Arizona copper mine strike of 1983

The Arizona copper mine strike of 1983 began as a bargaining dispute between the Phelps Dodge Corporation and a group of union copper miners and mill workers, led by the United Steelworkers. The subsequent strike lasted nearly three years, and resulted in replacement of most of the striking workers and decertification of the unions. It is regarded as an important event in the history of the United States labor movement[1]


In 1981, the price of copper plummeted from a high of $1.40 in February 1981 to $.75 (seventy-five cents) per pound by December 18, 1981, resulting in losses for the entire copper industry. During 1981, the copper industry, as a whole, laid off approximately 50%, or 11,000 workers statewide. Phelps Dodge continued to operate with full manpower throughout most of 1981, although they continued to lose money. In December 1981, Phelps Dodge announced that it would lay off 108 workers in Arizona and New Mexico on January 3, 1982, and place the rest of the workers on a four-day work week in order to minimize the impact of the layoffs. In doing so, unlike the rest of the copper industry, Phelps Dodge was able to continue to operate and pay their workers, while reducing their production by 20%.[2]

Phelps Dodge announced salary cuts to management personnel, and laid off 100 salaried employees. On April 7, 1982, Phelps Dodge announced it would lay off all 3,400 of its hourly workers in Texas and Arizona, because of its losses. Not only did Phelps Dodge lay off workers, but a total of approximately 12,000 copper workers had been laid off across the industry. None of the copper mines in Arizona continued to operate.

Company chairman George B. Munroe decided to hold a series of "town hall meetings" to talk directly to the workers. "The copper you produce here", he told the miners, had to compete with copper produced in Canada, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia. Essentially the price for copper is the same all over the world. And no U. S. producer can continue operating for very long when its cost of producing a pound of copper approaches or exceeds the price for which it can be sold. Munroe also pointed out that Arizona miners wages had risen at an annual rate of nearly 15 percent during the 1970s, while the average U. S. manufacturing employee had seen only a 10 percent increase.[3] "The same eight dollars that Phelps Dodge pays for forty minutes of work", Munroe went on to say, "would buy more than a full shift of work from the average mining employee at a large South American copper company."[citation needed] Many of the unions in other industries had already agreed to pay cuts. Munroe said that the copper industry could be no exception.

Although copper prices remained stagnant throughout 1982, Phelps Dodge ended its shutdown, calling more than half the work force back about five months after Munroe's visits.[4] All of the other copper companies continued their shutdowns.

Phelps Dodge lost money in 1982, adding to its debt burden. Other copper companies were at the time owned by large oil companies (Anaconda was owned by Atlantic Richfield, Cypress by Standard of Indiana, and Kennecott by Standard of Ohio), and were able to sustain losses, but Phelps Dodge was by itself. With no expectation of higher copper prices for years to come, management concluded that to survive, Phelps Dodge needed a long-term plan to reduce labor costs. To accomplish that, they determined to eliminate the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) from the upcoming union contract.[5]

Contract negotiationsEdit

In April 1983, rival copper producer Kennecott and its unions agreed on a contract that froze base pay for three years. The union leadership considered that they had accommodated the suffering copper industry by agreeing to no wage increases for three years, except for the usual cost-of-living adjustments. They expected that the new Kennecott agreement would be quickly duplicated with all the other copper producers, the same system of pattern bargaining that had obtained for years in the industry. But Phelps Dodge decided not to follow the Kennecott agreement. It also decided, and announced publicly, that it could not afford to, and would not, shut down for a strike.[5]

In April 1983, Phelps Dodge began negotiating with a coalition of its 13 labor unions, led by the United Steel Workers. Phelps Dodge insisted that it required elimination of cost-of-living adjustment, a freeze in wages, worker copays for health care, and a lower wage scale for new hires. The unions believed that to give in to Phelps Dodge would destroy the system of uniform wages in the copper industry, which had served them so well for years. Heading the union bargaining team was Frank S. McKee, a veteran negotiator who rose in the union from working the furnaces at Bethlehem Steel. McKee was preparing to run for the presidency of the United Steelworkers, and did not want to be perceived as weak. At the same time, the unions were also negotiating with Magma Copper and ASARCO. In June, both Magma and ASARCO agreed to contracts on the pattern set by Kennecott, leaving Phelps Dodge the only holdout.[5] The two sides could not agree on cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) and job combinations.[6]

The strikeEdit

Negotiations between Phelps Dodge and the unions failed to reach an agreement, and a strike began on midnight of July 30, including workers from Morenci, Ajo, Clifton, and Douglas, Arizona. Thousands of miners walked out and a picket line was formed at the Morenci Mine. The next day, Phelps Dodge increased security personnel in and around the mine.

