Copper Giant Freeport-McMoRan Destroys Famous “Salt of the Earth” Labor Union in Southern New Mexico
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-23 23:21:44 UTC
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Jicarita September 30, 2014Copper Giant Freeport-McMoRan Destroys
Famous “Salt of the Earth” Labor Union in Southern New MexicoBy DAVID

Members of Steelworkers Local 9424-3 in Bayard, NM are employed at one of
the world’s largest open-pit copper mines owned by one of the world’s most
profitable companies, Freeport-McMoRan. They voted last week 236 to 83 in
favor of decertifying the union.

The vote was the culmination of six months of union busting work by
Freeport employee Irvin Shane Shores, a Deming-resident and recent
Freeport-McMoRan employee. According to the National Labor Relations Board,
any employee who no longer wants a union to represent him or her is
entitled to seek an election to determine if a majority of their coworkers

In mid-August Shores circulated a petition asking members of the
Steelworkers to decertify the union. He collected signatures from more than
30 percent of members of the bargaining unit, thus triggering the
decertification vote. The National Labor Relations Board scheduled the
election for September 17 and 18.
*Mine Mill mural*
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The mural, painted on the side of the former union hall of Mine-Mill Local
890, commemorates generations of labor activism in Southern New Mexico.
Photo by David Correia

The local Steelworkers union Shores decertified is the inheritor of
Mine-Mill Local 890, a union made famous by the 1954 film “Salt of the
Earth”, which dramatized Local 890’s 1951 Empire Zinc strike. A number of
members of the creative team behind the film had been blacklisted by
Hollywood. The director, Herbert Biberman, went to jail for refusing to
cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which
investigated communist “infiltration” in politics, entertainment and
education, among other industries.

The film was financed by the national office of Local 890, the
International Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Union, which was expelled from
the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1950 for presumed communist

The aggressive, pro-labor message made the film an instant favorite among
leftists and labor unions. It found an enthusiastic audience in union hall
screenings all over the US. It was banned or boycotted everywhere else. The
film and its creators were condemned by the House of Representatives,
investigated by the FBI; theaters refused to play it and it was widely
denounced by newspapers and chambers of commerce throughout New Mexico.

It was rediscovered by Chicano Movement activists in the late 1960s and
remains today a neo-realist classic for its focus on Chicano activism and
feminist politics.

The strikers found success in the film but the real union found little more
than struggle. Mine-Mill Local 890 organizer Clinton Jencks was arrested by
federal agents in 1953 and jailed for alleged communist connections. The
Kennecott Copper Company refused to negotiate with Mine-Mill Local 890 in
the mid 1950s, telling the union’s members “we have refused to bargain with
unions whose officers have failed to file the non-Communist affidavits
required by the Labor-Management Act, 1947 [Taft-Hartley]. We believe, with
Congress, that the spread of Communism in the United States is fast
becoming a menace that presents a serious threat to our free way of life.”

*Kennecott Copper Company managers' letter
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Kennecott Copper Company managers sent this letter to union members during
an early 1950s labor conflict. Source: University of Colorado, Boulder;
Norlin Library Archive; WFM/IMMSMU collection

*Non-communist affidavit*
<Loading Image...

Mine-Mill labor organizer Clinton Jencks was jailed in 1953 for
“falsifying” his non-communist affidavit. The testimony that convicted him
was provided by a paid FBI informant. Source: Norlin Library Archive

Apparently, Kennecott defined “freedom” as its ability to reap windfall
profits while its workers, on whose backs it made those profits, labored in
miserable working conditions for immiseration wages. Kennecott Copper
Company was the world’s largest copper producer with mines in the US and
Chile. Its domestic production at four mines in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and
New Mexico accounted for nearly half of all copper produced in the US and
20 percent of the world’s copper supply. The mine in Bayard was the largest
industrial operation in New Mexico and accounted for 12 percent of
Kennecott’s total copper output. In the years prior to the “Salt of the
Earth Strike”, and despite a series of strikes that shut down mines in
Utah, Kennecott reported more than $23 million in profit. It had $17
million dollars on hand in reserve and reported to its board of directors
an earned surplus of nearly $165 million of accumulated profit.

While the mine recorded record profits throughout the 1940s and 50s, most
Anglo workers at the mine made less than $5 per day. Kennecott paid lower
wages to Spanish-speaking and Navajo workers.

