How Phelps Dodge Strips Miners Of Their Rights.

By Alex Duval

IMAGINE 2,000 PEOPLE herded into boxcars at gunpoint and left in the wilderness to die. Imagine armored military squads, automatic weapons, tear gas and barbed wire. Imagine unscrupulous tactics including terrorist threats, interrogation, surveillance and heart-wrenching accounts of shocking violence.

Bosnia? Gestapo Germany?

Nope--20th-century Arizona. This is what the Phelps Dodge Corporation did to its workers in Bisbee in 1917.

Currents In 1983, PD succeeded in breaking up Arizona unions with the military support of former governor Bruce Babbitt. PD now employs non-union labor at its mining operations for half the wages of its former union workers.

PD's reputation remains heinous. Wall Street Journal columns refer to its "sheer ruthlessness." And PD continues to use similar tactics in undermining workers' rights.

Today, only one union remains in PD's Southwestern mining empire, and it will be broken, too, if the company gets its way.

COPPER MINERS OF United Steelworkers of America Local 890, at the company's Chino operation just east of the Arizona border near Silver City, New Mexico, lost their union contract when it expired in 1996.

The Chino miners have been working without an agreement ever since, refuting the company's unfair contract offer which would reduce wages and benefits, among other losses.

Some may consider this just another union saga or mining issue. Rather, this is a story about all American workers getting the shaft. The PD miners only serve as a poignant metaphor for labor rights being stripped all across our land.

In Holding the Line, a moving account depicting the 1983-84 struggle of striking Phelps Dodge women miners, Tucson author Barbara Kingsolver voices our own inner consciousness:

"These were the kinds of things that aren't supposed to occur in the land of the First Amendment," she writes. "...It is not precisely about the mine strike and not all about copper. It is, I think, about sparks that fly when the flint of force strikes against human mettle."

Inspired "to write something more than the nightly sound bite wrap-up or the extended analysis of the surface of things that passes for news in our society," Kingsolver penned what she calls "an admittedly biased account" based on the events that she witnessed.

Perhaps that explains the blatant absence of major media during a labor rally at a packed Tucson union hall one recent evening. Co-sponsored by United Steelworkers of America and the National Writers Union to promote public awareness of the miners' plight, the event served as a platform for union representatives, labor activists, miners and their families--and Kingsolver herself--all gathered in solidarity to support the Chino workers of Local 890.

That night there were no TV soundbites about the more than 2,000 Arizona families who unjustly lost their union rights in 1983. There was no extended analysis in the next day's paper about PD, a company which was able to call on the National Guard to tear-gas striking miners and their supporters--including pregnant women--in the little town of Clifton, Arizona.

ONE OUT OF every eight Arizona jobs is related to copper mining, making this state the nation's top copper producer. Used in everything from keys to coins and computers, copper remains an integral component of light bulbs, refrigerators, plumbing and even space-flight technology.

A multi-million-dollar corporation with international mining interests, PD ranks among the country's 300 wealthiest corporations, with earnings exceeding $700 million in 1983, at the height of its last union-busting activity. In the nine months ending last September, PD's net income was $376 million on revenues of more than $3 billion. In Arizona, its mines are located near the towns of Ajo, Bisbee, Douglas, and Morenci-Clifton.

In New Mexico, the company's Chino Mines employ 1,250 workers who produce 333 million pounds of copper annually. PD controls more than 2.5 million acres in New Mexico, and with it the state legislature and the media, according to various local sources.

In 1996--almost 15 years after the Phoenix-based company broke the union contract of more than 2,000 Arizona employees--PD once again pulled the same dirty trick, offering a blatantly unacceptable contract to its copper workers at the Chino Mines.

PD proposed a four-year wage freeze, reduced retirement benefits, and the right to contract out union jobs while employees remained subject to the conditions of a long-expired agreement.

Despite what Los Angeles Times journalist and Copper Crucible author Jonathan Rosenblum refers to as "the highest profits in its 150 years of business, with $740 million in 1995," PD launched a brutal campaign to decertify Local 890. "While unions may have had a purpose in the past, that time is gone," the company flatly declared.

PD's wish list includes elimination of the 60/30 pension plan as well as 100 percent-paid retirement and medical insurance premiums, and a $130 monthly reduction in disability benefits. It wants the power to work employees through lunch, and the right to contract out all jobs at will. It wants overall reductions in medical and dental coverage. It wants to discipline employees without hearings and eliminate some apprenticeship programs. In addition, PD has instigated two votes to decertify United Steelworkers of America as a bargaining agent.

