The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The 1983–84 Phelps-Dodge Strike:
The Door Slammed Shut on “Good Times”

Feb 2, 2022

The strikes at John Deere, Frito Lay, Nabisco and Kellogg’s last fall, coming after the pandemic had shut down almost all union activity, raised the hopes of many workers that the unions might be ready to resume the path that the GM strike had seemed to open in 2019. Was the working class about to put an end to the long period, stretching back to the 1980s, during which the unions, with only a few exceptions, showed little appetite for strikes?

All the more reason to go back to try to understand what led to this situation. It was in the 1980s that many union officials, including all those for the major unions, argued that workers had to sacrifice when their employers faced reduced prospects. It was class collaboration pure and simple and right there out in the open for everyone to see. At the beginning, the concessions they pushed—wage cuts, suppression of some benefits and eliminations of protections on the job—were challenged by workers in key strikes in the 1980s, including those at Phelps-Dodge. But the brutal defeat of most of those strikes seemed to cement the idea that resistance was no longer possible. (The Blue Cross Strike of 1987 and the 1997 UPS strike were two of the very few exceptions.)

It’s important to look back at this period, to examine the policies of the unions, to understand how those policies fastened moral handcuffs on the working class. The articles we wrote at the time dealing with union policies are all available on the Spark website in the archive of the Class Struggle journal, which stretches back to 1980.

But it is also useful to look at first person accounts from that period. They show that whatever retreat the working class has made, it did not derive from the workers’ lack of combativity. One of those accounts worth looking at is Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, by Barbara Kingsolver.

Kingsolver was a 28-year-old free-lance Arizona journalist in 1983 when she was sent to cover a strike at four Phelps-Dodge (P-D) copper mines and smelters. Her articles, her notes and the strikers’ words she recorded became the basis of Holding the Line, published in 1989.

In an introduction written for its 1996 reissue Kingsolver explains, "I started this project with a sympathy for the strikers’ cause. I grew up in a rural part of Kentucky that teaches nothing if not the lessons of the class struggle and the survival value of collective action." 1Witnessing this bitter Arizona struggle unroll, she left no doubt which side she took. As the old Kentucky miners’ song had put it: "there are no neutrals there."

Ending in a crushing defeat, the P-D strike sharply marked the end of a post-war era of supposed “good times.”

The three decades after World War II had seen steady improvement in the U.S. standard of living, an improvement for which unions had claimed the credit. To be sure, this increase was associated with the strikes unions often called at the end of contracts, every two, three or four years.

But those strikes were carried out within the corporatist framework that defined the unions’ existence: company by company, even plant by plant, leaving aside the large part of the working class in the small companies without unions. So long as the union apparatuses respected this framework, which precluded any social mobilization, and acted so that workers respected it also, the companies continued to recognize the unions and provide steady improvements.

In fact, the improvements were tied to the post-war boom, based on the vast destruction of World War II, combined with crumbs produced by the predominant role of U.S. imperialism. The unions were expected to give full support for U.S. imperialism’s ward, and the apparatuses almost always delivered.

The “good times” didn’t last. Recessions rolled out starting in the mid-1970s; unions began to negotiate “concessions,” that is cuts to previously won wages and medical benefits. Concessions extended to steel and auto, then to other copper companies. But P-D broke the “copper pattern,” proposing bigger cuts. For the miners in the little desert towns of southeast Arizona, it was one step backwards too many. Refusing P-D’s contract offer put them on strike.

Eight weeks in, after a not very successful attempt to lure strikers back, P-D advertised for scabs. It was a declaration of war. In the midst of a severe recession and high unemployment, cars drove in bearing license plates from Ohio, New York, Florida, Tennessee, Montana, even Alaska. Buses transporting them pushed up to the mines, guarded by hundreds of state troopers porting fully-armed automatic weapons.

People from all the little towns in the area flooded into Morenci to help stop the scabs. An all-day battle with state troopers ended up with the Morenci mine closed. Almost immediately Army National Guard troops were flooded in. It was a real military occupation.

