The 1959 Copper Strike: Local Event has National Ramifications

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In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the last year of his presidency. The dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba as communist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro took control of the island nation 90 miles from the United States. Alaska and Hawaii would become states. A little known actor, Clint Eastwood appeared on a new television series, Rawhide. Teenagers were saddened by “The Day the Music Died” when Buddy Holley, Richie Valens and the “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash in Iowa.

In the prospering mining town of San Manuel the contracts with the unions and the San Manuel Copper Corporation were set to expire June 30. Competing unions, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, were still battling each other to represent the workers.

Early in the year, smelter workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and asked that their union, the United Steelworkers of America, be recognized as the bargaining agent for San Manuel rather than Mine Mill. Mine Mill had defeated the Steelworkers in the 1956 elections. The election was challenged by the Steelworkers but their protest was denied by the NLRB. Another unit of San Manuel Copper Corporation, the heavy equipment operators, joined with the smelter workers and asked that elections be held to determine which union would be the collective bargaining agent for the workers. There were 53 heavy equipment operators and 120 smelter workers requesting an election. Mine Mill represented 1,700 workers. A hearing was held in San Manuel attended by the Steel Workers, Mine Mill, San Manuel Copper representatives and members of the NLRB. Transcripts from the meeting were sent to the NLRB in Washington, D.C. for the final decision.

While this was going on, the Mine Mill union at the Ray open pit mine, owned by Kennecott Copper Corporation, filed a petition requesting an election to challenge the current bargaining agent at the mine, United Steel workers of America. In May preliminary negotiations between Mine Mill and San Manuel Copper Corporation began. Other unions seeking new contracts with the company were: Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers; Electrical Workers; Teamsters; Boilermakers; Painters; and Machinists. No word on the union elections had arrived from the NLRB in Washington.

Negotiations continued into June. On June 19, 1959, theSan Manuel Minerreported that “concern was expressed in San Manuel, Mammoth and Oracle regarding the number of families that are moving out of the area and the labor negotiations have been blamed.” Rumors were going around that an election had been ordered by the NLRB and that a strike had been called for. Mine Mill Local President Nick Key said that no meeting had been called for the taking of a strike vote among his union. Key said that “such a meeting would probably be called later.”

As the contract deadline of midnight June 30 approached, it was announced that Mine Mill would take a strike vote on the morning of the 30th. A circular handed out to union members said that Mine Mill was seeking a 32-hour work week, a substantial wage increase, a cost of living escalator clause, higher pay rates for many of the job classifications, increased health benefits, sick leave and elimination of the no strike clause. In 1958, San Manuel Copper was the second largest copper producer in Arizona. Arizona copper miners had an average work week of 39.76 hours and earned on average $95.49 a week. The steel industry in the United States was preparing for contract negotiations nationwide and union members were keeping an eye on the progress of the steelworkers.

On June 30, an industry-wide strike vote was taken by Mine Mill. The same week, the NLRB rejected the Steel Workers petition requesting an election be held to determine union representation in contract negotiations. Results of the strike vote were unavailable although theMinernewspaper said that in San Manuel over 80 percent of the union members voted to approve a strike. A Federal mediator Steve Halligan met with Mine Mill and company representatives. Mine Mill agreed to give the company three days notice before striking. San Manuel employees continued to work as negotiations continued.

Negotiations continued into August when Mine Mill notified its workers at San Manuel and Superior to be prepared to man picket lines on Aug. 11. The union bulletin said, “Up to this point, the company has not made one single solitary concrete offer on any particular issue.” The company disputed this although admitted that negotiations were slow and economic matters had not been discussed. Mine Mill Local 937 President Nick Key flew to Denver to present a resolution to the Wage Policy Committee of Mine Mill. Special mass meetings were to be held at the Oaks in Oracle for Key to give a presentation to San Manuel union members. Presentations were also planned for the Magma workers in Superior.

Mine Mill named as picket Captains at the San Manuel Mine: Eugene Curtis, Ray Cuadras, Fred Sanchez, Harold Werth, R.L. Williams and Ray Rivers. Assigned to the Mill were: Emilio Sanchez, Andy P. Lopez, Gayle Steele, Bill Cooper, and Jim Henderson. Picket Captains at the Smelter were: Charles Burchfield, Joe Herrera, Howard McCowan, A. Fairbee and Gary Brunson.

On Aug. 11 at 8 a.m., Mine Mill went on strike nationwide, closing the San Manuel and Kennecott Ray mine operations. The Steel Workers had gone on strike nationwide in the steel and copper industry. The copper industry strike involved mines from Montana to the Mexican border. In San Manuel, picket lines were set up at the entrance to the mine property on the Tiger County Road and at the gate to the mill and smelter site. Hundreds of people, some curious about seeing their first picket lines, others wanting to learn what was going on and workers who had reported for their shift stood well back of the picket lines while observing. Negotiations ceased and the first strike ever in San Manuel had begun.

The Employment Security Commission now known as the Department of Economic Security (DES) set up offices in the community center so workers laid off by the strike could apply for unemployment benefits. Extra deputies were assigned to the area by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.

