Arizona’s copper history laden with strikes, job actions - East Valley Tribune: Business

Arizona’s copper history laden with strikes, job actions

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Posted: Saturday, July 9, 2005 6:44 am | Updated: 8:53 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

HAYDEN - The copper industry, which has attracted wider attention in recent days because of a labor dispute here, has been at the core of Arizona’s financial fabric since at least the 1880s though its impact on the state’s economy has varied widely.

During its rich and storied history, it has been closely tied to and at times has controversially dominated the economic growth of first the Arizona Territory and later the state. On and off, the mining and production of copper has been central to the lives of thousands of Arizonans.

Driven from the outset by eastern investors looking to take advantage of Arizona’s vast ore deposits, copper mines early on became a job magnet and an employment lynchpin.

They provided work for thousands of immigrants, and later, for their sons and grandsons, particularly in remote company towns.

The mines were instrumental in populating small boom towns that too often faded to ghost status as quickly as mother lodes petered out.

‘‘The economic impact was a very dramatic impact, not only because of numbers of people but because of the use of transportation systems,’’ said Jim McBride, an adjunct professor of history at Arizona State University. ‘‘Most had some involvement, if not direct control, of railroads, for instance.’’

Arizona’s copper mines still account for more than 60 percent of the country’s copper production, and they still account for a large direct and indirect impact on the state’s economy.

‘‘They used to call it the tripod — roughly 30 percent’’ of the state’s economic impact, said Michael Rieber, an economics professor emeritus with the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. ‘‘But that’s going back to the 1970s.’’

Today, Rieber said, ‘‘I would suspect it’s 8 to 10 percent.’’

The strike by 750 workers at Asarco LLC’s Ray Mine at Kearny and Hayden Concentrator began after their contract expired June 30. Another 750 workers subsequently joined in from the Hayden Smelter, the Silver Bell Mine at Marana, the Mission Mine near Sahuarita and refinery at Amarillo, Texas.

Another 500 salaried employees are trying to keep several of the facilities functioning.

During the first week, strikers have conducted themselves peacefully.

‘‘We are here because the company did not want to bargain with our people. They did not want to bargain in good faith. We are getting even by not getting even, by not doing anything stupid,’’ Sandra Everett, who has worked for 10 years at Asarco’s filter plant, said while sitting underneath a blue tent at one of four picket line sites. ‘‘We’d like to go back to work.’’

Rieber said the workers at the four latter locations owned by Asarco — a subsidiary of the Mexican company Grupo Mexico — would have been idled anyway, without copper ore coming from the predominant Ray Mine.

‘‘If nothing comes out of the mine, nothing goes to the concentrator. If nothing comes out of the concentrator, nothing goes to the smelter,’’ he said. ‘‘And if nothing comes out of the smelter, nothing goes to the refinery in Amarillo.’’

Copper employed 25 percent of Arizona’s workers by 1910 and dominated Arizona’s economy through World War I because of munitions needs. But with an estimated billionpound postwar surplus nationwide when the war ended, the bottom dropped out of the copper industry and mines shut down.

Its comeback began before the Depression then again as World War II took hold, McBride said.

After that war, with electricity, automobiles and refrigerators in demand, copper transitioned strongly into a peacetime industrial economy.

Arizona miners, as those elsewhere, have had love-hate relationships with the mines and their operators, earning good pay and benefits for dangerous work and then fighting to keep it as copper prices tanked. And strikes and other job actions have been at the center of many mining operations.

Among the more fabled, if infamous, labor disputes were the Jerome and Bisbee deportations of 1917, where unionized mine workers belonging to the International Workers of the World were beaten and shipped off in cattle cars to Kingman and Columbus, N.M., respectively.

Intermittent strikes of varying duration occurred through the decades that followed.

Arizona’s all-time mining employment peaked in 1974 with 28,700 workers, 23 open pit mines and seven underground mines operating or in development.

‘‘It was the mid-1970s when copper truly was king’’ in Arizona, said industry economist George Leaming, director of the Western Economic Analysis Center in Marana.

But by mid-1982, 14 of 24 mines had suspended operations, and by 1984, because of declining prices and increased imports, 16 of 21 mines and two of its seven smelters were closed.

Production of copper and recoverable ore at all of Arizona’s mines dropped from nearly 946,000 metric tons in 1979 to 655,000 metric tons four years later, and by mid-1986 the state’s mining work force had dipped to 8,100.

For the most part, employment has continued downward since, though it climbed above 6,000 in fiscal 2004 from 5,900 in 2003, and until the strike began had grown even more this fiscal year, Leaming said.

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