two foremen at one mine told workers they would start having to work on piecework rather than salary.
The next morning, June 1, 1906, the miners in Cananea walked off the job. They demanded the 8-hour day, a minimum wage of five pesos per day, a merit system to eliminate hiring discrimination, and the promotion of Mexicans into some management positions. Green armed his American workers. The strikers marched to the copper mine’s lumberyard where two Americans fired on them. This enraged the workers, who burned the lumberyard and killed both their attackers and another American. The governor of Sonora then invited the U.S. Army to come into Sonora. The Mexican army arrived about the same time, arrested about 100 miners, and sent dozens to prison. The strike was completely suppressed within two days.
The Cananea strikers
This event was a loss for the workers, but it had long-standing reverberations. It was the first moment that a widespread rebellion against American domination of the region took place and it showed that workers were ready to take direct action against the American corporate domination of their lives. The PLM had hoped this strike would be the first step in a revolutionary movement against Díaz and while it wasn’t quite that, it was very important. The PLM and other radicals built on this event and workers themselves clearly moved to the left, which may have had something to do with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was always active in mining and had relative success organizing workers on the border. The use of U.S. troops also rankled in Mexico. The Flores Magón brothers began working with the IWW and bringing the organization’s syndicalist ideology to Mexican workers. Over the next four years, repeated actions along the border, with Mexican workers increasingly involved in both labor and revolutionary groups and angry over the systematic racism and despoliation of their nation by Americans, which by no means improved after 1906, laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican and American governments worked together on both sides of the border to repress these movements, including American agents harassing Mexican political refugees when the Diaz government brought them to American attention. By by 1910, the Mexican workers of the north were ready to play an important role in what would become the Mexican Revolution. Cananea strike leaders Manuel Dieguez and Esteban Baca Calderón became revolutionary leaders as well.
As the Revolution wound down, the new government produced the Mexican Constitution in 1917. That document reflected the concerns of Mexican workers, especially those of El Norte. Specifically, Article 27 makes it illegal for foreign citizens to own land within 100 miles of the nation’s borders, albeit with plenty of caveats. This specifically reflected how corporations like Phelps-Dodge and Consolidated Copper had made northern Mexico their personal fiefdoms and how workers demanded this never happen again. The Mexican government would eventually turn its back on the need to help the nation’s poor, but in its early decades, the PRI’s actions did reflect the influence of the Mexican working class on the revolution.
Ricardo Flores Magón never returned to Mexico. He was caught up in the Wilson administration’s World War I repression of radicals. He died in Leavenworth prison, probably of untreated diabetes, in 1922.
I consulted Rodolfo F. Acuña, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 in the writing of this post.
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