The 1959 Copper Strike: Local Event has National Ramifications – by John Hernandez (Copper – May 26, 2015)

The Voice of the Copper Corridor. [Arizona]

In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the last year of his presidency. The dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba as communist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro took control of the island nation 90 miles from the United States. Alaska and Hawaii would become states. A little known actor, Clint Eastwood appeared on a new television series, Rawhide. Teenagers were saddened by “The Day the Music Died” when Buddy Holley, Richie Valens and the “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash in Iowa.

In the prospering mining town of San Manuel the contracts with the unions and the San Manuel Copper Corporation were set to expire June 30. Competing unions, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, were still battling each other to represent the workers.

Early in the year, smelter workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and asked that their union, the United Steelworkers of America, be recognized as the bargaining agent for San Manuel rather than Mine Mill. Mine Mill had defeated the Steelworkers in the 1956 elections. The election was challenged by the Steelworkers but their protest was denied by the NLRB.

Another unit of San Manuel Copper Corporation, the heavy equipment operators, joined with the smelter workers and asked that elections be held to determine which union would be the collective bargaining agent for the workers. There were 53 heavy equipment operators and 120 smelter workers requesting an election. Mine Mill represented 1,700 workers. A hearing was held in San Manuel attended by the Steel Workers, Mine Mill, San Manuel Copper representatives and members of the NLRB. Transcripts from the meeting were sent to the NLRB in Washington, D.C. for the final decision.

While this was going on, the Mine Mill union at the Ray open pit mine, owned by Kennecott Copper Corporation, filed a petition requesting an election to challenge the current bargaining agent at the mine, United Steel workers of America. In May preliminary negotiations between Mine Mill and San Manuel Copper Corporation began. Other unions seeking new contracts with the company were: Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers; Electrical Workers; Teamsters; Boilermakers; Painters; and Machinists. No word on the union elections had arrived from the NLRB in Washington.

Negotiations continued into June. On June 19, 1959, theSan Manuel Minerreported that “concern was expressed in San Manuel, Mammoth and Oracle regarding the number of families that are moving out of the area and the labor negotiations have been blamed.” Rumors were going around that an election had been ordered by the NLRB and that a strike had been called for. Mine Mill Local President Nick Key said that no meeting had been called for the taking of a strike vote among his union. Key said that “such a meeting would probably be called later.”

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