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ITT 3/29/12: Steelworkers in Arizona's `Copper Triangle': A proud history fading

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  • Rick Kissell
    Steelworkers in Arizona s `Copper Triangle : A Proud History Fading by Kari Lydersen In These Times March 29, 2012 HAYDEN, ARIZ. Stepping into the United
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2012
      Steelworkers in Arizona's `Copper Triangle':
      A Proud History Fading

      by Kari Lydersen
      In These Times
      March 29, 2012

      HAYDEN, ARIZ. Stepping into the United Steelworkers hall
      in this town on March 24 brought back a flood of
      memories for Cecilia Cruz and her sister Carolina Cruz.
      Carolina had gone to school in the building back when
      Mexicans were segregated from whites and paddled for
      speaking Spanish. Cecilia worked a summer job there in a
      Head Start program, and went to school in the adjacent
      town of Winkelman. Both remembered romping in the
      playground as toxic clouds of dust and grit from the
      nearby copper smelter descended over the town, and
      splashing in the green water that ran off from the

      The United Steelworkers union still represents workers
      at the smelter, now owned by Grupo Mexico. But the
      Steelworkers hall in Hayden is far from the bustling,
      vibrant nexus that union halls across the state's
      "Copper Triangle" were in decades past. Only a few
      people came to meet Cecilia's daughter-in-law, Wenona
      Benally Baldenegro, a Navajo lawyer who is running for
      Congress in Arizona's First district. Earlier that
      morning, others struggled to find the Steelworkers hall
      in the nearby town of Kearny. I was also unable to find
      the correct hall for Wenona's event there; I was given
      directions to a former union building that is now
      boarded up and overgrown with weeds.

      Today many of the old mining operations have closed, and
      many that remain are no longer unionized, or unions'
      power has been weakened. Cecilia Cruz notes that in the
      old days, when a political candidate like her daughter-
      in-law visited, the union hall would be packed and on
      Election Day members would loyally turn out in droves
      for the favored candidate. But despite their waning
      prominence in daily life, the rich and powerful history
      of the Steelworkers and other unions in the region
      remains... as the Cruzes and Cecilia's husband Sal
      Baldenegro explained to me several days later at their
      home in Tucson.

      "Labor history and Chicano history intersect. It's the
      same history," said Baldenegro, an icon of the Chicano
      rights movement and professor of Mexican American
      history at the University of Arizona. "Mexican Americans
      built these mining towns. Unions were the community, the
      vehicle, not only for union and civil rights issues, but
      for culture. They sponsored picnics, Christmas parties."

      "We would look forward to the union Christmas party, a
      big stocking full of fruit and candy, a gift for
      everyone," added Cruz, who also has a long history in
      the Chicano rights, anti-war and women's movements. "The
      union ran the volunteer firefighter auxiliary unit. The
      union held drives when someone was sick or needed help
      paying funeral expenses. The union was everything."

      Cruz's father Roberto Cruz was one of the founders of
      the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter
      Workers Local 886, which later became the United
      Steelworkers Local 886. She showed me photos of her
      father and other workers surrounded by vintage pickup
      trucks painted with "Strike Relief Fund" for smelter
      workers in the nearby copper town of Miami.

      She remembers how her father was tracked by FBI agents
      and called to testify before the House Un-American
      Activities Committee because of his union activism.

      Mines and mining towns were segregated well into the
      middle of the last century. White workers and
      supervisors lived in the better houses in the nicer
      parts of town, and got better jobs and earned more
      underground than Mexican workers. Orlando Perea, a
      former miner who now lives in Superior, Ariz.,,
      remembers that Mexican workers were systematically paid
      $1 less per hour than white workers.

      "If I trained a white guy, then he would be making $1
      more than me," Perea said, also remembering supervisors
      and town sheriffs regularly using slurs and insults to
      refer to Mexicans.

      An historical website describes the legacy of
      discrimination in the "Copper Collar," and the way
      brutal anti-union campaigns by government and company
      authorities continued through the 1980s:

          Between World Wars One and Two, and into the 1950s,
          a pattern of separation and discrimination hardened
          in Arizona. The "Copper Collar" tightened as copper
          barons exerted their brand of industrial peace and
          progress. This involved structural discrimination in
          housing and jobs, as well as persistent surveillance
          and red-baiting. The famous (and famously black-
          listed) film "Salt of the Earth" portrayed the
          struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American miners and
          their families, including the women's efforts to get
          the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers Union to add
          indoor plumbing and hot running water to its strike
          demands. Both were available to Anglo families, but
          denied to Mexicans.

      After moving from Texas at age seven, Perea grew up in
      the town of Sonora, Ariz. - one of three towns for
      workers at the Ray mine. The Mexicans lived in Sonora,
      Spaniards in the nearby town of Barcelona and whites in
      the town of Ray. (All three towns were eventually
      condemned and literally vanished as the open pit mine
      expanded and tore up that earth). Perea remembers
      Sonorans getting the discarded textbooks from the white
      school in Ray.

      Another former miner from Superior, Tommy Macias,
      remembers that Mexican Americans were only allowed to
      swim in the town pool on the last day of the season,
      right before it was cleaned. "But we would swim in the
      creek, and that was better water anyway!" he laughed.

      The historically white and Mexican sections of the town
      in Superior are still notably different, with the white
      neighborhood on the hill hosting larger homes, wider
      roads and sidewalks, while the Mexican area is right
      below the (now-defunct) smelter and waste pile from the

      They all agree that it was the unions - or rather the
      workers organized through unions-who successfully fought
      to end disparate pay and segregation.

      "Equal pay for equal work," said Perea. He remembered
      that sheriffs used to block the winding highway between
      the different mining towns to prevent organizers from
      mobilizing-so they would sneak through Devil's Canyon,
      the beautiful rugged ravine lined with cactuses and
      cottonwoods-to hold meetings.

      Cecilia and Carolina Cruz also remember how union
      organizers would sing a certain song over a mic from a
      pickup truck as a sign that a surreptitious meeting
      would be held.

      As I've reported for In These Times before, there are
      strong and historical cross-border ties between Mexican
      and U.S. mine and steel workers, and last year the
      Steelworkers signed a formal solidarity agreement with
      the Mexican miners union (commonly known as Los

      Perea notes that workers-still unionized-at the Ray mine
      he worked at until last summer regularly send aid to the
      union miners in Cananea, Mexico, who have been on strike
      since 2007.

      Many of the miners and civil rights activists lament
      that unions have faded so much in prominence and power
      these days, especially in a private industry like mining
      and a "right-to-work" state like Arizona. But the Cruzes
      and Baldenegro said the lessons and the gains of unions
      still live on in important if less obvious ways.

      For example, their son Sal Baldenegro Jr. walked on
      picket lines and grew up hearing union war stories from
      his grandfather. Today, like his wife Wenona Benally
      Baldenegro. he is on the campaign trial, running for the
      state House of Representatives in Arizona, aiming to
      continue and expand upon the struggles of his parents'

      Cecilia Cruz remembers her father and his cohorts
      standing on the tracks to literally block ore trains
      during strikes:

          The legacy my father left behind was that you do not
          fear. Even standing in the tracks, you will make
          that train stop. My dad always said when you go into
          something, you go in to win. It was always a matter
          of `we will win, and we are in it to create change.

      A note to readers: This and other recent Working In
      These Times articles by Kari Lydersen are drawn from her
      reporting for a forthcoming book on the history and
      resurgence of hard rock mining in Arizona and the Great
      Lakes region.

      Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a
      sponsor of In These Times.

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