B y J o n a t h a n R o s e n b l u m
WHEN A COALITION of Arizona labor unions called the now-famous strike against Fortune 500 copper mining giant Phelps Dodge 12 years ago this week, the unions knew they were taking on a formidable opponent with among the fiercest records of union busting in American labor history. What they didn't know--what the Arizona public has never heard until this investigation--was that the unions were also taking on a covert Tucson-based intelligence agency, the CIA of Arizona state government.
Recently uncovered documents and interviews reveal that during the copper strike:
Undercover agents with the Arizona State Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency (ACISA) infiltrated every union in the Clifton-Morenci mining district early in the strike, bugging nearly one out of every two meetings and monitoring the rest with informers. "We were using about five (informants) at any given moment and as many as eight or nine others moved on and off assignments," said ACISA's former supervising undercover agent.
A sophisticated supercomputer in Tucson enabled ACISA to compile intelligence files on hundreds of union members and supporters.
ACISA, in tandem with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, set up an elaborate sting operation to entrap alleged arms dealers during the strike. But the Department of Public Safety botched the operation by critically wounding one of the suspects in an accidental shooting. Meanwhile Phelps Dodge was smuggling arms into the copper mine with impunity.
ACISA shared some intelligence reports directly with the plant manager and security officers at Phelps Dodge.
In all, ACISA had a significant hidden role in tilting the balance of the strike away from the unions and towards the company. Within two years, all the Phelps Dodge unions had been decertified. Today, with Phelps Dodge's copper business booming, the company remains union-free in its Arizona operations.
The Phelps Dodge-United Steelworkers strike officially began at midnight June 30, 1983, with some 2,400 union members walking out. The union members were protesting wage and benefit cuts that Phelps Dodge had imposed in an effort to reduce costs and break out of an industry-pattern contract already accepted by other companies. Although one of the strike's most violent events (the shooting of three-year-old Chandra Tallant) had occurred in July, 1983, in Ajo, the central focus of undercover efforts was in Clifton and Morenci. Greenlee County Sheriff Robert Gomez first called on ACISA in early August, 1983, after Phelps Dodge announced that it was hiring permanent replacement workers, and vigils at the mine had grown to more than a thousand strikers.
Three agents--Steve Kuykendall, George Graham and R. (who could not be reached for agreement to be identified)--were authorized by ACISA Director Frank Navarrete, a former Phoenix police captain, to hire union informants, bug union meetings and create a computer database on anyone suspected by the agents of being a "troublemaker," according to Graham. ACISA was the State of Arizona's own CIA, complete with disguises, fake IDs, a truck licensed to a fictitious cattle company and a wad of money for informants.
The infiltration operation worked this way: A union leader would pass around word of a special meeting or send out flyers. The members often assembled in an area that had been the meeting ground for the first union organizers 40 years earlier, an area known as Potter's Ranch. "We were thinking of putting bugging devices in trash cans," said Graham, but that turned out to be unnecessary because the informants were willing to do the job instead.
Graham himself usually listened to the union meetings, either through tapes brought in by the informants or directly through the transmitters. Graham said that ACISA's payments to informants were "fairly benevolent--a couple hundred bucks right off the bat" when informants were being tested for their reliability. Payments later varied.
The eavesdropping units--"body bugs" in the business--"were taped generally in the waistband or at the ankle under socks." They were expensive, state-of-the-art bugs, with miniature tape machines as well as transmitters.
Agent Kuykendall made occasional journal entries during his time in Morenci:
With the assistance of the company and the Greenlee County Sheriff's Office we began to identify around 20 to 30 of the most violent of the strikers...
Agent R...was sent up to work with me on August 10 and we began to develop informants...R is an active "born again Christian" (that's the way he describes it) and had a very good idea--that we try to contact all local ministers and look for non-violent union members that would be willing to help us identify those that were breaking the law. We began to do that immediately with some success. Also we got some good names from deputies that were working and living in the area. Within a few days we were in the middle of everything....
We put electronic monitoring devices on informants and sent them to "rallies" in an attempt to stay ahead of the plans.
Of Kuykendall's comment about "the assistance" of Phelps Dodge, Agent Graham said: "I know for a fact that we gathered information from the company...and we briefed them."
"I remember once telling (the company) about our concern that their rear gate was going to be compromised," said Graham. The company's assistance to the agents included basic data on current and former employees, psychological profiles and photographs.
Graham said that to his knowledge, neither union strike strategies nor strike strength information was ever communicated to the company. "We were on the side of the law rather than on one or the other side," said Graham. "Although there was probably more congeniality between Phelps Dodge and us, we didn't go in there and get in bed with them."
Still, intelligence on the strengths or weaknesses of the other party is one of the highest valued commodities during a strike; good information feeds confidence. Whether Phelps Dodge was getting detailed reports or just police reports from ACISA, one of the remarkable features about the early phase of the strike was just how confident Phelps Dodge was of winning the strike.
Although Arizona news reporters failed to report the extent of the operation, they did quote ACISA chief Navarrete on the record when the agency was reported at one point to be videotaping strikers. He defended ACISA's presence in the towns, saying, "What happened during the strike doesn't fall within the definition of organized crime, but from my perspective, it's organized labor." Navarrete added that there was potential for criminal activity in the strike and that such activity fell within his responsibility.
After Phelps Dodge had permanently replaced its union members, ACISA moved on to other undercover pastures, such as a surveillance operation against Tucson environmentalists that raised an uproar among activists.
Ironically, by the spring of 1984, ACISA was on its fiscal deathbed, with the state legislature claiming that its operations were a waste of money. Director Navarette, failing to get legislative support, soon resigned. Agent Graham moved over to the Attorney General's office. Finally, Arizona Republicans began an investigation of ACISA's new leaders for spending the last of the agency's budget on boondoggles. ACISA was formally dissolved on June 30, 1984. A few months later, Phelps Dodge replacement workers voted to dissolve 30 union locals representing some 2,400 workers.
Jonathan Rosenblum is a Chicago attorney who has written a book about the strike, Copper Crucible: How The Arizona Miners' Strike Of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations In America (ILR Press, Cornell University, 1995). He'll be in Tucson to speak about the strike and sign copies of his book on Sunday, July 2, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble bookstore, 5480 E. Broadway. "Union Busting" is Copyright ©1995 by Jonathan Rosenblum.
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