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This Day in Resistance History – IWW workers deported for 1917 strike

July 12, 2011

Ninety-four years ago today thousands of workers, many of them IWW members, were arrested for participating in a strike at a copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona.

The onset of World War I made demands on global powers, both militarily and economically. The war necessitated that more raw materials be used for armament production and copper was an essential mineral for that cause.

Copper production increased dramatically from the time WWI began (1914) and the year of the strike (1917). This increase in production required more copper to be mined and thousands of workers were hired in Arizona. The price of copper also increased during this same period, going from 13 cents a pound in 1914 to 37 cents in 1917. However, the profits from this increase did not translate into better wages or changes in working conditions for the miners.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had been organizing in mines for years and were the primary union organizing in Bisbee. Many of the workers were recent immigrants from Europe and Mexico. Since the IWW did not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines they were effective in organizing many of the miners.

In June of 1917, the IWW organized workers gave the mining company a list of demands, which included:

“…….improvements to safety and working conditions, such as requiring two men on each machine and an end to blasting in the mines during shifts. Demands were also made to end discrimination against members of labor organizations and the unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers. Furthermore, the unions wanted a flat wage system to replace sliding scales tied to the market price of copper.”

The mining company refused the demands and on June 27 the workers went on strike. The company responded by bringing in vigilantes from all around the state to intimidate and arrest the workers.

Over 1,000 workers were rounded up and forced onto a train where they were herded like cattle into rail cars with floors covered in manure. The train was to take them to New Mexico, but authorities turned them away, so the train stopped in the desert and left the men there for days with little food and water. Eventually, US troops arrived and the workers were escorted to a prison where they awaited trial.

The Wilson administration finally investigated the matter and found that the forced relocation of the workers was illegal, but the federal government did nothing to hold the mining company accountable. The state of Arizona also seemed reluctant to challenge the power of the mining company and there was no favorable news coverage as the Bisbee newspaper was also owned by the mining company.

Many of the workers filed lawsuits against the mining company, but these cases moved slowly in the courts and no guilty charges were ever levied against the mining company.

Ultimately, the strike was broken, but word spread across the country of the brutal treatment of workers and the deportation to the desert. This outrage provided a perfect opportunity for the IWW to recruit new members across the country.

The mining companies today in the US are abusing workers with harsh conditions and a lack of concern for worker safety as was the case a year ago with Massey Energy’s mine disaster that resulted in 29 miners being killed. This disaster brought renewed attention to both the conditions of miners and the horrendous environmental track record of the mining industry.

On the anniversary of the Bisbee worker deportation it would do us well to reflect on the condition of working people today, where wages are at poverty level, conditions are unsafe and intimidation tactics are used by the business class. We need to develop solidarity with all workers and not tolerate the gross injustices committed by the business class in the mines, on the shop floor, in restaurants and in the classroom. Solidarity Forever!

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