This is the history of the strike against Phelps Dodge in 1983, as lived by women union members, members of the union women’s auxiliary, and by unaffiliated women family members. The strike took place in the PD company towns of Clifton / Morenci, Safford, and Ajo, and the strikers had everything on the line: their homes were mostly company housing, and if the strikers lost, they would be out of a job and without a home, in many cases.

On one side of the strike were Phelps Dodge, the state of Arizona, and the news media. On the other, mine workers and their families. PD was seeking to cut wages, cut benefits, and increase health care and pension deductions; the mine workers stood to lose most of the gains they had made in previous contract negotiations. It was 1983, the Reagan era, and union-busting was on the march. And it was Arizona, a “right to work” state, with a long history of anti-labor government. The “liberal” governor Bruce Babbitt thew the full weight of the state against the strikers, sending in hundreds of state police (Department of Public Safety, DPS) to ensure that scabs would be unimpeded, and sending in the National Guard to quell any remaining resistance. On occasion the police were needed to deal with striker “riots”: those riots generally consisted of union workers striking their heads violently against lead-weighted police batons.

All levels of the State were brought to bear to ensure the failure of the strike. Strikers were prevented from impeding the influx of scabs; union members were evicted from their homes (many resisted, successfully for a time); a federal judge ruled that the comapany had valid contracts with the scabs; the police looked the other way when scabs committed violence against striking workers.

The women involved in the strike often had to fight the battle on two fronts: against the company and the state, and against their own husbands. Women were a small minority in the machinists and steelworkers unions, and had already endured long years of harassment from both management and from union officials and workers. But by 1983 a good number of women had proven themselves, by working harder and smarter than their male counterparts, and had gained a degree of respect within the union. But when it came time to strike, many of those same women faced opposition from their husbands, who objected to the militancy shown by the women strikers.

The Arizona mine strike got little support from the national union hierarchies, who after decades of a cozy relationship with capitalism had adopted a timid legalistic approach to labor relations. Militant rank and file workers found themselves with no union support; but militancy and national support were the only way that the strike could have been won.

It is always infuriating to see how capitalists, the State, and the news media work together to fight the class war, and this strike was no exception. As one of the strikers put it, the only accurate news reporting on the strikes was in publications such as The Militant. To this day, if you want to know anything about a strike you have to read Socialist Worker or other leftwing outlets. The capitalist press tells you nothing other than press releases from the company and, without other context, leaves you wondering what those greedy union bastards want this time.

This is an excellent book, and excellent reporting, written long before Kingsolver was famous. It wass an important event in US labor history, and a reminder that gender and racial solidarity are key parts of the class struggle.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983
  • Author: Barbara Kingsolver
  • Published: 1989
  • ISBN: 0801483891
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars