Arizona copper mine strike of 1983

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The Arizona copper mine strike of 1983 began as a bargaining dispute between the Phelps Dodge Corporation and a group of union copper miners. The subsequent strike lasted nearly three years and is regarded as an important moment 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 shutdown.

Over one year later, in May 1983, the copper mining company began negotiations with the United Steelworkers and other unions in Phoenix, Arizona. The unions agreed to a freeze of their members' wages for three years, but attempted to bargain for cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) and to prevent job combinations.[5] In recent years, similar agreements had been accepted by other mining corporations, including Kennecott, Asarco, Magma Copper, and Inspiration Consolidated Copper. Though these companies struck an agreement with the union, none of them were operating; only Phelps Dodge remained operational. However, Phelps Dodge was facing competition from overseas producers during a particularly low period of metals pricing. Increased media scrutiny, highlighted by the July 1983 cover of Business Week, declaring a "Management Crisis at Phelps Dodge", implicated chairman George B. Munroe in the company's financial woes.

The strike[edit]

The subsequent negotiations with the unions failed to lead to an agreement, and on midnight of July 30 a strike began, 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. Within days, miners were subject to firings, evictions,[citation needed] and undercover surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency.[6] At the beginning of August, Phelps Dodge announced that they would be hiring permanent replacement workers for the Morenci Mine. The company took out large employment ads for new workers in the Tucson and Phoenix newspapers. Meanwhile, the local government passed injunctions limiting both picketing and demonstrations at the mine.

The company offered new workers virtually the same deal it had offered the unions, who 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 bosses 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]

Throughout the day, approximately 1,000 strikers and their supporters gathered at the gate to the mine in response to the company's announcement that they would hire new workers. Phelps Dodge stopped production and, later that day, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt flew in to meet with the company, and persuaded the company to shut down for 24 hours. Phelps Dodge agreed to continue the shutdown for ten days, along with a ten-day moratorium on hiring replacement workers, and it was decided that a federal mediator would be called in for negotiations.

Assisted by a display of military force, on the morning of August 19, Phelps Dodge smoothly reopened and appeared to get the upper hand in the 51-day siege by the United Steelworkers Union. Military vehicles, tanks, helicopters, 426 state troopers and 325 National Guard members arrived in Clifton and Morenci as part of "Operation Copper Nugget" to end the violence.[citation needed] Entering replacement workers were subjected to obscene gestures, name calling, and threats of violence. 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. Some of the laid off workers returned to work and crossed the picket line. However, there continued to be outbreaks of violence, and workers being subjected to shouting and name calling when going to work. On several occasions, strikers blocked the highway from Safford to Morenci, preventing workers from reporting for duty.


In September 1984, all the workers voted whether they wanted to be represented by the unions or not. Almost unanimously, the workers voted out the unions. 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.[7] 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. ^ Book On 1983 Copper Strike Draws Wrong Lessons, The Militant, Dan Fein, August 21, 1995
  6. ^ Union Busting: How Arizona's 'CIA' Helped Phelps Dodge Destroy The Unions, Tucson Weekly, Jonathan Rosenblum, June 29-July 5, 1995
  7. ^ Swasy, A., Long road back: How Phelps Dodge struggled to survive and prospered again, Wall Street Journal, November 24, 1989

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.