The labor movement in Bisbee 1900-1975

 

The labor movement

Bisbee is almost unique in regards to unionization, in that it remained non-union until 1941, while the vast majority of the western mining districts were unionized well before 1910.  This was not because the unions of the time ignored Bisbee, but rather that because the employees were well paid, cared about and provided for, the unions had little to offer in the way of improvement for the working men.  And too, the mining companies, notable the Copper Queen, always responded aggressively whenever any effort on the part of any union came to Bisbee.  Anyone affiliated with or overtly sympathetic to unionization was soon unemployed, if he worked in mines, or shunned if he ran a business.  Harsh measures to be sure, but the Copper Queen always believed, in a benign way, that the employees had every right to approach the company directly with concerns and grievances and need no intermediary such as a union.  It would appear that most employees agreed, thus unions were singularly unsuccessful at organizing at Bisbee. Unfortunately, a single event in 1917, led by what in reality was a social movement, has cast a negative pall upon what were truly good labor relations at Bisbee. 

The IWW was a widespread and diverse collection of anti-capitalist and social radicals that sought to change the America economic model and in many cases, coopted union groups or movements to use in their efforts by calling for strikes.  So it was in the Arizona mining industry that year, but the IWW could hardly have chosen a worst time to promote their radical agenda, as the US had just entered the “Great War” in Europe and efforts to impede the war effort were easily cast as “treasons behavior.”   In the end, Bisbee citizens would forcible detain and deport by train more than 1,100 men or Wobblies as they were called.  This event became infamous as the “Bisbee Deportation” and has been examined in retrospect by many and almost universally condemned as “union busting.” 

 

However, the complexity of all that surrounded the Bisbee Deportation, when carefully taken into the context of the times, will show that stopping unionization was but a part of the mix, clearly one supported by the mining companies.  For the most part those who took part personally believed they were involved in a defensive act; one to protect themselves and their country, as was made manifest in the single trial that resulted from this regrettable event. 

 

In any event, during the depression years, economic forces, which were beyond the control of anyone, caused much stress and turmoil in Bisbee, just as it was nationwide.   One causality was the 50-year-old bond between the mining companies and their dwindling workforce. Unions came in to fill this void with a strike in 1935 however; it was until 1941 that they became established and only because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While there were several strikes over next 30 or so years, there was never a deep division or mutual resentment between the workers and the mining company, a credit to both groups in my view.

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© 2013 by Doug Graeme