IWW Copper Strike

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IWW Copper Strike

United States 1917


On 27 June 1917 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "wobblies") began a wartime strike at Bisbee, Arizona, demanding shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions for copper miners there. The mining companies rejected IWW demands; within three days roughly 80 percent of underground workers had stopped work, threatening to put the mines out of business. Both the "wobblies" and company supporters reportedly used threats and intimidation in the conflict. In a community with a tradition of hostility toward unionization, local authorities denounced the IWW "terrorists" and "German sympathizers" and quickly organized to crush the strike. This pivotal event in Arizona labor history ended on 12 July, when an armed posse headed by the local sheriff illegally forced nearly 1,200 IWW members, sympathizers, and "agitators" into cattle cars and deported them into the desert.


  • 1897: The Zionist movement is established under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms and thus sets the stage for the larger revolutions of 1917.
  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.
  • 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.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later on 6 April, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States declares war on Germany.
  • 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: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.

Event and Its Context

Statewide Strikes

In the early summer of 1917, with United States soldiers fighting in Europe and national industry geared toward the war effort, widespread strikes hit the copper districts of Arizona. While ordinary citizens of the country were being asked to make sacrifices, copper companies answering to eastern stockholders gleaned tremendous profits for providing "essential war metal" during World War I. The price of copper had gone from 13.5 cents a pound at the outbreak of the war in 1914 to 37 cents a pound by March 1917. At the same time, miners, who worked around the clock, saw the purchasing power of their wages decline. Moreover, many laborers saw war as essentially capitalistic, with its ultimate consequence the pitting of working men against one another. The four districts, which included towns such as Bisbee, Jerome, Ajo, Globe, Miami, Clifton, and Morenci, accounted for about 28 percent of total U.S. copper output. After three months of partial or total shutdown (and diminished production thereafter), mining activity showed an output deficit of 100 million pounds of copper.

Worker Demands

According to the 1918 report of the secretary of labor, workers in the region made three claims, all of which were rejected by the companies. First, workers generally considered the copper industry to be autocratic, with the companies ultimately dictating the conditions of employment. They wanted direct dealing between companies and unions. While some grievance committees were established, workers generally mistrusted them because resolution of all conflicts sat with the company. Lacking an appropriate negotiating mechanism, "workers were given the alternative of submission or strike." Second, workers wanted "the power to secure industrial justice." They sought the right to organize into unions that would give them the same bargaining power as companies and provide them with protection from abuse. They did not demand a closed shop but rather sought protection from discrimination against union members. The companies denied any such discrimination but refused verification by outside observers. Finally, miners insisted that "the right and the power to obtain just treatment were in themselves basic conditions of employment." While there were specific grievances regarding hours, wages, and working conditions, these were considered secondary to the larger power relationship between labor and capital. The workers declared that their just treatment should not depend on the benevolence or the whim of employers.

Bisbee Mining Conditions

Up until 26 June, roughly 4,500 miners worked underground in the Warren district. Three companies controlled the mining in the district: the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company, and the Shattuck Arizona Copper Company. While most of the miners were of European origin, other ethnic groups were present, albeit subject to residential and labor restrictions. Chinese workers, for example, were not allowed to stay in town. According to the Journal of Arizona History, the Mexican population lived separately from the Anglo population and was not allowed to work underground "and therefore could be used as strikebreakers." Southern European workers were allowed in the mines but also received lower-paying jobs. These underrepresented workers proved to be of special interest to the IWW, which was particularly successful in recruiting Bisbee's Mexican workers after several months of organization there.

Since its founding in 1905, the IWW had never recruited more than 5 percent of trade unionists in the United States. Nonetheless, its ideas of industrial sabotage and slowdowns were of definite concern to capital. The "wobblies" considered the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) to be a puppet of capital and accused the union of wanting to tie up all miners for three years with a 75-cent reduction in daily pay. The IWW demanded better wages and shorter hours for miners "whether war has been declared or not. It not only wants them but it is going to get them."