The women of these little towns were already predominant on the picket lines. With the strike dragging on, miners had been forced to travel to other states to find income. Others found themselves charged with “infractions” if they joined picket lines. Dozens, then hundreds of men were fired for such an “infraction,” and ordered to vacate the houses in which their families had long lived. The threat was against every miner. Electrical service and water was cut. The utilities and houses belonged to P-D—as did the only stores in three of these little “company towns” and the only hospital. P-D also ran the only jail near its Morenci mine!

And so, over the next nine months, the mobilizations of the strike were those of the women. This did not mean the strike disintegrated. Just the opposite. As they took up the banner of the fight, they also changed the character of the strike, transforming it from a standard strike at contract end to a mobilization that engaged many people beyond the miners themselves.

The fact that the women expanded their activity beyond the union framework often caused tension with the union apparatuses. With mass meetings outlawed, they organized picnics and fiestas, family gatherings, a celebration by people from around the town of Clifton for Cinco de Mayo. In all of this, the strike took center stage. Their families—grandparents, uncles, aunts and children—joined the celebrations and even picket lines; so did neighbors, even from other towns. Squads from one town visited another, hundreds of winding desert miles away. Everywhere they went, they spread news of the strike. The women found meetings to address, sometimes of other unions, many times arriving uninvited, asking for support, receiving donations of money. When eviction notices came, the Women’s Auxiliary announced it would hold “tea parties” in the rooms of houses designated for eviction. Facing that, the troopers didn’t come to remove the families P-D had evicted.

This does not mean that the women, because they were women, escaped the arrests, the brutalization and the difficulties imposed by the state on the strike. Even children were jailed. Some individual troopers may have been uncomfortable attacking the women, but as far as the state was concerned, the women were just as culpable as the men.

In the first chapter of her 1996 edition, Kingsolver summarizes to what extent these women felt themselves part of a class whose roots go back many generations: "Separated by a world of mountain and desert, the women of these disparate towns carried a single flag into battle when the time came. Nearly every one of them spoke of a grandfather who had walked out of the Morenci mine in 1915 or left Bisbee by cattle car in 1917 or a father who struggled for a decent life while bearing discrimination like a scar. The threat to their standard of living was not just personally dangerous; they saw it as an insult to their ancestors." 2

They passed on this heritage. Arrested for activity on the picket line, one woman told the judge: "I’ll sit in here and rot before I cross a picket line." Janie Ramon explained her refusal this way: "I have two kids, six and nine, and they understood.... I told my kids it would be like bowing down to someone, and you don’t have to bow down to anyone. You are a person, and everyone has rights. I have always taught them that." 3

Part of the resolve felt by many of these women derived from the discrimination they faced because of their Mexican heritage, an attitude that they were somehow "less than fully American." Carmina Garcia, explained: "Sometimes people will say, ‘Go back to Mexico,’ you know. What they don’t understand is that we were always here, even before it was Arizona. I grew up at Eagle Creek. All our families owned this property." 4 Another woman quoted by Kingsolver, Jessie Tellez explained: "So this has been our land. We didn’t migrate from the South. We have been here for generations. When my father was 14, he helped build the first road from Safford to here." 5

Kingsolver conveys the sense of what this struggle meant to the women themselves, who before the strike began had filled the typical role of wife, homemaker and mother, for the most part confined within the home. "And when they marched into battle, they found skills they never suspected they had. Mothers who used to be too shy to speak up at a PTA meeting now crossed the country addressing crowds of thousands." 6

At the end of the strike, Cleo Robledo explained: "Before the strike I did nothing. That’s honestly how I feel. I’ve learned a lot since then. I don’t know exactly how to say it, but it’s about people, and ... I just didn’t know there could be anything like this. I feel stronger. Before I was a housewife, now I am a partner." 7 Jessie Tellez put it this way: "What I’ve seen during the strike is that the women have found freedom." 8

On June 8, 1984, almost one year into the strike, national union officials, seeking to bring the strike to an end, made P-D an offer that accepted or exceeded P-D’s original demands. P-D responded by adding one new demand: the strikers would have to return to work without seniority, meaning they would stand below the scabs, put on lay off. To agree to that was to accept defeat.

