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The Arizona Copper Strike of 1983

Aug 13, 2019 at History Essays

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The events of the Arizona Copper Strike of 1983 had major significance in the history of labor movements in the United States. A bargaining dispute between the unions and the Phelps Dodge Corporation spearheaded the strike (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 8). Led by the United Steelworkers, the strike erupted and continued for almost three years. Fundamentally, the fall in copper prices from February 1981 pushed the corporation to make some adjustments that the unions did not accept (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 9). As the prices of copper continued to drop, it became challenging for the copper industry to make profits. For instance, the Phelps Dodge continued to lose money because it still operated using manual workforce. However, towards the end of 1981, the management at the Phelps Dodge announced that it would lay off a significant number of its workers in Arizona and New Mexico (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 6). Secondly, as the corporation continued to experience more losses, it announced that more than 3,400 employed on the hourly basis in Texas and Arizona would be laid off as well (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 7).

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The management personnel were not spared because their salaries were reduced too. Consequently, due to the losses experienced, most of the copper mines in Arizona were shut down. On the other hand, in response to the situation, George Monroe, the Chairman at the Corporation, opted to hold direct talks with the workers. He wanted to convince the workers that the when the production costs outweighed the selling prices, then the corporation was at the risk of shutting down (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 9). Secondly, the copper industry would be forced to accept pay cuts like other manufacturing industries. As the result of these talks, more than half of the workers that had been laid off were reinstated back to the corporation although other copper companies continued to end their operations. However, the prices of copper did not increase, thus creating the need for Phelps Dodge to develop a long-term plan to reduce the costs of labor (Moses & Hartmann, 1995, p. 4). Significantly, it became crucial for the corporation to eliminate the cost-of-living adjustment from the new union contract. Therefore, to accomplish the reduction in labor costs, there was the need for contract negotiations. On one hand, the Corporation wanted to increase the payments for health care and lower the wage scale for new hires (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 10).

On the other hand, Frank McKee led the disagreeing to fight against these adjustments because they would support the uniformity of the wage system for copper miners. This meant that the negotiations between the workers and the Phelps Dodge could not be successful (Moses & Hartmann, 1995, p. 5). Consequently, the disagreeing unions began to strike on July 1, 1983: they started to spread nails on roads leading to the Corporation. They insulted the workers who refused to join the strike. The Court Order to limit the number of pickers did little to change the position of the striking workers. The strikers threatened their working counterparts through phone calls and they smashed their cars with stones and baseball bats (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 11). As a result, there was undercover surveillance to identify the violent moves and demonstrations of the strikers at the picketing line near the mine. More importantly, the grievances of the strikers increased when Phelps Dodge announced it was planning to hire new workers as a replacement. Security concerns grew at the Corporation so much that even the police could not guarantee protection to both the plant and its workers from the attacks from the striking workers (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 15). Therefore, the company was forced to shut down its operations for ten days in August 1983 to cool off the planned attacks from the crowd. On the other view, although the involvement and roles of women in the Arizona Copper Strike was under shadow, they played a significant part in the unfolding of the events of the strike, which will be discussed in this paper.

The Roles and Involvement of Women in the 1983 Arizona Copper Strike

The contribution to the strike was ignored and underexplored by the media and local communities. However, the women, particularly the wives of the striking workers, took important roles in fighting against the oppressive adjustments by the Phelps Dodge Corporations (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 12). For instance, organizations like Morenci Miners Women Auxiliary were formed to facilitate the women’s support of the strike. In addition, the union leaders held active positions to initiate negations with the management at Phelps Dodge. They represented the miners in pushing the corporation to reconsider issues such as the elimination of payments for healthcare that agitated the miners (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 10).

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In addition, as the miners continued to strike, the number of women attending rallies and union meetings increased. As a result, with the increased involvement of women in the strike, it became easier to enhance the sense of solidarity and mobilize the larger community to support the fight against the Corporation (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 17). Remarkably, the voice of women was critical in enhancing the understanding that the Arizona Copper strike was different from other strikes. The auxiliary women aimed at creating the awareness that Phelps Dodge Corporation maliciously deviated from the common bargaining patterns in all Arizona mining companies. Its management solely refused to follow suit in reaching agreements with their unions. Because of the refusal, the unions at Morenci were ended (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 23).