Mine-Mill merged with the United Steelworkers of America in 1967, the same
year that Local 890 staged a six-month strike at the mine in Bayard.
Kennecott sold the mine to Phelps-Dodge in 1987. In the dramatic history of
violent struggle between mining companies and miners’ unions, Phelps-Dodge
stands out as among the most aggressive union busting firms in US history.
After thousands of workers lost their copper mining jobs in the early
1980s, and Phelps-Dodge refused to negotiate with the Steelworkers,
thousands of union miners walked out of four of Phelps-Dodge’s Arizona
mines. Phelps-Dodge responded by firing workers and evicting others from
company housing. Local police arrested workers for walking legal picket
lines and Phelps-Dodge hired goons who violently attacked the strikers who

Phelps-Dodge broke the union in 1984 when the Arizona National Guard, with
tanks and helicopters, attacked strikers and helped thousands of scabs
cross picket lines throughout Arizona. The year after breaking the union,
Phelps-Dodge, which had refused a small cost-of-living increase for union
workers during negotiations in 1984, reported more than $200 million in
profits in 1985, an increase of more than 600 percent over 1984 levels.

In the late 1990s, Phelps-Dodge built a private security army in Arizona
and used it to attack union workers. It fired or suspended dozens of
workers in New Mexico for once holding a peaceful protest at a company

Phelps-Dodge sold the New Mexico mine in Bayard to Freeport-McMoRan in
2007. It is unsurprising that after generations of union busting, it would
be Freeport-McMoRan that would finally break the union at the Bayard mine.
Freeport-McMoRan is one of the world’s wealthiest corporations with a
documented history of ultra violent and often successful union busting

It employs 23,000 workers at its massive Grasberg mine in Indonesian Papua,
where workers are paid U.S. $1.50 an hour. In 2012, rebels linked to the
Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM) began targeting
Freeport managers and facilities as part of a decades-long struggle for an
independent Papua. The attacks came on the heels of particularly
contentious labor struggles at Grasberg where workers demanded modest wage
hikes. When labor negotiations stalled, thousands of miners went out on
strike. The peaceful strike quickly turned violent when Freeport brought in
bus loads of scabs. Strikers defended themselves against an army of more
than 500 Freeport security thugs who swept through the protest firing
shotguns, killing one union striker and wounding six others.

Despite Freeport’s violent suppression of local labor, and its decades-long
complicity propping up Indonesia’s brutal Suharto regime, it is the
separatist OPM that the US Department of Homeland Security considers a
terrorist threat.

Occupy Phoenix activists marched on Freeport’s Phoenix headquarters in
October of 2012 to protest the killing of striking miners at the Grasberg
mine. The same month President Obama reaffirmed US support for the
Indonesian police state in Papua during a visit to Jakarta in which he
committed US marines to the region, a move that the Thai newspaper *The
Nation* concluded had everything to do with heightened concerns over
security at the increasingly volatile Grasberg mine.

While Papuan miners defended a picket line against Freeport’s private
police force, 1,200 miners at Freeport’s Cerro Verde Mine in Peru walked
off the job. Freeport bought Cerro Verde in 2007 and along with gold,
silver, uranium and molybdenum, it produces 2% of the world’s annual copper
production, more than 200 million pounds of copper each year from a massive
open pit mine and huge leaching facility. Freeport-McMoRan reported 2011
revenues of nearly $21 billion with profits in excess of $5 billion;
meanwhile miners not only in Peru and Indonesia but more recently in Chile,
Bolivia, Mauritania, South Africa and Zambia ask for modest pay increases
and get instead guns and goons.

Freeport-McMoRan took a different approach to union busting in New Mexico
than it has in Indonesia. It began by paying higher non-union wages to
employees of its three mines in southern New Mexico, a fact Irvin Shane
Shores noted when asked why he began the decertifying campaign. What Shores
didn’t say was that the Company was also paying non-union workers bonuses.

There has been some speculation that Freeport-McMoRan recruited Shores
expressly for the purpose of busting the union. This is a familiar
union-busting tactic. Shores of course denies this. Any connection between
Shores and Freeport-McMoRan would invalidate the decertification vote.
Prior to coming to Freeport-McMoRan, Shores had never worked in a mine. He
managed a Pizza Hut in Deming and, more recently, owned a doughnut shop
that he quickly ran into the ground. In 2009 Shores unsuccessfully pursued
a seat on the Luna County Board of Commissioners as an ultra conservative

He makes up for his lack of mining skills with a crusading anti-union
enthusiasm that surely appealed to Freeport-McMoRan.

Guadalupe Cano, the granddaughter of a former Mine-Mill union leader
expressed outrage at Shores and the decertification vote, telling the *Silver
City Daily Press*, “I am absolutely horrified. I cannot believe that after
all of these generations of people fighting for this union that it is all
gone after one man, who hasn’t even worked there long, decided it should go
away. I’m glad my grandpa didn’t live to see this day.”
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