Alex Lopez, the chief negotiator for the striking unions declared: "There can be no doubt about it now. P-D is just out to bust the unions." 9

Many of the women were searching for a way out of this trap. Quite a few drew the conclusion expressed by Shirley Randall, who reproached the union apparatuses for not publicizing their strike throughout the labor movement, effectively leaving them to fight on alone: "We can hold out for however long it takes—if I have to eat beans three times a day I’ll eat beans three times. But we need for things to happen in other places too. I am serious about this strike because if we lose here, the whole country loses." 10

That was exactly the issue: the strikers at P-D needed the strike to spread to other workplaces, other industries, other parts of Arizona, other parts of the country. In the midst of a growing economic crisis, only a social mobilization of the working class carried any possibility of throwing back the attacks. But this is exactly what the unions had never tried to organize, from the moment they had gained official acceptance by the bourgeois state before World War II. And they did not do it in 1983 when the women of P-D were calling for it. So, yes, what Shirley Randall predicted is what happened: the strike at P-D was lost, and the working class of the whole country was pulled down by that defeat.

In October of 1984, a “decertification election” was held in P-D facilities—the U.S. Labor Department conducted an election to verify whether P-D workers wanted the 13 unions that had once existed at P-D. But under the handcuffs of U.S. labor law, someone on strike more than a year was no longer eligible to vote. Only P-D’s “replacement workers” could vote. Under the watchful eyes of the government and the company, they voted out every union. Within the year, the scabs also were out when P-D shut all its facilities around Tuscon. The mines were closed or eventually closed off. Some of the little towns near them almost disappeared.

The defeat of the P-D strike was an announcement to the whole labor movement that nothing was sure, nothing protected, that every contract was meaningless. Reagan’s firing of all striking air controllers in 1981 had made the same point, but the controllers had seemed somehow different—legally banned from striking, and professionals. But the P-D strike was based on big industrial unions. After it went down to defeat, unions throughout the country were pushed back, some as brutally as at P-D at places where workers attempted to resist. The number of strikes continued to plummet. By 2020, the U.S. Labor Department recorded only 10 major strikes for the whole year, compared to 187 in 1980, and 424 in the 1974 highpoint.

Kingsolver doesn’t directly discuss the policies of the unions beyond their national inattention to the strike. Their corporatist policies and long-term class collaboration are barely hinted at, if that. But her book has an enormous value: it lets the strikers and mostly the women speak for themselves. She shows the vibrant capacity of working people to organize themselves. And she shows how their activity brings many to question their assumptions, not only about themselves, but about the patriotism they had once accepted, and the government and its wars they had once supported.

The whole book is a kind of document, confirming the value of the struggle these women engaged, the confidence they gained in their own class and its various heritages, as well as their understanding that they built on what those who came before had fought for, and that those who come after will build on their struggle.

Anna O’Leary: "My mother-in-law always tells the story of the little old granny who’s planting fruit trees. The grandkids say to her, ‘Abuelita, why are you doing this? You’re never going to live to eat the fruit of that tree,’ and she says, ‘No, but I’ve eaten the fruit off the trees that other grandmothers planted.’ .... Maybe in the short run Phelps Dodge has shut us out. But every dog has its day, and I see a buildup of these forces. Companies like this are going to be on their way out. It might not be in my lifetime, but someday. And those formerly alienated groups of people—workers, minorities, women—will be on their way in." 11

1. “Introduction to the 1996 Printing,” p. xix.

2. “The Devil’s Domain,” pg. 20.

3. “On the Line,” pg. 32.

4. “We’ll Stay Here Until We Are Gone,” pg 66.

5. “We Go with Our Heads Up,” pg. 98.

6. “The Devil’s Domain,” pg 20.

7. “Just a Bunch of Ladies,” pg. 182.

8. “Just a Bunch of Ladies,” pg. 187.

9. “Up to No Good,” pg 156.

10. “Up to No Good,” pg 151.

11. “If the Truth Would Come Out,” p. 174.