Bisbee Prepares for IWW Strike

Although not all miners in the Warren district had voted by the afternoon of 26 June, a committee representing the metal mining branch of the IWW (Metal Mine Workers Union No. 800) presented mine operators with a list of seven demands. The union demanded that mandatory physical examinations of miners be abolished; that two men be employed to work on machines; and that two men work together in all areas. Fourth, it demanded the discontinuance of all blasting in the mines during shifts. The fifth demand called for the abolition of all bonus and contract work. The sixth was for the abolishment of a sliding scale pegged to the market price of copper; all men working underground would receive a minimum flat rate of $6.00 per shift, while all "top men" would receive $5.50 per shift. Finally, the union demanded that no discrimination be shown "against members of any organization." If their demands were not met, they would go on strike within a matter of hours.

According to the antiunion Bisbee Daily Review, which was owned by Phelps Dodge, "the companies took no cognizance to the demands nor of the committee." Managers of all three major mining companies issued statements denouncing a nationwide conspiracy by enemies of the United States bent on paralyzing the flow of copper needed by the war effort. They called on workers, whom they asserted did not really support the IWW, to ignore the strike.

On the evening of 26 June, six IWW speakers addressed a crowd of union members and onlookers in the city park and urged the men to walk out the next day. In the hour-long address, the speakers reportedly promised relief to striking miners and their families. According to the Daily Review, the crowd was "unenthusiastic" and "hardly one of the speakers was known to the crowd."

That same day, Cochise County sheriff Harry C. Wheeler told the town daily that he would "call upon and deputize, if necessary, every able-bodied loyal American in Cochise County to assist me in preserving peace and order." Shortly thereafter, he requested the aid of federal troops. Given the ongoing conflict in Europe and the drafting into federal service of many of the state militia, the county lacked its usual troops. On suggestion of the governor, the secretary of war sent an experienced army officer to Bisbee to ascertain the need for troop intervention; following investigations on 30 June and 2 July, the officer reported that "everything was peaceable" and that there was no need for troops.

Bisbee had a history of organized resistance to unionization. When WFM organizers worked to form a Bisbee local in the early 1900s, they were confronted by a determined coalition of antiunion business leaders and fraternal societies. The antiunion citizens' alliance centered on the Bisbee Daily Review, which the mining companies used as their mouthpiece. The alliance included company officials, the local Episcopal priest, the owner of the company store, and the manager of the company-owned Bank of Bisbee. Unionization also met resistance from the Bisbee Industrial Association, supposedly made up of miners to "reestablish conditions as they were prior to the entrance of the WFM." The union claimed the association, which refused to release membership information, was a creation of the Copper Queen Mining Company. In addition to forceful ejection of organizers, union opponents employed spies to gather information to intimidate and blacklist prounion miners. Some 1,200 miners were fired between 1906 and 1907. Nonetheless, the WFM managed to establish Local No. 106 in Bisbee on 9 February 1907.

The Strike Begins

The strike began at midnight on 27 June 1917. According to procompany forces, "the usual tactics of threat and intimidation invariably associated with IWW disturbances were used." For the first three days of the strike, some 80 percent of underground workers reportedly stopped work. Members of the mechanical trades, however, were reported not to support the strike. After the third day, though, miners gradually started going back to work, with roughly half of them at work on 11 July. Tensions rose with rumors of pro-German infiltration and plans to blow up the post office and other Bisbee landmarks. The citizens of the Warren mining district decided that "nothing short of drastic action would eliminate undesirable troublemakers."

On 6 July about 500 citizens of Globe, Arizona, met in the federal building there to pass a resolution declaring the IWW a public enemy of the United States. "Terrorism in this community must and shall cease," said the resolution. The citizens group opposed any mediation between the IWW and mine owners and promised to suppress any public assemblies where "treasonable, incendiary or threatening" speeches were made. It called for deputizing citizens to restore the peace and banning all "wobblies" from working in the district.