But then Phelps Dodge did exactly what it had announced what it would do, and what almost everyone had thought was empty bravado: it continued to produce copper during the strike, for the first time since 1959. Since then the company, as did other copper companies, shut down during strikes, often using the down time to perform needed maintenance. Copper mining companies did not want to incur the anger and violence they knew would happen if they maintained copper production during a strike.[7] Some business analysts considered Phelps Dodge actions to be risky or foolish. A July 1983 cover of Business Week, declared a "Management Crisis at Phelps Dodge".

The Phelps Dodge plants were kept running by plant supervisors and by office personnel, some brought in from the New York headquarters. They worked 12-hour shifts. Joining them were some union workers who ignored the strike, about 700, according to the company. As expected, angry picketers shouted insults at those entering and leaving the plants. Picketers with bullhorns identified picket-line crossers by name. People spread roofing nails on roads going into the plants. Phelps Dodge succeeded in obtaining court orders limiting the number of pickets, but generally did not succeed in getting them enforced. The Greenlee County Board of Supervisors imposed a 9 pm to 6 am curfew, but the Clifton City Council instructed its police not to enforce it.[5]

Workers who continued working during the strike received threatening phone calls, and car windows and windows in their homes were smashed by rocks and baseball bats. Company-owned railroad bridges were set afire. At the El Paso smelter, a group of strikers incapacitated a police dog by beating it with steel rebar, baseball bats, and two-by-fours. A bullet fired into the home of a strikebreaker in Ajo lodged in the brain of his sleeping two-year-old daughter. An automobile caravan of more than a hundred cars wound through Clifton, throwing rocks through the windows of strikebreakers’ homes.[5] At the same time, strikers and their supporters claimed that acts of violence by strikebreakers often were not prosecuted by authorities or reported in the media.[8] In August, miners were subject to undercover surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency, to identify strikers engaged in violence.[9] Meanwhile, the local government passed injunctions limiting both picketing and demonstrations at the mine.[8]

Hiring replacement workersEdit

On August 5, Phelps Dodge announced that they would begin hiring permanent replacement workers for the Morenci Mine. The company took out large employment ads for new workers in the Tucson and Phoenix newspapers, advertising that the average annual wage for its employees was $26,200, plus what it calculated as $10,500 in benefits. Many people considered this an attractive wage, and that had an effect in curbing sympathy for the strikers. But the advertisements also greatly increased the anger of the strikers, who now faced permanent loss of their jobs. The company offered new workers virtually the same deal it had offered the unions, which had turned them down. Instead of an annual cost of living raise pegged to inflation, Phelps Dodge offered an annual wage review pinned to the price of copper. If copper increased, employees would receive a raise. They offered new workers $7.00 an hour instead of over $9.00. Instead of offering free doctor visits in the company hospital, they began to require a $5.00 co-pay. The union leaders turned this down, but hundreds of workers from Tucson and Phoenix accepted it. Eventually, many of the union workers went back to work as well.[citation needed]

Tensions grew as Phelps Dodge prepared to bring in permanent replacements. On August 8, Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt flew to Morenci, and got Phelps Dodge to agree on a ten-day freeze on hiring replacement workers. Babbitt flew back to Phoenix believing that he had averted violence.

But the next day, August 9, a crowd of one thousand gathered outside the gates of the Morenci mine and plant. Many in the crowd carried chains and baseball bats, and guns could be seen in many of their cars. Arizona state police officers told Phelps Dodge managers that an attack appeared imminent, and that they would not be able to protect the plant, or those inside it.[10]

Union representatives had stayed out of the assembled crowd, to avoid making the unions liable for any violent actions. But they requested an urgent meeting with company management inside the plant. In a scene that writer Jonathan Rosenblum likened to an Old West showdown, as both sides watched, two Phelps Dodge managers walked out the gate, and onto the middle of US Highway 666 (all traffic had been rerouted). Down the empty highway walked two union representatives to meet them. A state police official joined the group to mediate. The union men told Phelps Dodge that they had no control over the crowd, and that the crowd was planning to storm the mine and plant, unless the company shut down operations by the 3 pm shift change. The company men agreed to shut down.[11]

The Phelps Dodge managers at Morenci quickly typed up an announcement that the Morenci mine and plant would immediately shut down for a 10-day cooling off period. Union leaders read the announcement to the crowd, 30 minutes before the deadline, and violence was averted. The plant shut down, and a caravan of 150 cars drove out the gates, through the jeering crowd. It seemed to some strikers that they had won a great union victory.[12][13]

