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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
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. In recent years, similar agreements had been accepted by other mining corporations, including Kennecott, Asarco, Magma Copper, and Inspiration Consolidated Copper. 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 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 unlawful arrests, firings, evictions, and undercover surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. 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.
On Monday, August 8, approximately 1,000 strikers and their supporters gathered at the gate to the mine in response. Phelps Dodge stopped production and, later that day, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt flew in to meet with the company. Phelps Dodge agreed to a 10-day moratorium on hiring replacement workers, and it was decided that a federal mediator would be called in for negotiations.
On the morning of August 19, military vehicles, tanks, helicopters, 426 state troopers and 325 National Guard members arrived in Clifton and Morenci as part of "Operation Copper Nugget" to break the strike. 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 this point on, the strike lost much of its momentum.
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.
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. 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. Journalists referred to the miners' strike as a precedent for subsequent labor failures.
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