Women also occupied a center stage during the strike. They formed organizations that were used to distribute basic amenities such as food and clothing. In addition, women supporters called their own unofficial pickets (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 35). Furthermore, when the Women’s Auxiliary was barred from the protest line, they changed their name and increased the number of their participants. In this way, they had the ability to organize more rallies and pickets (Moses & Hartmann, 1995, p. 6). They became more organized in responding to tear-gas attacks and arrests. For instance, in protesting against violent attacks, women screamed, threw rocks, and they increasingly attended the pickets. Notably, the President of the Morenci Miners Women’s Auxiliary, Fina Roman, led other women in responding to police officers that they underestimated the female power (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 33). Fina Roman was a brave woman, and she was not afraid to criticize the Corporation and law enforcers. She believed that it was not possible for women to forget the events of the strike such as beatings, arrests, and tear gas attacks against the elderly. According to Fina and other auxiliary women, it was prudent for the women to fight against the oppressive laws; they were not afraid to leave behind bereaved families as they fought for the means of earning their daily bread (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 44).

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On a further note, the auxiliary women were at the front line to shed the light at the fact that the workers were deeply affected by the salary cuts for the miners (Green, 2000, p. 9). Therefore, women were more likely to support their male counterparts in resisting salary cuts. In essence, with the drastic pay cuts imposed by the Corporation, it became challenging to buy new clothes and birthday presents for their children: a reality that women were not willing to accept. The auxiliary women could not come into terms with the fact that the management at the Phelps Dodge had frozen the wages of the miners (Moses & Hartmann, 1995, p. 7). Therefore, it meant that although women knew very well that the prices of copper were not doing well, they opposed further cuts in wages and benefits (Green, 2000, p. 20).

When the strike began, the efforts of women in supporting the striking miners were undermined. For example, some of local officials attempted to cut off the voices of women to express their concerns over the strike. To shun them, women were criticized with verbal insults and obscenities (Rhomberg, 2012, p. 149). Therefore, women became infuriated and they became more aggressive in calling for more people to render their support against the Phelps Dodge. For instance, the Auxiliary president, Fina Roman travelled throughout the country, giving speeches and recruiting more supporters. She was convinced that women should not be intimidated to stand up for their rights. Women should be at the frontline to fight for the well-being of their homes and the future of their children (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 35).

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Under leadership of Fina Roman, the auxiliary women created the opportunity for the larger community to understand that it was inhumane for companies like the Phelps Dodge to continue exploiting their employees. Secondly, the activities of the auxiliary women assisted in waging national corporate campaign to scare the creditors to the Corporation. Notably, the women in the auxiliary also brought remarkable national publicity to the remote copper towns (Rhomberg, 2012, p. 230). More importantly, the auxiliary women significantly changed the lives of individual members. For instance, having experienced the odds during the strike, Anna O’Leary did not hesitate to seek support from the auxiliary meetings. Gradually, Anna took leadership roles, but she was later selected by the Ford Foundation to address the labor struggles for women at a conference in Kenya (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 54).

On a wider perspective, although they had other responsibilities to their families, women were not deterred in sharing information about the ongoing Arizona copper strike. They actively counseled each other on how to survive through the hard economic times that were getting worse with the cuts from their husbands’ salaries. On the other hand, the roles of female supporters went beyond that within the auxiliary organization (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 56). For example, the female leaders defied the orders from the authorities and got involved on the picket lines. The objected all aspects of male chauvinism that aimed at shunning them away to support the striking miners. They endured suffering and humiliations from law enforcement officers (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 59). For instance, Diana Vega was arrested and handcuffed in front of her four-year-old son. Nevertheless, such humiliations were not enough to deter women from maintaining their fighting spirit. They continued to support the strike to push the Phelps Dodge Corporation to hold the dignity and productivity of its employees (Rhomberg, 2012, p. 256).

