Governor George Wiley Paul Hunt
The Arizona Copper Mine Strikes 1915-1916
By Richard E. Noble
This may be the most unusual strike in all of American labor history. It lasted for well over a year and it involved Mexican and American copper mine workers in Eastern Arizona. The action taken by the Governor, the local Sheriff, the militia, and their associates was so unusual and successful, it leaves the student pondering this subject, wondering what this country might have been like if this type of action had been the standard or the norm. Certainly it would have meant a different America - possible a different world.
In the counties of Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in Eastern Arizona about five thousand miners struck against the three prominent companies in the area - the Arizona Copper Company, the Shannon Copper Company and the Detroit Copper Company. The Detroit Copper Company was owned by the Phelps Dodge & Company, a leading Wall Street corporation.
It was primarily the Mexican mine workers who were discontented. The Mexicans comprised nearly 3/4 of the entire company workforce. The Mexicans were being paid considerably less than their American counterparts, and under an additional restraint of a system of half pay/half goods - goods which could only be bought at the company store. This resulted in a profit of one hundred to three hundred percent for the company owners.
Traditionally the Mexicans had been excluded from the union. The union considered the Mexicans as “cheap” labor, a threat to the union wage standards, and built-in strikebreakers. In fact, in the past, if any of the American workers went on strike they were usually quickly replaced by cheaper working Mexicans.
The company had always liked the Mexicans, who they considered cheap, pliable, obedient and basically non-threatening. Of course, after the Mexicans went on strike the company wrote up these workers to be possessive of, “Primitive instincts ... and dangerous when aroused.
Besides the unfair pay practices the workers were also upset about the selling of jobs by the foremen, the unconcern on the part of management with regards to grievances, and the impressments of worthless raffle tickets onto the laborers by the bosses. There was also the matter of the half-hour every day which was being deducted from their paychecks to account for the trip down into the mine each morning, and the corresponding trip back up each evening.
The policy of the companies was not to give in to any demands made by workers; “The men must not be allowed to feel that their organized effort had won them any advantage.”
The strike began on September 11, 1915 with the refusal of the three companies to meet with any of the representatives of the miners. They refused to meet with the miners and offered no reply to any of the worker requests. The companies claimed that the whole disturbance was due to “outside agitation”. Five thousand miners walked off their jobs. The “outsider” charge was raised by Walter Douglas, General Manager of the Phelps Dodge & Company from his headquarters in New York City.
The mine managers shut down the mills and left Arizona and went to Texas. They claimed, although there had been no violence or trouble, that they were “fleeing for their lives”. From their retreat in Texas they began to organize an army of strikebreakers.
To be a professional strikebreaker was rapidly becoming a trade in itself. Strikebreakers received higher wages - often double; they were treated more respectfully by managers and bosses along with numerous other incentives. Obviously it was not the money but an example and precedent that the bosses wanted to set to the working community.
Strikebreakers, besides being other unemployed workers and scabs, were often Pinkerton agents and detectives, thugs, ex-convicts, vagrants, and toughs looking for a fight. Hiring strikebreakers, soliciting the local sheriff and police; followed then by an appeal to the governor who would then call out the militia, were pretty much standard company policy in the art of breaking a strike. In most situations, this was very successful. Some heads would “get busted” (a common anti-striker term) and several workers would often be killed and injured. Along with these tactics the workers would be starved out and evicted from their company housing. Often, bullpens, makeshift concentration camps or barbed wire prison camps were set up. All of this was almost a routine - but not this time. This time the tables would be turned. The traditional bad guys would become the good guy and the traditional good guys would become the bad guys.
The local Sheriff of Greenlee County, J. C. Cash, being short of staff, appointed several deputies to guard the mines and the abandoned company property, from out of the ranks of the strikers. He sent the bill for the guards and watchmen services to the out of town company managers.
Governor Hunt did send in the militia to keep the peace, but for the most part, everything had been peaceful. The strikers had actually put out a fire that had started at one of the company properties. For the most part the militia simply helped the poor strikers with health services and dispensed some food stuff that had been shipped in and donated from other areas. The Governor also announced that no strikebreakers would be allowed into the area. And when the mine managers slipped out of town, Sheriff Cash attempted to have them arrested for attempting to incite a riot. This was the complete opposite to the traditional government response. The company executives were, of course, beside themselves. They accused the Sheriff and the Governor of being IWW - Wobbly sympathizers who were misusing their positions to support “alien terrorists from Mexico”. They started a campaign for Governor Hunt’s recall.
But the good governor persisted and eventually when the local store owners went bust accepting the lOUs from the unemployed miners, the governor issued a proclamation inviting contributions to a relief fund and he used the state militia to distribute and solicit the supplies and offerings.
Nobody could understand this Governor Hunt - was he a Communist, or what?
The Governor made a written statement and had it printed in the newspapers:
“It was, moreover, my honest belief, as it still is that no intelligent body of workingmen will voluntarily initiate the certain hardships and risks of striking, unless they are first convinced that their grievances are just and their cause is entitled to conscientious consideration by their employers.
“It may, in fairness, be conceded, as has been demonstrated, time after time, in the industrial history of this country, that the importation of strikebreakers by the employers under conditions above described is nothing short of an invitation to violence, and, in fact, almost surely presages bloodshed and other disastrous consequences.
“It will, of course, be understood in this connection that when a strike is initiated on a large scale in any mining or manufacturing district an unusual condition is at once created, and cannot always be controlled by narrow adherence to such technical interpretations of law and individual claims of constitutional rights as may originally be successfully upheld. By way of illustration, it may be pointed out that during a serious industrial trouble, the voluntary advent of strikebreakers in a district, even though effected under the guise of exercising constitutional rights, is virtually a precursor of violence endangering the lives and property of everyone residing within the strike zone. In such an emergency, I would be impelled to place the constitutional right of protection guaranteed every law-abiding citizen under our government as being a more important consideration than the upholding of the claim of the strikebreaker to the privilege of seeking employment wherever he pleases.”
Due to the solidarity of the miners coupled with the support of the state, the governor, the militia, the local and county governments, the companies were finally forced to settle with the strikers. Needless to say they were not happy. The managers offered no word of thanks for the safe keeping of their homes and properties nor did they praise the Governor and Sheriff for their ability to keep the peace. On the contrary, after returning to their homes they did their best to have the governor and all others involved in the “conspiracy” removed from their positions. They were not successful.
One can only wonder what type of America would have evolved if Governor Hunt’s philosophy had been adopted from that point on in dealing with labor disputes in the United States.
Instead Woodrow Wilson took the hard business line. The Alien and Espionage acts were passed, unions were raided, free speech and fair play were abandoned and the prisons filled. A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover came onto the scene. There were mass arrests and the constitutional rights of the individual were temporarily abandoned.
Hunt’s philosophy was briefly adopted and semi-supported eventually during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, but it was quickly abandoned by Harry Truman. But while in effect it did seem to be working quite well. Today the U.S. is pretty much without a worker organization or political worker party of any consequence; its industrial base has dissipated and around the world the horrors of the Industrial Revolution are being relived by the poor and uneducated. The same old problem remains - nothing has been solved. All the problems that once were, have not been solved, have not been corrected, have not been improved - they have simply been moved.