Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf Strike

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Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf Strike

United States 1915


As Americans became increasingly concerned about events in Europe in 1915, domestic labor disputes threatened the stability of the Southwest United States. In 1915 in the Arizona mining towns of Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf, located close to the border of Arizona and New Mexico, Mexican immigrants and Mexican American miners declared a work stoppage in the mines. Striking over low wages and an unequal wage structure between the two groups, the strikers believed that the American miners in the camps received higher salaries. Moreover, the workers—primarily the Mexican workers—declared a stoppage because of constant abuse imposed upon them by their American bosses. This abuse was a particular problem for the recently arrived workers who had emigrated from Mexico, which was experiencing a social revolution. The Mexican workers had to deal with the constant threat of deportation and imprisonment. The Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf strike proved significant because it illustrated a struggle over issues of identity, class, race, and ethnicity.


  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory—at a café in Paris.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1905: Albert Einstein presents his special theory of relativity.
  • 1910: Revolution breaks out in Mexico.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1915: Italy enters the war on the side of the Allies, and Bulgaria on that of the Central Powers.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1915: Turkey's solution to its Armenian "problem" becomes the first entry in a long catalogue of genocidal acts un dertaken during the twentieth century. Claiming that the Armenians support Russia, the Turks deport some 1.75 million of them to the Mesopotamian desert, where between 600,000 and 1 million perish.
  • 1915: D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation is the first significant motion picture. As film, it is an enduring work of art, but its positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan influences a rebirth of the Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
  • 1915: Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity.
  • 1917: On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the tide of the war begins to turn against the Central Powers. The arrival of U.S. troops, led by General Pershing, in France in June greatly boosts morale, and reinforces exhausted Allied forces. Meanwhile, Great Britain scores two major victories against the Ottoman Empire as T. E. Lawrence leads an Arab revolt in Baghdad in March, and troops under Field Marshal Edmund Allenby take Jerusalem in December.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.

Event and Its Context

In the late nineteenth century, the American Southwest underwent a profound change. American capitalist enterprise entered the region in search of profits and revenue. One source of revenue was in the small town of Clifton, Arizona, located a few miles from the New Mexico border on the eastern side of the state. Clifton had developed in the late 1870s upon the discovery of copper in the region. The territorial legislature at the time had mandated an eight-hour workday. The legislature also prohibited union locals, thus inhibiting the creation of any labor movement. By the early twentieth century, the liberal social laws facilitated the entrance of vast amounts of capital into the territory, as an influx of American capitalist enterprises began to populate the region. Among the largest were the Arizona Copper Company, the Detroit Copper Company, and the Shannon Consolidated Copper Company. Initially, the three companies had difficulty finding both skilled and unskilled workers for the mines. Clifton did not have the population base to fulfill the labor needs of the complex mining enterprises. However, the outbreak of a revolution in Mexico in 1910 proved beneficial for the struggling enterprises. Members of the Mexican working class left their native land, which was plagued by unemployment and violence, to seek work in the United States. Many Mexicans immigrated to Texas and California. However, a sizable number of Mexican immigrants ended their trip in Clifton, because of the promises of employment. Unfortunately, many of these workers were unaware that in Clifton as well as the neighboring towns of Morenci and Metcalf, there was an ongoing labor struggle.

Specifically, the miners had established contacts with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) so as to present a demand for higher wages to the mine owners. For seven and one half hours of work, Mexican workers in the region earned a daily wage of $2.39, whereas their American counterparts performing the same work earned $2.89. The unequal wage structure in the mining camps angered many Mexican and Mexican American workers. They believed that the American corporations were withholding wages so as to boost profits. Moreover, to exacerbate the situation, in 1914 the United States experienced an economic depression that debilitated the copper industry. Given the tense economic and political conditions, in late 1915 the corporations informed the miners that effective immediately, all workers would receive a 10 percent pay reduction. The companies' managements had failed to understand the ramifications of a pay cut at a time when the prices of consumer goods were increasing.

In the few days following the announcement of the cut, Mexican workers met at local town halls to discuss a course of action. In 1915 foreign affairs were in turmoil. The U.S. decision to enter World War I was imminent. The workers aptly perceived that a strike could backfire on them as the public might see the striking workers as selfish and unpatriotic. This labor conflict could become a problem in halting production of the metal, which would be vital in the American war effort. The AFL took the larger view and pleaded with the workers not to go on strike. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, had pledged that the affiliates of his labor union would not go on strike during this crucial period. The petition of the workers, in which they asked for higher wages and an end to the disparity between American and Mexican workers, found its way to the National War Labor Board, which was charged with mediating labor disputes. The board decided, after considerable debate, that if a solution was possible in this conflict, it must be dealt with between the workers and the companies.

The companies refused to accede to the demands of the workers. Consequently, on 1 September 1915, 5,000 Mexican miners in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf declared a work stoppage. President Woodrow Wilson tried to get his labor representative to meet first with the workers and then with the WFM. Rumors abounded that the government was sending U.S. Army troops to the region to stop the strike. There were also rumors that striking workers would be risking arrest and deportation to Mexico, which was still plagued with unemployment and violence. When peace talks failed, Wilson pleaded with the governor of Arizona, George W. P. Hunt, to aid in the matter. Hunt had the support from the workers because in many recent labor conflicts, he had sided with the workers. Thus he was the ideal mediator in this conflict. With the help of Hunt, in January 1916 the two sides agreed to a compromise in the strike. In return for a pledge to end the strike, the companies agreed to a significant wage increase. By 24 January 1916 workers' salaries in the area had risen as much as 60 percent.


The strike had both long-and short-term consequences. With the increase in wages to a level equal to that of the Americans, the workers were able to send a message to the companies that equality and fairness should be the mantra of American corporate culture in the Southwest. The success in achieving these aims transformed the nature of the dialogue between workers and the companies. More important, however, is that this was one of the first successful labor mobilizations involving Mexican immigrants in the United States. It showed that Mexicans and their American counterparts could mobilize on a large scale. Essentially, these workers overcame the difficult barriers of race, class, and ethnicity to create a successful labor movement in the American Southwest.

Key Players

Hunt, George W. P. (1859-1934): Governor of the state of Arizona, Hunt was instrumental in the favorable conclusion of the strike. He had the support of the workers in the Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf region and the respect of the mining corporations. Without his mediation, the strike would have proved disastrous not only for the Arizona economy but also for the American economy, which was beginning to mobilize for the war effort.

See also: American Federation of Labor; National War Labor Board; Western Federation of Miners.



Byrkit, James. Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona Labor Management War of 1901-1921. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Mellinger, Philip. Race and Labor in Western Copper: The Fight for Equality, 1896-1918. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Additional Resources


Los Mineros (video). The American Experience: A Galan Production presented by WGBH Boston, 1991.

—Jaime Ramon Olivares

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Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf Strike

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