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Although the majority of Morenci Miners Women’s Auxiliary was the wives of the miners, the organization was open to all women even though they were connected directly through family or work to the family (Kingsolver, 2012, p. 68). At the height of the strike, there were at least 100 active members in the auxiliary that engaged in a variety of activities during the strike. The members provided necessities such as fuel, money, rides to the physicians, and school supplies for the striking miners and their families (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 76). The auxiliary made sure that these works were maintained through events such as fundraising and joint work with the union and the local food bank.

The auxiliary also served as reinforcement for family when the members planned activities for the strikers such as Christmas parties and Easter picnics. Remarkably, these activities not only nurtured and supported the striking families, but they also helped in building feelings of solidarity. The auxiliary women also supported the strikers through voluntary works (Rhomberg, 2012, p. 260). For instance, as a physician, Jorge O’Leary provided free medical services to the strikers. When the Phelps Dodge Corporation obtained a legal injunction on the picket, it became extremely difficult to gather many people in this area. However, the auxiliary women created an unofficial picket line at the town line between Morenci and Clifton; this road was used by the miners when going to the mining plant (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 251). Therefore, although the picket line was not official, it created an opportunity for larger number of people, especially the non-miners to support the strike. Secondly, because the picket line was near some buildings owned by sympathizers of the strike, they became involved in the strike too. They provided parking for picketers as well as positions to store strike materials such as signs, leaflets, and balloons. In this way, the picket line created by the auxiliary women allowed the strike to spill over into the community (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 253).

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In addition, the members of the organization also worked to bring the strike to the attention of people outside Arizona. In practical terms, since Clifton-Morenci was a geographically isolated area, the events could be easily ignored (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 80). However, the unofficial picket line organized by the Morenci Miners Women Auxiliary was very effective in attracting the attention of the press. It had many members and it was more active than the tightly controlled official line. For instance, on May 5, 1984, the auxiliary women organized one of the largest rallies of the strike (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 254). The rally attracted thousands of people despite the fact that the local union officials had publicly denounced the plans for the rally. These officials even left the town the day the rally took place to emphasize their decision that they are not involved in organizing the rally (Rhomberg, 2012, p. 287).

The auxiliary members also took the strike to other people through the national outreach. For instance, in 1984, four members went on a speaking tour of the West to raise funds and to make the strike public. Secondly, two other members were sent to speak at the National Coalition of Labor Union meeting in Chicago (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 255). As a result, the CLUW organization rules were suspended to support the strikers because the audience was moved by the presentation from the two members from the auxiliary. The activities of the auxiliary women rendered significant support to the strikers. For example, after Jorge O’Leary was fired from the Corporation for rendering free medical services, he led other members of the auxiliary to meet with Bruce Spring to accept $10,000 (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 256). These funds were used to assist in the provision of health care services for the strikers and their families. Furthermore, the activities of auxiliary women did not only involve supporting the strike, but they actively also fought the Corporation and the police in defense of the strike. On the other hand, although the activities of the auxiliary were to support the striking miners in their fight against the Corporation, women had their own concerns as wives (Rosenblum, 1998, p. 85). The auxiliary organization was not just a simple reflection of women’s insubordination: these women wanted to show that the goals of the strike had become a concern for them too. In other words, women did not simply help or support their striking husbands (Aulette & Mills, 1988, p. 267).

Conclusion

Although the union officials attempted to contain the auxiliary, the women were successful in their support against the fight against Phelps Dodge Corporations. For one, they took part in taking the strike to people in other areas through the national outreach. The auxiliary women were actively involved in speaking tours to promote the strike and raise funds. The activities of the auxiliary women helped in attracting the attention of the media to the geographically isolated Clifton-Morenci area. They also influenced the sympathizers to be involved in the strike. These people provided parking areas and storage for strike materials. Furthermore, the unofficial picket line provided the opportunity to organize large rallies despite the rejection from the local union officials. The auxiliary women took the center stage in the fight against the Phelps Dodge Corporation. They formed organization that assisted in distributing food, offering rides to the physicians, raising funds for medical services, and promoting the strike.

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