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In distant Arizona city of Clifton, scars of crushed mining strike nonetheless linger

9 min read

On a scorching scorching afternoon in July, Dahl Warren retreated from the
Arizona warmth into what was as soon as the native union corridor in Clifton. 

she mirrored on a strike that performed an essential half in her life and
perpetually modified this small mountain city in jap Arizona. The copper
miners’ union that after used this corridor is lengthy gone, however a dramatic
mural on the middle of the room provides a glimpse into the occasions that
rocked this place virtually 40 years in the past.

The mural, 40 ft large by
10 ft tall, depicts the miners’ strike of 1983. It exhibits protesters,
armed troopers and a row of faceless staff transferring like an meeting
line into the jaws of a fanged manufacturing facility. 

It’s a scene Warren remembers nicely. In any case, she’s depicted within the mural. 

“It was a tough time,” stated Warren, now 69, wanting up at a youthful model of herself.

Deep in rural jap Arizona, Clifton lies the place the Sonoran Desert
begins to climb into the White Mountains, ocotillo cactus giving technique to
ponderosa pines. 

Morenci, an open-pit mine and firm city, sits
simply up the highway. It’s one of many world’s largest copper mines.
Hundreds of staff there drill and blast away copper from deep inside
the earth, leaving barren hills of their wake.

Downhill is
Clifton, right this moment a quiet city with round 4 thousand folks and a
smattering of still-open companies. It was a small and numerous
neighborhood of staff, however the miners’ strike of 1983 rocked the
neighborhood to its core.

It’s been 40 years for the reason that strike
began, however its results nonetheless reverberate not solely in Clifton however
all through the organized labor motion. That’s due to the lengths
mining executives went to interrupt the city’s union. The expertise tore up
Clifton, breaking neighborhood and familial bonds. 

The strike is
usually overshadowed by then-President Ronald Reagan’s firing two years
earlier of greater than 11,000 unionized and hanging air-traffic management
staff — a defining second usually pointed to by progressives because the
dying knell of unions in the USA. But when Reagan killed
organized labor, the physique was buried in Clifton. In flip, the occasions in
Clifton helped kill the blue-collar class solidarity that for many years
outlined left-wing politics in the USA.

Immediately, Clifton is
a really totally different city. Nonetheless, the echoes of that historical past dwell on within the
reminiscences of residents and exiles who had been a part of and nonetheless keep in mind
that strike.

These previous residents keep in mind one thing extra vibrant: a
neighborhood outlined by a robust and multiethnic union. Whereas ethnic
divisions nonetheless permeated the city, Latinos rose to positions of energy
there, a rarity in the USA on the time.

“He was a union
man,” stated Angel Rodriguez, 83, reminiscing about his father in an
interview at his residence within the Phoenix space. His father was a member of
the Worldwide Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Employees in Clifton.
Labor organizing was “his favourite topic, I feel.”

The union
was outlined partially by a strike within the Forties, which — along with
securing higher pay and dealing circumstances — had additionally helped combine
mineworkers into one union. Earlier than the strike, white and Latino and
Native American staff had segregated into their very own unions,
undermining employee energy and making it simpler to violently suppress
non-white staff. 

Within the Sixties, the union joined the a lot bigger
United Steelworkers of America The merger let Clifton’s union have interaction in
a course of referred to as “sample bargaining” by which negotiations between
unions and firms set business requirements on points like wages and

By the point he was in his early 30s, Rodriguez had adopted his
father into work on the Morenci mine. He rose steadily up the ranks of
union management, in the end turning into a grievance employee who helped
struggle for higher working circumstances. They had been good years for the copper
miners, outlined by good pay and regular contracts. 

Then the Nineteen Eighties got here.

Within the midst of worldwide recession within the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,
copper costs fell. Phelps-Dodge, at one time one of many nation’s
greatest mining corporations, finally laid off hundreds of staff in
Arizona and shut down the Morenci mine for months, leaving round half
of Clifton’s inhabitants and not using a job.

The layoffs helped spark a
strike in Clifton — however whereas strikes had been frequent in these days, this
one turned out totally different. When negotiations started between the miners
unions and the copper corporations, the unions agreed to simply ask for a
cost-of-living adjustment. Many of the native copper mining corporations
agreed, however not Phelps-Dodge. 

With out an settlement, the union
went on strike in July of 1983. Rodriguez was main the union at that
time, and he promised to maintain it collectively in any respect prices. “We all the time had
it behind our minds that there can be a settlement and we
would return to work.”

Nonetheless, because the strike continued, it rapidly
turned clear that the corporate was treating this one in a different way. Warren
remembers wanting again as she walked out of labor at midnight when the
strike first began. As an alternative of powered-down gear, she noticed that
“the secretary and executives and everybody had already taken our

It was an ominous signal of issues to return — because the strike dragged on, the mine in Morenci stored producing. 

non-unionized managers stored working. Some unionized miners ignored the
strike and went to work anyway. Quickly the corporate employed alternative
staff from close by cities. Inside months, union members began
receiving letters stating they had been going to be completely changed. 

Rodriguez, it was a sign the corporate not solely deliberate to disregard
employee calls for but additionally needed to destroy the union altogether. “We had been
changed,” he stated. “It was like combating an uphill battle.” 

August, Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, despatched in lots of of Nationwide
Guards to guard alternative staff from offended union members on
picket strains across the mine. The union bought assist from the likes of
Cesar Chavez, however it wasn’t sufficient. After greater than a yr of holding
the road, staff voted to decertify the union.