Vigilantes Take Bisbee

On 12 July, Wheeler, having made no new request for federal troops, officially announced the formation of a sheriff's posse of 1,200 men in Bisbee and 1,000 in nearby Douglas. He described these men as "all loyal Americans" and charged them to arrest "all those strange men who have congregated here from other parts and sections for the purpose of harassing and intimidating all men who desire to pursue their daily toil." The strikers were to be charged for vagrancy, treason, and disturbing the peace. "This is no labor trouble," he declared, but "a direct attempt to embarrass the government of the United States." According to the Daily Review, the time had come to "bruise the head of the serpent. The policies of peace had failed. The Mexicans were beginning to parade by the hundreds."

On the night of 11 July, the Bisbee Citizens' Association and Bisbee Loyalty League had met to agree formally on deportation of the "wobblies." Present at the meeting were officials and managers of the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company (Phelps Dodge Corporation, Copper Queen Division) and the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company. Without consulting the United States attorney in Arizona, their own legal advisers, or state and county law officers, they formally agreed at around midnight to deport the strikers. By 2:00 A.M., the sheriff had deputized 1,200 men, ordering them to report at various points at 4:00 A.M. Assembled citizens who were unarmed were given revolvers and rifles and told to shoot "only in self-defense." Each man wore a "badge," a white handkerchief wrapped around his arm. In a special 6:30 A.M. newspaper printing, the mayor issued a proclamation warning all women and children off the streets. In the face of frequent raids by the guerilla revolutionary leader Pancho Villa from across the nearby Mexican border, the government had equipped one smelter with a siren, to be used only in the case of invasion; the siren sounded early on the morning of 12 July.

Sheriff Wheeler and roughly 2,000 armed citizens (3,000, according to the Daily Review), calling themselves the Citizens' Protective League, marched toward the center of town. Along the way each of the five armed bands surrounded, questioned, and arrested "every strange man on the streets." Twenty-five armed citizens surrounded and arrested the 50 pickets at the mouth of the Copper Queen mine. Within about an hour, four bands, each with hundreds of prisoners, simultaneously reached the town center. Vigilantes reportedly entered restaurants and other establishments asking nonminers if they were "with or against" the striking men. Cooks and waiters who said they could not be against people they had been serving for years, and anyone else expressing any sympathy for the workers, were arrested. As the prisoners marched, hundreds of rifles were leveled at their heads from all sides. By 8:30 A.M. the prisoners had been ushered to the train depot, where a fifth squad had assembled several hundred more prisoners. All the men were then ordered to march down the railroad tracks toward Warren, about four miles away; approximately 300 "wobblies" detained at Lowell merged with the march.

In addition to the 167 American deportees, a segregated deportee list showed some three dozen nationalities present. The most affected group was the Mexicans, with 229 prisoners. Other prominent nationalities were Serbians (82), Finns (76), Irish (67), and British (32). Despite talk of German infiltration, only 20 Germans were arrested.

Once in Warren, the prisoners were forced into the baseball stadium, where a special train of cattle cars was rolled in to deport them. According to the Los Angeles Times, several prisoners attempted to deliver speeches on IWW principles and called on the crowd to stand with them, "but their voices were lost in the jeers of the crowd of spectators." The vigilantes had managed to round up 1,186 IWW "agitators and sympathizers" and force them, single file, up runways into the cattle cars, at least one of which was filled with sheep dung. Three female strikers were also arrested but were not loaded onto the train. In addition to the IWW newcomers, several prominent citizens of Bisbee and Lowell who had voiced support for them were also herded into the cars. One of those was William B. Cleary, a Bisbee attorney well known throughout the state.

The strikebreakers banned use of the local communications offices at Bisbee and Douglas, censoring interstate telephone and telegraph connections in order to prevent any knowledge of the deportation reaching the outside world. Governor Campbell wired General Parker at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, with a copy to General Green at Douglas, Arizona, requesting military intervention in the crisis; he then learned by telephone that the men had been slated for illegal deportation to New Mexico. The governor denounced the deportations but stated he could not declare martial law because without federal troops he was powerless to act.