State interventionEdit

But the situation turned rapidly against the strikers. Although there had been no fatalities during the strike, the threats of violence increased the political pressure on Democratic governor Babbitt to intervene. Babbitt was no fan of Phelps Dodge. He said: “In my opinion, Phelps Dodge has the worst record in labor relations of any company that has ever operated in Arizona.” But he was also frustrated by what he considered the intransigence of the national union leaders.[14] On August 15, despite a request from Governor Babbitt to hold off, Phelps Dodge mailed eviction notices to miners fired for misconduct on the picket line.[5]

On August 17, despite his dislike of Phelps Dodge, Babbitt decided that he had a duty to prevent violence when the mines and mills reopened. He sent 325 National Guard soldiers to Morenci, and increased the number of state policemen there to 425. The action drew bitter criticism from union supporters, who accused Babbitt of being in the “back pocket” of Phelps Dodge. He responded that he was “in the back pocket of the American judicial system.”[15]

Under heavy military and police protection, the Morenci mine and plant reopened on August 20 without incident, and the company again began hiring replacement workers. About 35 percent of the original work force returned. Entering workers were still subjected to obscene gestures, name calling, and threats of violence, but strikers at the gate were unable to prevent the replacement workers from entering the mine. Eight days later, 10 strikers were arrested in Ajo and charged with rioting. From that point on, the strike lost much of its momentum.

Although negotiations between the company and the unions continued for the rest of 1983, and union picketing continued for several years, the strike had effectively been lost.[16] The National Guard withdrew at the end of August. On several occasions, strikers blocked the highway from Safford to Morenci, preventing workers from reporting for work. The National Guard returned briefly in May 1984 after another outbreak of violence.


In September 1984, the new workforce began voting in elections deciding whether or not to decertify the unions. The result was the largest mass decertification in US history: 35 locals of 13 different unions representing Phelps Dodge workers were decertified in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.[5] After a series of confrontations and controversies, the strike officially ended on February 19, 1986, when the National Labor Relations Board rejected appeals from the unions attempting to halt decertification.[citation needed]


Shortly after the strike ended, world copper prices began to climb. This and the introduction of new mining technology led to a marked increase in profits at Phelps Dodge. While their annual profits in 1985 were just $29.5 million, profits rapidly climbed to $205.7 million in 1987 and $420 million in 1988. In 1989, The Wall Street Journal published a front page story describing how Phelps Dodge restructured and avoided bankruptcy.[17] The Arizona copper mine strike would later become a symbol of defeat for American unions. The Economics of Labor Markets and The Transformation of American Industrial Relations singled out the Arizona strike as the start of overt company strikebreaking in the 1980s.[citation needed] Journalists referred to the miners' strike as a precedent for subsequent labor failures.


  1. ^ Rosenblum, Jonathan D. Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners' Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America, Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1995, p.217.
  2. ^ Kingman Daily Miner, December 18, 1981
  3. ^ Copper Crucible: how the Arizona miners' strike of 1983 recast labor
  4. ^ Copper Crucible: how the Arizona miner's strike of 1983 recast labor, by Jonathan D Rosenblaum
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Carlos A Schwantes, Vision & Enterprise: Exploring the History of Phelps Dodge Corporation (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000) 312-327.
  6. ^ Book On 1983 Copper Strike Draws Wrong Lessons, The Militant, Dan Fein, August 21, 1995
  7. ^ Thomas Sheridan, Arizona: a History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012) 343.
  8. ^ a b Kingsolver, Barbara. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1989.
  9. ^ Union Busting: How Arizona's 'CIA' Helped Phelps Dodge Destroy The Unions, Tucson Weekly, Jonathan Rosenblum, June 29-July 5, 1995
  10. ^ Jonathan D. Rosenblum, Copper Crucible: how the Arizona Miners Strike of 1983 Recast Labor (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998) 95.
  11. ^ Jonathan D Rosenblum, Copper Crucible, quoted on US Department of Transportation website, US 666.
  12. ^ “Violence feared in strike-torn mining town”, The New York Times, 19 August 1983
  13. ^ Arthur Rotstein, “Phelps Dodge shuts down for 10 days in bitter copper strike”, Associated Press, Lewiston ID Journal, 10 August 1983.
  14. ^ UPI, “Troops called out after copper strike violence” , Lodi CA News-Sentinel, 7 May 1984.
  15. ^ Joseph M. Baily, “Keeping people from being killed”, Mining History Association Journal, 1996, v.3 p.8.
  16. ^ William Serrin, “Fury etches strikers’ life in crumbling fight at Arizona mines”, The New York Times, 30 July 1984.
  17. ^ Swasy, A., Long road back: How Phelps Dodge struggled to survive and prospered again, The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 1989

Further readingEdit

  • Kingsolver, Barbara. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1989.
  • Rosenblum, Jonathan. Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner's Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1995.