After eight weeks of strike, the Tri-Community, Ray-Sonora, Hayden-Winkelman and Superior were all feeling the economic hardship. Businesses suffered while over 100 families in the Tri-Community made applications for surplus food provided by the Pinal County Welfare Department. Church relief programs were set up to help the families. Wage earners left their families behind so their kids could attend school while they searched for jobs. Some families moved away to other parts of the state and country.

Tension in the community was growing. In September, five supervisors were prohibited by Mine Mill picket workers from going into the mine to work. The supervisors did not attempt to push their way through the pickets after being told they would not be permitted to enter the mine property. No physical force was used by the picket workers in preventing the supervisors from going to work. The five supervisors were Frank Svob, Matt Besich, Bob Miller, Joe Cuestas and Nemesio Gutierrez. The picketers contended that the supervisors were doing work that should be done by union members. The San Manuel Copper Corporation filed for an injunction and a judge issued a restraining order prohibiting the blocking of company personnel from entering company property.

The same week, General Manager Frank Buchella sent out a letter to all employees saying that the copper company was prepared to “sit down and mutually resolve realistically” any or all of the issues in dispute. “The company did not break off negotiations,” Buchella wrote. “San Manuel will do everything in its power to settle the strike and resume operations. However, we have no intentions of making an agreement which would inevitably put us out of business permanently.”

The following week three members of Mine Mill were charged with beating Donald Montgomery behind Roy’s Tavern in Mammoth. Charged in the beating were Floyd Zufelt, Jesus Monje and Ray Goines. It was alleged that Montgomery, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was called a “scab” and exited Roy’s with one of the men and a fight ensued. The other two men jumped in and Montgomery was severely beaten and kicked. Montgomery spent two days in the hospital. Justice of the Peace Bill Swink set a bond of $800 on each of the accused.

After 11 weeks of the strike, eligible workers were collecting unemployment. A court ruling had stated that only union members were eligible for unemployment benefits. Families were signing up for food commodities and in some extreme cases local groups were guaranteeing school lunches for children of strike bound residents. Mine Mill had contacted the Arizona Water Company and Arizona Corporation Commission regarding payment of delinquent water accounts for their members.

The Mine Mill Union sent the company a letter requesting that they negotiate local issues and then resume contract talks. After 84 days of strike and an exchange of letters between the union and company, negotiation talks resumed.

In November, it was announced that workers at Magma Copper in Superior had voted to accept the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers as bargaining agents but rejected affiliation of AFL-CIO craft unions. It was the first time in 46 years of Magma’s history that organization by any union had been accomplished at the Superior operation.

On Nov. 2, 1959, the case which had been brought in 1956 by the federal government against Mine Mill union leaders went to trial in Denver. With the copper industry on strike nationwide, the timing of the court trial of national union leaders was somewhat suspicious. Jack Marcotti, Arizona Regional Director and a negotiator for the union, was one of the defendants. Attorneys for Mine Mill were its General Counsel Nathan Witt, George Francis of Denver and General Telford Taylor who had prosecuted Nazi war criminals at the Nuremburg trials. General Taylor was a strong critic of Senator McCarthy and in the 1960s criticized American involvement in Vietnam.

John R. Salter, Jr. a union activist was an Arizona State University graduate student in 1959 and was involved in coordinating a large scale relief effort in central Arizona to raise food and money for miner’s families and defense funds for the union leaders on trial. Salter said of the times: “We were met by constant red baiting. I was tagged on the front page of the leading newspaper,Arizona Republic, as young Mr. S., the head of the Arizona state Communist Party. This occurred even though no branch of the Communist Party USA existed in Arizona at the time. The Goldwater atmosphere was almost strangling, the Birchers were growing rapidly, and Phoenix alone had 100 Anti-Communist Leagues. As part of our intensive miners’ relief/labor defense effort we were showing ‘Salt of the Earth’ in union halls, community centers, some Catholic parish halls, university settings, etc. and the FBI was working in an increasingly open fashion to try, generally without success, to get these places closed to us. We were attacked by thugs, and our homes and cars were broken into.”

Salt of the Earthwas a motion picture made in 1953 by a group of “black listed” filmmakers. These men had dared to stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite pressure from the U.S. government and powerful men like Howard Hughes, they made the film, a fictional account of the 1950 strike by zinc miners of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers in Grant County, New Mexico. The strike against the Empire Zinc Company involved mostly Hispanic workers seeking equal pay with white workers, improved safety conditions and health care. This film remains the only film virtually banned in the United States. The U.S. government and Hollywood pressured commercial theaters not to show the movie. Actual participants in the strike and their families acted in the movie. The film dealt with prejudice against Mexican-American workers, labor issues, minority rights and the struggle of women to attain equality in their daily lives.

TheSan Manuel Minerreported in the Nov. 6, 1959 issue that talks between the unions and company were resuming. They also said that word that a “splinter” group was organizing within Mine Mill had been received. Efforts of theMinerto track down members of this group were unsuccessful. The word was that supposedly a man named Juan Chacon was organizing the splinter group. The San Manuel Copper Corporation reported that no one by that name was listed on the company’s roster. Ironically, Juan Chacon was one of the main actors in the movie, TheSalt of the Earth. He was also President of the Mine Mill Local 890 in New Mexico. Perhaps someone had overheard someone who had seen the film talking about it and the rumors grew from there.

Please be sure to pick up next month’s copy of the Nugget when the rest of the 1959 Strike Story is told.

John Hernandez (783 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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