There were two casualties that day. One "wobbly," James Brew, hiding out inside a house, reportedly shot and killed a deputy, Orson P. McRae, after declaring he would not be taken without a fight. Vigilantes with McRae then shot Brew.

Mass Deportation

The special train left Warren at noon, carrying the prisoners and more than 200 armed guards to Columbus, New Mexico, where they arrived at about 9 P.M. Local officials denied their disembarkation and arrested F. B. King, division superintendent of the El Paso and Southwestern Railway, for transporting them there. King was released when he agreed to remove the men from Columbus. The train then backtracked to the station at the nearby desert town of Hermanas, New Mexico, where the guards left the "wobblies" to their own luck. For two days the men were left without sufficient food, water, or shelter. When their plight came to the attention of the War Department on 14 July, they were escorted by troops back to Columbus, where they were "maintained by the government" until mid-September.

Back in Bisbee, authorities placed guards on all roads to keep out returnees. They established a kangaroo court to try anyone who returned from Columbus and anyone else considered disloyal to mining interests. Any property-owning deportees (773) who returned were given a deadline to leave town and were forced to sell their property to the mining companies under company terms. Gunmen accompanied them at all times.

The President's Mediation Commission later denounced the deportation as "wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal," and recommended that any such future occurrences be made a federal offense.

Key Players

Campbell, Thomas E. (1878-1944): Campbell was Arizona's second governor, serving in 1917 at the time of the Bisbee strike and then again from 1919 to 1923. He was the state's first native-born governor and the first Republican to serve.

Wheeler, Harry C. (1875-?): Sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, from 1912 to 1917, a hero to some, a corporate puppet to others, Wheeler led some 2,000 armed vigilantes to break the IWW strike at Bisbee in July 1917.

See also: Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf Strike; Industrial Workers of the World; Western Federation of Miners.



"Citizens of Globe Brand I.W.W. Enemy to Nation." Bisbee Daily Review, 7 July 1917.

"Deported I.W.W.'s, Barred from New Mexico, Return to Arizona." Los Angeles Times, 13 July 1917.

McBride, James D. "Gaining a Foothold in the Paradise of Capitalism: The Western Federation of Miners and The Unionization of Bisbee." Journal of Arizona History 23 (autumn 1982).

"Military Intervention Is Asked by Governor, Dumping ofI.W.W. on Neighboring State Called Illegal by Campbell." Los Angeles Times,13 July 1917.

"Statements of Managers," Bisbee Daily Review, 27 June1917.

"The Great Wobbly Drive." Bisbee Daily Review, 13 July1917.

Watson, Fred. "Recollections of a Bisbee Deportee: Still on Strike!" Journal of Arizona History 18 (summer 1977).


Arizona Chapter of the American Mining Congress. Deportations from Bisbee and a Resume of Other Troubles in Arizona [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs2/deport.php>. [UA Special Collections H9791 B621 A51]

Bonnand, Sheila. Historical Context of the Bisbee Deportation. 1997 [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/main/history.php>.

"Do You Want a Contract?" [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs/115.php>.

Mining Conditions in Bisbee, Arizona [cited 28 October2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs2/mincon.php>. [UA Special Collections L9791 B62 Pam.15]

President's Mediation Commission. Report on the Bisbee Deportations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1917. [UA Special Collections H9791 B621 U58r].

"Sheriff Announces He Will Use Force to Prevent Any Disorders During Trouble." Bisbee Daily Review. 27 June 1917 [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs2/bd627she.php>.

"Sheriff Calls Americans to Help Oust Disturbers." Los Angeles Times.13 July 1917 [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs2/la713she.php>.

The Sheriffs of Cochise County 1881-2000 [cited 28October 2002]. <http://www.cityoftombstone.com/SheriffsofCC.htm>.

Sixth Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1918. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919 [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/docs2/dlrep.php>. [UA Special Collections H9791 B621 U58].

Additional Resources


The Bisbee Deportation of 1917 [cited 28 October 2002].<http://digital.library.arizona.edu/bisbee/>.

—Brett Allan King