When the IWW Took on the Copper Kings

For those who missed the chance to see “Bisbee ‘17” last year because you lived in places where it was not being shown or because, like me, you simply let it slip by, there is very good news. This documentary about an IWW-led strike of copper miners in the company town of Bisbee, Arizona was recently added to Amazon, iTunes, and other VOD services. It is a story very relevant to the period we are living in today. When workers went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions in July 1917, a posse organized by the bosses at Phelps-Dodge and the local authorities rounded up the strikers and deported them to Hermanas, New Mexico in railroad cattle cars, just like Jews being sent to Auschwitz. Once the 1,300 miners arrived in New Mexico, they were housed in tents originally intended for use by Mexican refugees, who took refuge in the USA in order to avoid the Mexican army’s scorched earth tactics against Pancho Villa. As should be obvious, not much has changed since 1917.

Director Robert Greene, who worked in Kim’s Video store in NYC while completing a film degree at CCNY, had the ingenious idea to recreate the events of Bisbee ’17 by using the townspeople. The first 90 minutes or so of the film includes interviews with them and the remainder consists of their reenactment of the strike and deportation. In many ways, the film reminds me of Peter Watkins’s “La Commune”, a reenactment of the Paris Commune using non-professionals, many from North Africa. Watkins described the consciousness-raising aspects of the film:

The Paris Commune has always been severely marginalized by the French education system, despite – or perhaps because – it is a key event in the history of the European working class, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process.

What we discover in the Bisbee interviews is the growing identification by the actors with their roles. A young Chicano, who plays a miner, came to Bisbee only to find work where his. main interest seemed to be going to a local disco. He starts off by stating his relative indifference to the events he is helping to reenact. As learns more about the racism directed against Mexican-American miners in 1917, he grows more politically aware—all the more so after having discussions with an elderly retired Chicano cowboy who was very knowledgeable about what took place in 1917, mostly obtained from older relatives who passed down their recollections.

The town is divided politically with the cowboy seeing things from the miner’s perspective and the relatives of the company management, local politicians and the cops seeing it from Phelps Dodge’s perspective. Ensuring that his actors would be sufficiently motivated in method acting terms, Greene casts today’s right-leaning Bisbee residents in the same roles their relatives played a century ago in real life. Meanwhile, those trending toward the lower end of the economic scale play the miners and their supporters.

Among the most poignant casting decisions was to have two brothers play the roles of two brothers in 1917, with one—a cop—arresting his brother. The more we learn about the town, the more we discover that its citizens have very strong identifications with its history. Even though Phelps Dodge stopped mining copper years before the film was made, the locals still feel pretty much the way their counterparts felt during the strike.

Unlike the Paris Commune, the Bisbee deportation never became burned into the consciousness of the American left in the way that the Little Steel Strike of 1937 was. There was very little connection between the IWW and the radical movement that succeeded it. Greene’s film helps to recover that memory. That the USA could simply allow the Phelps Dodge bosses and their cops to use illegal brute force in this manner is a reminder that American democracy is bourgeois democracy, a system that tilts the scales in favor of the rich.

Phelps Dodge’s story is a familiar one in American history. It began in Liverpool in 1834 with the import of slave plantation cotton to England and the export of metals to the USA needed for manufacturing. As its business empire expanded, it purchased the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee. Phelps Dodge mine operators routinely demanded unpaid work, subjected miners to physical strip searches, and followed dangerous practices like blasting while miners were in the mine and not permitting safety operators on drills and elevators. Animals were also subjected to draconian measures. Before engine-powered carts were available, mules pulled copper up to the surface in fully loaded cars weighing close to 3 tons. The animals lived in the mines, sleeping in stables beneath the surface. They routinely spent four years working in the mines, after which time they began to lose their sight and then cast aside.

Like coal mining, copper mining eventually relied on open-pit extraction. And also like coal mining, the environmental impact was devastating. Although Phelps Dodge shut down in Bisbee in 1985, copper mining continues in Arizona. Phelps Dodge’s track record is in line with other copper mining companies. According to Wikipedia, it was the 41st-largest air polluter in the USA, with about roughly 4.5 million pounds of toxins released annually. Other major pollutants included sulfuric acid, chromium compounds, lead compounds, and chlorine, all essential to the extraction process. The Center for Public Integrity names Phelps Dodge as a potentially responsible party in at least 13 Superfund toxic waste sites.

In the September 2018 issue of Harper’s, there’s an article by Mort Rosenblum titled “Range Wars” that examines how “A copper rush sparks last-ditch battles for Arizona’s soul”. The photographs are a chilling reminder of the damage left behind by companies like Phelps Dodge. Below is the Morenci open-pit mine that is the largest in North America and one of the largest in the world. It removes 900,000 metric tons of rock a day and produces more than 300,000 metric tons of copper a year. It is located near the border of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, where the Apache were forced to live in the 19th century.

Morenci open pit mine. Photo: Freeport-McMoRan.

The Morenci mine is operated by Freeport-McMoRan, the very company with which Phelps Dodge merged in 2007. There is every possibility that Freeport might start up the Copper Queen Mine if it can become profitable and if government regulations don’t get in the way. Unlike coal, copper does remain profitable while government regulations promise to be inconsequential under Republicans and Democrats alike that care little about the damage to the environment or to Indian communities.

Rosenblum’s article can be downloaded from Harper’s. While it is fiercely protective of its intellectual property, you are allowed one free download per month and this one is worth it. He spells out the big incentive to keep copper mining alive as opposed to Donald Trump’s empty promises about coal mines:

But now a new Arizona copper rush, in the Santa Ritas and beyond, is menacing that natural wealth and sparking the passions of a nineteenth century range war. Global companies are moving fast, spurred by various challenges to mining abroad and shifting regulatory priorities in Washington, as well as by the bright future of their product. (Copper is indispensable to almost anything electric or electronic.) Working mines like Silver Bell are increasing capacity. And two new projects, both massive and foreign-owned, are pushing ahead as once-staunch opposition from regulators drops away.

Copper mining, like rare earth mining, cannot be shut down in the interests of sustainability. While progress can be made toward energy produced by wind and solar power, that very energy cannot be realized unless there are rare earth metals that Elon Musk’s batteries rely on. Furthermore, there is no way to channel the electricity locked up in those batteries except through copper wire. Rare-earth metal mining and copper mining are both necessary but both can never become “Green”.

This all leads to the question of whether socialism can become feasible by simply appropriating capitalism’s means of production and using it to produce use values such as shelter, food, and energy instead of commodities. In Marx’s time, there was little attention paid to ecological limits because capitalism was in its infancy. Now, in its dotage, there has to be some concern whether the infrastructure it has bequeathed us can become the people’s property that destroys soil, water and what’s left of indigenous life.

According to a 2011 UN Report, by 2050, we could be devouring an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times the current consumption rate, unless economic growth is “decoupled” from natural resource use. Those living in industrially advanced countries consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita, ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some countries. By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

Socialism can only eliminate the profit motive. It cannot produce resources as if they were unlimited. In 1980, the big concern as reflected in the Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich debate was whether key resources would run out by 1990. Now, it seems like the real concern is whether it is the human race that will run out as the inexhaustible drive to satisfy consumer demand under capitalism undermines our ability to feed ourselves and produce the clean water we need to survive.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.