Killing The Union: Happy Labor Day

triangle shirt factory fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory floor after the fire. Long work tables and back-to-back chairs became deadly obstacles to workers trying to escape when fire broke out. Photo source: International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University

Labor Day began as a union-created holiday during the late 19th Century when employers bitterly fought worker organization as a challenge to their power.  However “democratic” employers claim to be, as long as they can fire employees without recourse they are, in fact, a dictatorship.  It is a day to honor working people, an anomaly when union membership is at a low not seen since the 1920s, with a resulting shrinking of the middle class.  Even though union membership never reached a majority of American workers, non-union employers who wanted to stay that way had to match union wages and benefits.

1946 saw a post-war strike wave that terrified employers, resulting in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, placing significant restrictions on unions and allowing states to opt out of allowing compulsory union membership as a contractual requirement for a union job.  The so-called “right-to-work” laws usually meant “right-to-work-for-less,” and Arizona immediately enacted such a law.  Unions complained, with good reason, that it allowed “free riders” to enjoy negotiated wages and benefits – and union representation – without sharing the cost.

Despite Taft-Hartley union membership grew and the great American middle class was created, with the jobs that followed it – in housing, health care, mass production of consumer goods, some of which – like cars – had been out of reach for working people.  Working class youth could go to college without incurring staggering debt.  That ended in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers across the nation and destroyed their union, PATCO.  The strike was not over wages, but about employee health and safety which meant better safety for fliers.  Their 95 percent strike vote wanted a shorter work week and a better retirement.

Since then most corporations and their politicians of both parties have set a determined anti-union course.  Sending U.S. jobs to other countries hastened the decline of the labor movement, and the loss of mass production jobs in auto, steel and other once-mainstay industries has left many working for far less than they had built their lifestyle on, or jobless.  The goods they once made and took pride in now came from China and Vietnam and Mexico and the associated American jobs were in fast food, or retail outlets for those now-imported goods like Wal-Mart.

The media, being mainly corporations themselves, supported the rollback with stories about alleged union corruption, forgetting that for those few union officials who betrayed their membership, there were the employers who bought them.  Unions which were corruption-free and looked beyond their membership to press for worker-friendly laws like minimum wage. no child labor, the eight-hour day, overtime pay, job safety and other workplace improvements were particular targets.

Some industries, like copper mining, could not move out of the country, and unions managed to maintain pockets of strength even in right-to-work states.  Miners and their unions had a long and bitter history of employer resistance.  In Bisbee, Arizona, 1200 striking Phelps Dodge copper miners were rounded up in July, 1917, herded into cattle cars by 2000 armed and deputized company minions, and dumped in the New Mexico desert.  The Queen Mine had some 35 ethnic groups working there, and all were represented in the “Bisbee Deportation.”  Americans and Mexicans were at the top of the list.

Phelps Dodge (PD) never gave up its goal of being free of the obligation to negotiate wages and conditions or to abide by a grievance procedure that could reinstate wrongly-fired employees.  In 1983 the corporation set out to, in PD President Richard Moolick’s words, “kill the union.”  PD infiltrated company spies into union ranks to see if workers could be persuaded to cross their own picket lines when the strike came, and the corporation intended to provoke one.

In 1967 a long industry strike had won pattern bargaining so that wages and benefits could not be used to favor one company over another.  In 1983, a bad year for copper companies, the rest of the industry had settled contracts providing for a wage freeze with preservation of their cost-of-living clause in case the economic situation improved quickly.

PD refused to go along with the rest of the industry, and on June 30 over 2,000 miners in Clifton-Morenci, Bisbee, Ajo, Douglas, and El Paso, Texas, went on strike.  PD quickly advertised for permanent replacement strikebreakers to reopen the mines, and obtained court injunctions to limit picketing.  Angry strikers confronted the scabs and fights broke out, and someone shot into the house of a strikebreaker, seriously wounding his three-year-old daughter.  Local PD management defused the volatile situation by closing the mines for a ten day cooling off period, angering Moolick.

Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt flew in and offered to mediate, but PD refused to bargain.  Babbitt brought in the National Guard to protect the strikebreakers’ return to work at the end of the ten days.  On August 19 a convoy of DPS vehicles led truckloads of troops with M-16s and bazookas.  Hundreds of National Guardsmen and hundreds more state troopers stayed for six days of martial law.  Strikers called Governor Babbitt “General Scabbit.”  Clifton resident Josephine Rivas said, “It was like a war!”  Her husband, Antonio, had broken a PD racial barrier in the 1950s by showering in a whites-only locker room.

In Ajo ten strikers were arrested for “felony rioting” after defying an injunction limiting the number of pickets.  High bail was set by Justice of the Peace – and PD employee – Helen Gilmartin.  Local law enforcement was later cited by a federal court as “evidence of a company conspiracy against the union.”

Nature hurt the strikers when September floods took 300 strikers’ homes.  PD then began evicting families from company-owned housing.  PD’s company doctor, Jorge O’Leary, offered free medical care to strikers and was immediately fired.  He established a free clinic with his own money.  His wife, Anna, and former Clifton Town Council member Fina Roman, joined in strike support from the Morenci Miners Women’s Auxiliary.  Traditionally limited to subordinate support roles, the women now took over picket lines when the courts limited the number of union pickets.  They were tear-gassed and arrested, one deputy declaring, “If we could just get rid of these broads we’d have it made.”

A labor-supported national corporate campaign added pressure on PD, and at a Phoenix concert Bruce Springsteen dedicated a song to the strikers and sent $10,000.  Union pension funds were withdrawn from banks dealing with PD, and the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company over $18 million for water pollution.  But after three years of struggle PD moved to decertify the union and strikers were barred from voting.  Thirty local unions were abolished.

Phelps Dodge had finally killed the union, but lost $220 million in share value during the battle and the PD Board of Directors “retired” President Moolick.  The 1983 strike, coming soon after the destruction of PATCO,  set the stage for the continued attacks on unions rivaling the Robber Baron era of the 1920s.  But that hasn’t stopped the new working class from trying to organize to secure better pay and conditions, with surviving unions actively supporting improvements like the $15-per-hour minimum wage campaigns.

And that’s what we should be celebrating this Labor Day – the continuing struggles of working people for a decent standard of living in the face of corporate greed and hostile politicians.  As Barbara Dane’s song taken from the United Mine Workers constitution says,

Step by step the longest march can be won,

Many stones can form an arch, singly none;

And in union what we will

Can be accomplished still,

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

About Albert Vetere Lannon 106 Articles
Albert grew up in the slums of New York, and moved to San Francisco when he was 21. He became a union official and labor educator after obtaining his high school GED in 1989 and earning three degrees at San Francisco State University – BA, Labor Studies; BA, Interdisciplinary Creative Arts; MA, History. He has published two books of history, Second String Red, a scholarly biography of my communist father (Lexington, 1999), and Fight or Be Slaves, a history of the Oakland-East Bay labor movement (University Press of America, 2000). Albert has published stories, poetry, essays and reviews in a variety of “little” magazines over the years. Albert retired to Tucson in 2001. He has won awards from the Arizona State Poetry Society and Society of Southwestern Authors.