Forty-four bargaining sessions later, PD won't budge. But rather than go on strike and be replaced by scabs, Chino miners have responded with a campaign, led by Manuel Armenta of Tucson's United Steelworkers Subdistrict 8 Office, against PD's union-busting activities. Also carrying the torch is Alex Lopez, international representative for the Steelworkers Union, who describes his encounter with PD from 1983-1986 as "one of the worst experiences of my entire career."

"We're fighting to maintain wages, benefits and our pensions," declares Lopez. "Plus, they've reverted our eight-hour work shift to a 12-hour day."

What's PD's side of this? Spokesperson Lynne Adams claims employees requested longer days to create shorter work weeks. She also claims the company made an offer which the union refuses to let its members vote on.

"Our goal is to keep our properties price-competitive while keeping employees very fairly paid," she says. "Our offer is fair in keeping our operation highly competitive in this critical time."

But PD's offers just don't measure up, according to workers faced with a proposed four-year wage freeze. They claim that while the company attributes its benefit-whittling proposal to the decreasing price of copper and stiff competition in the foreign market, it holds multi-national stakes in some of the world's richest copper-mining capitals.

Labor activists couldn't agree more. At the Tucson solidarity rally, labor representatives included Ian Robertson, president of the Southern Arizona Central Labor Council; Jimmy Walker, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 496; Don Manning, president of United Steelworkers local 890; Bob Guadiana, subdistrict director of the United Steelworkers of America.

"We could tell stories all night long," Guadiana told the audience. And so they did.

There was a story about one worker who was terminated for writing an anti-company editorial. Manning described a workplace that "looks like Stalag 17," outfitted in barbed wire to intimidate workers. Guadiana recounted an incident in which PD proposed a land swap with the federal Bureau of Land Mangement in exchange for ore at ludicrously low prices.

SIMILAR STORIES POURED in from steelworkers in Pueblo, Colorado, who've been "locked out" by their company, Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation (CFIC). Workers claim CFIC is doing to its workers precisely what PD did to striking Arizonans in 1983: replacing them with scabs.

Jan Pancheco recalled "Gestapo tactics and threats over forced overtime." Her husband Howard described his $190 monthly pension--after 31 years in the industry. Like their colleagues at PD, the Pachecos are asking Southwest residents to yank their accounts from Wells Fargo Bank, which is bankrolling CFIC as it tries to break their union in Pueblo.

Miners see little light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Current labor laws--or the lack of them--allow companies to rule their lives like feudal lords in right-to-work states that favor employers over employees. They tell the new folks on the job, "When you walk through that gate, you no longer have any constitutional rights."

Obviously, as Kingsolver points out in her book, the PD struggle is not about copper nor about mining conditions. Rather, it represents a rude wake-up call for all Americans to take a hard look at the link between government and corporate power and how it undermines workplace rights.

Reading passages from Holding the Line, Kingsolver reminded the audience that "every single one of us needs to give up our self-righteous fantasy that miners are different from us." Warning that they could be in the same boat with the miners tomorrow, she stated, "We are all--each and every one of us--at the mercy of corporate America and we are getting somewhere all too slowly."

Alex Duval is a freelance author who believes that writing is a gift, and therefore contributed the proceeds of this story to the miners and their families.

'We Will Not Beg...'

IN JANUARY, THE National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint alleging that Phelps Dodge not only withheld key economic information about the Chino Mines from the United Steelworkers, but also delayed negotiations while resorting to threats, surveillance and illegal interrogation of employees.

Robert Reisinger, NLRB acting regional director, claims he's found enough prima facie evidence to send the matter before an NLRB administrative law judge. The hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 24, in Albuquerque.

Bob Guadiana, of United Steelworkers District 12, claims the NLRB filing confirms what his union has been saying all along. "Phelps Dodge has no respect for its workers whose labor brings the company huge profits," he says. "The only duty they feel is to spread corporate greed."

The company has responded to the complaint by filing a motion requesting that all eight charges be separated into individual hearings to prevent unfair bias against the company.

"The NLRB will find that the grievances are meritless," declares PD spokeswoman Lynne Adams.

Guadiana contends this is merely an attempt to water down the charges and drag the case out with legal technicalities.

"It would be like a defendant requesting separate trials with separate juries for numerous criminal charges," he says. "The Steelworkers will continue to work for an honorable labor agreement with Phelps Dodge, but we will not beg or crawl as the company wishes us to do."

For now, American workers remain on their hands and knees. TW

-- Alex Duval

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