Following virtually
two years of litigation on the Nationwide Labor Relations Board, the
strike formally led to 1986. Even then, the scars of the expertise
lived on. The once-united city had been divided in two, with reportedly
one Catholic mass for strikers and one other for strikebreakers. A
catastrophic flood hit Clifton in 1983, destroying extra properties and
washing away the final vestiges of employee solidarity.

“Espie” Castaneda, 65, grew up in Clifton and remembers the golden days.
The cycle of strikes and three-year contracts felt “routine,” she stated.
If something, a strike meant her dad and mom had time to take her tenting.
“We noticed it as we’re occurring trip.”

By the point the 1983
strike was lastly over, although, it was clear this strike was totally different.
“It was like a ghost city,” she stated about Clifton after the strike.
“It was like a warfare zone.”

As union staff moved away and Clifton modified, so too did the politics
in Greenlee County. Whereas within the union, Rodriguez additionally briefly chaired
the Greenlee County Democratic Social gathering. He’s nonetheless pleased with his native
marketing campaign work for Jimmy Carter within the 1976 and 1980 elections. In 1980,
Ronald Reagan carried each county within the Copper State apart from

Lately, it’s onerous to get greater than 5 Democratic voters in a
room, stated Susan Breen, present chair of the Greenlee County Democratic
occasion. Tougher nonetheless is getting any younger folks to affix the occasion. 

when Democrats do win regionally, they achieve this as independents, Breen stated.
“I feel it displays a change locally,” she added. “Simply folks
not being as community-minded [and] not having a way that that is
their neighborhood.”

If Clifton was turning into much less community-minded in
the Nineteen Eighties, it mirrored broader developments in the USA. Reagan
in the end defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, ushering in an period of
trickle-down economics. Only a yr later, he broke a strike by the
Skilled Air Visitors Controllers Group, firing greater than
11,000 federal workers and changing them with non-union staff.

see parallels between that strike and the one in Clifton. The break-up
of the Clifton strike was “actually thought-about the personal counterpoint to
Regan’s busting of the air visitors controllers union,” stated Katherine
Benton-Cohen, a professor of historical past at Georgetown College who’s
writing a historical past of Phelps-Dodge. In his personal e-book concerning the strike, Copper Crucible,
lawyer and author Jonathan Rosenblum makes an identical level,
describing the Clifton strike as a check case for employers wishing to
break unions.

These details aren’t misplaced on Clifton residents. “It
was by design to eliminate the union,” stated Warren, the previous employee,
reflecting in town’s historical past as she cooled off within the previous union

Or perhaps organized labor was already crumbling. Warren could
have starred within the miners’ strike mural, however on the time, even her
religion within the group was already beginning to fray. Smaller unions
like hers had been merging with bigger unions, eradicating a way of neighborhood
and shared id. As a lady miner, Warren stated she handled
sexism within the group.

“They’ve outlived their usefulness,”
she stated. “Everybody’s grasping [and] residing with out God.” She stated she’d
solely joined the union so she may vote towards the strike — and since
members bought strike funds, which she used to take care of her child.

days, Warren’s politics have drifted to the appropriate, however the copper
pit-mine in Morenci nonetheless dominates life within the space. In response to the
Arizona Division of Transportation, 90% of the residents of Greenlee
County work for the mine, now owned by Freeport-McMoRan after Phelps
Dodge merged with the corporate.

The consequences of the strike dwell on
40 years later — and never simply in reminiscences of former strikers. As staff
moved away, the city’s tax base shrunk as nicely. The union by no means

For years after the strike, lingering anger additionally
continued between strikers and people who crossed the picket line. “It
affected each household,” stated Castaneda, who now works as Clifton’s city
clerk. “It’s a deep wound.” She and her husband nonetheless dwell on the town, however
her kids — each of whom watched because the Nationwide Guard marched
by means of Clifton and fired tear fuel into crowds of individuals — don’t. “I
needed them to unfold their wings and fly,” she stated. “Do what we didn’t

As for different former miners, they’ve scattered like
industrial air pollution within the wind. After the strike, Rodriguez went to
work first for a Catholic help group and later as an organizer for
two totally different unions, SEIU and AFSCME.

Now residing in Phoenix,
Rodriguez nonetheless comes again to Clifton to go to relations. He
doesn’t stick round very lengthy. “When the corporate took us on, they
destroyed a lifestyle,” Rodriguez stated. That is what harm.”

Rodriguez will get disheartened by the best way his youngsters and grandkids speak
about organized labor like a relic, an oddity from a distant previous. He’s
glad to see one other rise in labor exercise, pointing to unionization
efforts at large corporations like Starbucks and Amazon. 

“There’s a
lot of staff now which might be on the lookout for unions, and the polls say it,”
he stated. “I feel it’s going to return again stronger than ever. Perhaps I’ll
be round to see it.” Generally, he fantasizes about returning to
Morenci, simply to unfold the nice phrase about organized labor. “I’d
need to return and set up these folks at some point,” he stated. “As an
elder statesman.”

As for Warren, she moved away to Phoenix throughout
the strike. She moved again a pair months later when the mines provided
her the identical job — this time with out union illustration. It wasn’t the
similar as earlier than, she recalled, “the place everyone was like household.”

is among the fortunate ones. When she went again to work for Phelps Dodge
after the strike, the corporate honored her pension — a perk she had
gained by means of union membership.

“I’m proud of the place I’m at in
my life,” Warren stated in her latest interview. “I’m proud of what I
bought from working all that point.” Nonetheless, regardless of her difficult emotions
on unions, it was onerous to observe her neighborhood go bust. “It wasn’t
straightforward,” she stated. “It was a trial.”

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