Relationships between mining companies and miners in Arizona history were at times challenging. Low wages, ethnic tension, profiteering, and a volatile metal market, coupled with foreign importation of metals, heightened conflict between labor and mine management.
However, as the 20th century progressed, many of these matters were resolved — with modest bloodshed — including improved benefits, salary increases, and the empowerment of employees.
The passage in 1947 of the Right-to-Work measure by the Arizona legislature coupled with the aftermath of the Clifton strike of 1983 further diminished the strength of unions.
Arizona’s first major conflict between labor and management occurred in 1884 at Tombstone. Instigated by declining silver prices, mine owners cut wages from four dollars a day to three.
In response, over 300 miners organized the Tombstone Miners’ Union, initiating a strike lasting four months. A divided community and two companies of federal troops from neighboring Fort Huachuca quelled the strike and the strikers accepted the company wage or moved elsewhere.
In 1896, mine owners at the Old Dominion mine in Globe attempted to lower Anglo wages from $3 a day to $2.25, replacing Anglo miners with Mexican miners. The Anglo miners threatened the owners at gunpoint, electing to join the Western Federation of Miners (WFM).
In response, the owners shut down the Old Dominion mine, locking out the union workers. Although martial law was declared by the territorial governor, the strikers remained adamant, resulting in a restoration of their original wage.
Hard rock miners in the early 1900s earned as much as $5 a day, six days a week at 8 hours a day. However, Mexican miners were making half of that wage. In 1903, Mexican miners instigated a strike in Clifton over the wage discrepancy, and although the strike was quelled by the Arizona Rangers and the flooding of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River, its long-term effects improved wages for Mexican miners while enhancing rapport among Anglo miners.
High copper prices during World War I and rich company profits enticed labor unions including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWWs, known as the Wobblies) to initiate strikes in mining towns across Arizona including Jerome, Chloride, Mayer, Swansea and Bisbee, which employed 5,000 miners.
Mining companies at Bisbee and Jerome were inflexible in dealing with labor union demands and subsequent strikes. With public support they instigated the Bisbee deportation, culminating on July 12, 1917, when 2,000 armed men rounded up 1,250 suspected IWW sympathizers, loading them onto boxcars and shipping them to Columbus, New Mexico.
The Bisbee Deportation was not without precedent. A mine strike in Jerome organized by the IWW in May ended with strikers and union organizers rounded up by armed agents of the mine owners and shipped by railroad cattle cars to Kingman, after being threatened with death upon returning to Jerome.
Declining copper prices averaging 60 cents per pound and foreign competition factored in Phelps Dodge’s decision not to renew the cost-of-living protection demanded by the miner’s unions.
That resulted in walkouts at Ajo, Bisbee, Douglas and Clifton-Morenci, precipitating the strike at Morenci in July 1983.
Despite a 10-day shutdown, Phelps Dodge maintained operations with nonunion employees and nonunion hires. Then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt deployed 325 National Guard troops backing Arizona’s state police force to restore order.
Phelps Dodge’s mines continued to operate despite a 20-month strike and the Oct. 2 flooding of the nearby San Francisco River — 90,900 cubic feet of water per second — that damaged a third of Clifton.
Despite union objections over the legality of the vote, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington accepted the October 1984 election results among Phelps Dodge employees to decertify the unions, officially ending Arizona’s most contentious mine strike in contemporary history.