Workers Struggle in a Mining town

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Arizona Rangers in Morenci 1903.

The towns of Clifton and Morenci, Ariz. are located in Greenlee County. The Morenci Mining District in 1903 would become the site of labor unrest that would lead to the first intervention of United States troops in a labor dispute in Arizona. It would also be the first time in Clifton-Morenci that workers had organized against Phelps-Dodge but it wouldn’t be the last.

On June 1, 1903 the new Eight-Hour law went into effect in Arizona. The Eight Hour law made it illegal for mining companies to have miners working more than eight hours underground. Previously the miners had been working 10 hours. Mexican miners which made up over 80 percent of the workers were paid $2.50 a day while white American workers were receiving $3 a day for the same work. Americans of Mexican descent were categorized as Mexicans by the mining companies and paid Mexican wages. The reduction in hours would amount to a 10 percent cut in wages. The Mexican and other foreign workers mostly Italians walked off the job. The two major mining companies involved were the Arizona Copper Company and the Detroit Mining Company.

Two days later mill and smelter workers joined the strike that included workers in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf. No union was involved in the strike as Mexican workers were not allowed to form one. The Mexicans along with the Italians and other foreign born workers were able to use the “mutualistas”, mutual aid societies to organize the strike. The Western Federation of Miners who had often ignored Mexican workers offered vocal support when President of the WFM, Charles Moyer said, “The men at Morenci have the full support of the Western Federation of Miners”.

On June 5, theBisbee Daily Reviewnewspaper reporting on the progress of the strike said: “The strike is now composed of almost entirely of Mexicans. Quite a number of Americans have left the camp. These men are taking no part with the Mexicans. At Metcalf, where practically all the men employed are Mexicans, the tie up of operations was complete. The men prevented the loading of any ore in the cars which haul it to the Arizona reduction works in Clifton…It seems the Mexicans are being led by one or two prominent leaders; they gather two or three times a day in Morenci and listen to the speeches from the leaders who are very industrious and have used harsh language concerning the ‘gringos’.”

Acting Territorial Governor Isaac Stoddard ordered the Arizona Rangers to Clifton upon receiving news of the strike. Governor Alexander Brodie was visiting back east on business and was unavailable. The Arizona Rangers had been established by the legislature in 1901 to patrol the border area and discourage cattle rustling. They were also used as strike breakers. Nathan Murphy who was governor when the Rangers were established was a mine owner.

On June 9, the rangers and Sheriff Parks and his deputies were forced to watch 2,000 mine workers march in the rain through the streets of Clifton. It was noted that the workers were all armed with rifles, pistols and knives. Parks requested more help from the governor. There were a couple of confrontations between the strikers and the lawmen but violence was avoided. One of the incidents involved Sheriff Parks and 20 of his deputies attempting to stop 200 miners from going into the concentrator. Superintendent Mills of the mine told the Sheriff to allow the strikers to occupy the concentrator thereby avoiding what could have turned into a deadly gun battle.

Stoddard ordered the National Guard to send troops to Morenci. On June 9, despite no violent acts by the strikers or destruction of property, Stoddard wired President Theodore Roosevelt and asked that federal troops be sent. The telegram read:

“Three thousand men, mostly foreigners, on strike at Morenci, Graham County, Arizona. Sheriff and captain Arizona Rangers advise me that strikers are armed and in hands of professional agitators and that there is an immediate need of large force to quell riot which is impending. Have ordered out militia but number small, scattered and undisciplined. No probability of restoring order except by presence of United States troops. Needed there tonight. I respectfully request that troops be sent from Ft. Grant and Ft. Huachuca.”

President Roosevelt complied with Stoddard’s request. Just before their arrival a heavy rainstorm caused flooding in the area. An area at the junction of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River was especially hit hard by the flood. This area was where many Mexican workers and their families lived. Between 30 and 50 people were drowned in the flood. Before the strikers could reorganize, federal troops and six companies of National Guard had surrounded the area. On June 12 martial law was declared and the strikers were disarmed, their homes were searched and leaders arrested. Arturo Elias, the Mexican Consul and a Catholic priest Father Timmerman spoke with the miners and strike leaders and advised them to return to work. Some people believe that the rainy weather and floods may have prevented a battle between the strikers and troops.

Three of the major organizers were identified as Abraham Salcido, Mexican, W.H. Laustanau, a Romanian, and Frank Colombo an Italian. The leaders along with other strikers would be indicted and tried in Graham County. They were convicted for inciting a riot and disturbing the peace and sentenced to two years in the Yuma Territorial prison. Laustanau, whom the newspapers described as the main leader, would receive a 10 year sentence later on for an attempted escape. He would die of consumption (tuberculosis) in the Yuma prison in 1906.

In July, 1903 Professor James Douglas, president of the Copper Queen Mining Company and representative of Phelps-Dodge’s mining interests in the southwest and Mexico, was asked by a reporter from theBisbee Daily Reviewabout the Mexican labor situation. The newspaper reported, “Mr. Douglas considers that as mere laborers the Mexican can handle a drill and hammer as well as a white man, but for special classes of work involving special skill, such as timbering, white miners will always be employed at higher wages.” The border town of Douglas, Ariz. is named for mining pioneer James Douglas.

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) took notice of the Mexicans’ ability to organize and came to believe that it may be better to cooperate with the Mexican laborers. They also took notice of the extent that mining companies and Arizona would go to prevent unionism. The WFM would later organize in Clifton-Morenci and other mines in Arizona. Mexican and Mexican-American miners would be an integral part of the union struggles in Arizona. The “Mexican Affair” as the strike became known was the first major strike in Arizona.

Author’s note: Stories similar to this one made up part of the curriculum in the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). The program included lessons about history from a Mexican-American viewpoint and literature by Latino authors. Arizona banned the class in 2010 a month after Senate Bill 1070 the anti-Mexican immigrant law was passed. It was no coincidence; these laws were passed with the intent to oppress a group of people whose skin happens to be the color brown. The studies program returned in 2013 but thanks to haters like former Superintendent of Public Education John Huppenthal, TUSD is being threatened with the loss of 10 percent of their budget if they continue to teach lessons that they feel are inappropriate and in violation of the law. Thankfully two young ladies have challenged the law in Federal Court. Maya Arce and Korina Lopez are having the case heard in the Ninth Circuit. The struggle for civil rights continues in Arizona.

John Hernandez (713 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.


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