Steelworkers in Arizona's `Copper Triangle:'
A Proud History Fading
By Kari Lydersen
In These Times
March 29, 2012
HAYDEN, ARIZ. Stepping into the United Steelworkers hall
in this town on March 24 brought back a flood of
memories for Cecilia Cruz and her sister Carolina Cruz.
Carolina had gone to school in the building back when
Mexicans were segregated from whites and paddled for
speaking Spanish. Cecilia worked a summer job there in a
Head Start program, and went to school in the adjacent
town of Winkelman. Both remembered romping in the
playground as toxic clouds of dust and grit from the
nearby copper smelter descended over the town, and
splashing in the green water that ran off from the
The United Steelworkers union still represents workers
at the smelter, now owned by Grupo Mexico. But the
Steelworkers hall in Hayden is far from the bustling,
vibrant nexus that union halls across the state's
"Copper Triangle" were in decades past. Only a few
people came to meet Cecilia's daughter-in-law, Wenona
Benally Baldenegro, a Navajo lawyer who is running for
Congress in Arizona's First district. Earlier that
morning, others struggled to find the Steelworkers hall
in the nearby town of Kearny. I was also unable to find
the correct hall for Wenona's event there; I was given
directions to a former union building that is now
boarded up and overgrown with weeds.
Today many of the old mining operations have closed, and
many that remain are no longer unionized, or unions'
power has been weakened. Cecilia Cruz notes that in the
old days, when a political candidate like her daughter-
in-law visited, the union hall would be packed and on
Election Day members would loyally turn out in droves
for the favored candidate. But despite their waning
prominence in daily life, the rich and powerful history
of the Steelworkers and other unions in the region
remains... as the Cruzes and Cecilia's husband Sal
Baldenegro explained to me several days later at their
home in Tucson.
"Labor history and Chicano history intersect. It's the
same history," said Baldenegro, an icon of the Chicano
rights movement and professor of Mexican American
history at the University of Arizona. "Mexican Americans
built these mining towns. Unions were the community, the
vehicle, not only for union and civil rights issues, but
for culture. They sponsored picnics, Christmas parties."
"We would look forward to the union Christmas party, a
big stocking full of fruit and candy, a gift for
everyone," added Cruz, who also has a long history in
the Chicano rights, anti-war and women's movements. "The
union ran the volunteer firefighter auxiliary unit. The
union held drives when someone was sick or needed help
paying funeral expenses. The union was everything."
Cruz's father Roberto Cruz was one of the founders of
the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter
Workers Local 886, which later became the United
Steelworkers Local 886. She showed me photos of her
father and other workers surrounded by vintage pickup
trucks painted with "Strike Relief Fund" for smelter
workers in the nearby copper town of Miami.
She remembers how her father was tracked by FBI agents
and called to testify before the House Un-American
Activities Committee because of his union activism.
Mines and mining towns were segregated well into the
middle of the last century. White workers and
supervisors lived in the better houses in the nicer
parts of town, and got better jobs and earned more
underground than Mexican workers. Orlando Perea, a
former miner who now lives in Superior, Ariz.,,
remembers that Mexican workers were systematically paid
$1 less per hour than white workers.
"If I trained a white guy, then he would be making $1
more than me," Perea said, also remembering supervisors
and town sheriffs regularly using slurs and insults to
refer to Mexicans.
An historical website describes the legacy of
discrimination in the "Copper Collar," and the way
brutal anti-union campaigns by government and company
authorities continued through the 1980s:
Between World Wars One and Two, and into the 1950s,
a pattern of separation and discrimination hardened
in Arizona. The "Copper Collar" tightened as copper
barons exerted their brand of industrial peace and
progress. This involved structural discrimination in
housing and jobs, as well as persistent surveillance
and red-baiting. The famous (and famously black-
listed) film "Salt of the Earth" portrayed the
struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American miners and
their families, including the women's efforts to get
the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers Union to add
indoor plumbing andhot running water to its strike
demands. Both were available to Anglo families, but
denied to Mexicans.
After moving from Texas at age seven, Perea grew up in
the town of Sonora, Ariz. - one of three towns for
workers at the Ray mine. The Mexicans lived in Sonora,
Spaniards in the nearby town of Barcelona and whites in
the town of Ray. (All three towns were eventually
condemned and literally vanished as the open pit mine
expanded and tore up that earth). Perea remembers
Sonorans getting the discarded textbooks from the white
school in Ray.
Another former miner from Superior, Tommy Macias,
remembers that Mexican Americans were only allowed to
swim in the town pool on the last day of the season,
right before it was cleaned. "But we would swim in the
creek, and that was better water anyway!" he laughed.
The historically white and Mexican sections of the town
in Superior are still notably different, with the white
neighborhood on the hill hosting larger homes, wider
roads and sidewalks, while the Mexican area is right
below the (now-defunct) smelter and waste pile from the
They all agree that it was the unions - or rather the
workers organized through unions-who successfully fought
to end disparate pay and segregation.
"Equal pay for equal work," said Perea. He remembered
that sheriffs used to block the winding highway between
the different mining towns to prevent organizers from
mobilizing-so they would sneak through Devil's Canyon,
the beautiful rugged ravine lined with cactuses and
cottonwoods-to hold meetings.
Cecilia and Carolina Cruz also remember how union
organizers would sing a certain song over a mic from a
pickup truck as a sign that a surreptitious meeting
would be held.
As I've reported for In These Times before, there are
strong and historical cross-border ties between Mexican
and U.S. mine and steel workers, and last year the
Steelworkers signed a formal solidarity agreement with
the Mexican miners union (commonly known as Los
Perea notes that workers-still unionized-at the Ray mine
he worked at until last summer regularly send aid to the
union miners in Cananea, Mexico, who have been on strike
Many of the miners and civil rights activists lament
that unions have faded so much in prominence and power
these days, especially in a private industry like mining
and a "right-to-work" state like Arizona. But the Cruzes
and Baldenegro said the lessons and the gains of unions
still live on in important if less obvious ways.
For example, their son Sal Baldenegro Jr. walked on
picket lines and grew up hearing union war stories from
his grandfather. Today, like his wife Wenona Benally
Baldenegro. he is on the campaign trial, running for the
state House of Representatives in Arizona, aiming to
continue and expand upon the struggles of his parents'
Cecilia Cruz remembers her father and his cohorts
standing on the tracks to literally block ore trains
The legacy my father left behind was that you do not
fear. Even standing in the tracks, you will make
that train stop. My dad always said when you go into
something, you go in to win. It was always a matter
of `we will win, and we are in it to create change.
A note to readers: This and other recent Working In
These Times articles by Kari Lydersen are drawn from her
reporting for a forthcoming book on the history and
resurgence of hard rock mining in Arizona and the Great
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a
sponsor of In These Times.
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