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Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983

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Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983

ratings:
3/5 (2 ratings)
Length:
340 pages
4 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Nov 26, 2012
ISBN:
9780801465093
Format:
Book

Description

Holding the Line, Barbara Kingsolver's first non-fiction book, is the story of women's lives transformed by an a signal event. Set in the small mining towns of Arizona, it is part oral history and part social criticism, exploring the process of empowerment which occurs when people work together as a community. Like Kingsolver's award-winning novels, Holding the Line is a beautifully written book grounded on the strength of its characters.

Hundreds of families held the line in the 1983 strike against Phelps Dodge Copper in Arizona. After more than a year the strikers lost their union certification, but the battle permanently altered the social order in these small, predominantly Hispanic mining towns. At the time the strike began, many women said they couldn't leave the house without their husband's permission. Yet, when injunctions barred union men from picketing, their wives and daughters turned out for the daily picket lines. When the strike dragged on and men left to seek jobs elsewhere, women continued to picket, organize support, and defend their rights even when the towns were occupied by the National Guard. "Nothing can ever be the same as it was before," said Diane McCormick of the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary. "Look at us. At the beginning of this strike, we were just a bunch of ladies."

Publisher:
Released:
Nov 26, 2012
ISBN:
9780801465093
Format:
Book

About the author

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of nine bestselling works of fiction, including the novels, Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams, and The Bean Trees, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her work of narrative nonfiction is the enormously influential bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, as well as the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize for her body of work. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.


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Holding the Line - Barbara Kingsolver

HOLDING THE LINE

WOMEN IN THE GREAT ARIZONA

MINE STRIKE OF 1983

With a New Introduction

Barbara Kingsolver

ILR Press

an imprint of

Cornell University Press

Ithaca and London

For the families who held the line,

and those who will have to do it again

No nation is greater than its women.

—Mother Jones

Contents

Illustrations follow page

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. The Devil’s Domain

2. On the Line

3. Hell and High Water

4. We’ll Stay Here Until We’re Gone

5. Ask Any Miner

6. We Go with Our Heads Up

7. Falling-Apart Things

8. My Union and My Friends

9. Women’s Work

10. Up to No Good

11. If the Truth Would Come Out

12. Just a Bunch of Ladies

Epilogue

Bibliography

Acknowledgments

Literally hundreds of people helped bring this project along its way. Two stand out especially, because without them the book would not now be in your hands: Jessica Sampson accompanied me on many of the research trips, helped greatly with interviews, transcribed innumerable hours of tape, and provided valuable insights and unflagging friendship throughout the process of researching and writing. Frances Goldin, my literary agent, consistently and enthusiastically believed in the value of the book even when I doubted it myself.

I am deeply grateful to all those who took the time to talk with me about the strike or otherwise make material available to me. Phelps Dodge company personnel were universally helpful, as were the reference librarians at the University of Arizona and Tucson public libraries. I also owe a great debt of thanks to the many people who read and discussed drafts of the manuscript, including Anna and Jorge O’Leary, Tom Miller, Jill Barrett Fein (who first proposed the idea of the book), Janice Bowers, Pamela Portwood, and especially Joseph Hoffmann, whose wholehearted support was a cornerstone of the project.

Most of all, I’m indebted to the women of Clifton, Morenci, Ajo, and Douglas, Arizona—whose names essentially comprise the index of this book—who welcomed me into their houses and their lives. Their compassion, resourcefulness, and courage will be an inspiration to me for life.

Introduction to the 1996 Printing

Some of us are born noble, one of my relatives used to declare, and some of us get bamboozled into it. The same could be said about writing books. This is the one I never planned to write. Like a reluctant bride dragged to the altar, I denied my commitment to the project until saying I do was a moot point. When it all began I had never written anything much weightier than a short magazine article or a long grocery list (and one excruciatingly adolescent novel I’d had the sense to burn in the backyard). I was beginning to think I might write a book some day, but it would naturally be a great novel along the lines of War and Peace or, at the very least, Cannery Row. For the time being, in the summer of 1983, I had a day job as a scientific writer and was spending weekends cutting my teeth as a freelance journalist. A series of magazine and newspaper queries had landed me an assignment that sent me out from my home in Tucson to a constellation of small, strike-gripped mining towns strung out across southern Arizona. My mission was to cover the Phelps Dodge mine strike for several news publications: get the story, meet the deadline, earn my daily bread.

I spent a lot of that summer wearing the tread off my tires. I was driving a dirt-tan Nissan pickup truck. I’d never paid much mind to brand names until I arrived in the blue-collar outpost of a mining town where the credo buy American is no platitude, but food on the plate. The first time I parked on the main thoroughfare of Clifton, summoned my reporter’s nerve, and crossed the pot-holed street to talk with a gang of men outside the Steelworkers’ Hall, they looked me up and down and asked if I belonged to that little Japanese truck. I replied defensively that it was put together at a plant in Tennessee. I deeply hoped I’d said the right thing. The men gave terse answers to my careful questions about strike negotiations, but gave no indication they approved of me or my foreign transport.

Two weeks later I was in the Clifton area again, talking to some picketers near the mine’s main gate. I knew nobody in this town—before the strike I’d never had reason to set foot there. During a pause in the interview while I struggled to take cogent notes, a young man yelled from across the street that nobody ought to be coming around here in a Japanese truck. Two others in the crowd, people I did not know from Adam, turned to him and declared, It was made in Tennessee.

By summer’s end it was not just my truck getting recognized protectively in Clifton. I was now known high and low as that gal that’s writing the book about us. Nobody could have been more surprised to hear it than me. I had never told my interviewees I was writing a book, only that I was interested in their story, which was growing increasingly shocking and remarkable, and that I wanted the whole world to hear the truth. Newspaper work restrained me to a word limit, so I’d been thinking of truth in small doses. But the good citizens of Clifton apparently knew that Truth can’t be confined. Never mind that I had no idea how to go about writing a book, no publishing contacts, nor an iota of confidence that I could carry out such a grand project. My truck was from Tennessee, and I was writing a book.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. I spent my whole childhood in a town roughly the size of Clifton; it hid in other foothills at the opposite end of the continent, but the rules of small-town life are fairly assiduous. Rule One is that nobody stays a stranger very long. A newcomer has two options: become known, or else become a Stranger, a specific identity earned by purposeful disinterest. A journalist is supposed to be exactly that kind of stranger—an outsider who holds no attachment to her subjects. But I came back to these little towns too often to remain invisible, and cared too much in the long run to pretend I didn’t. Clifton declared me the biographer of a place and time, the one who would carry out a package big enough to hold Truth. If the shoes didn’t quite fit, no others were offered. And so I put them on.

This is the book, and ostensibly it is the story of a dramatic copper mine strike. The conflict lasted roughly eighteen months, between June 1983 and December 1984. It appeared to be an important moment in U.S. labor history, and the decade that has passed since then has proven, indeed, that it was. But it was also an important moment for the people involved, women and men with homes and neighbors and children and hopes rooted in the here and now, all of which were tom asunder and replanted in a new way, to face a new source of light. Dramatic events in the United States routinely cause heads to tum, momentarily, before all eyes tum back to the business at hand. But the Phelps Dodge strike in Arizona was an event that forced a genuine turning point in many lives at once.

When it began, nearly everyone believed it would be a brief and conventional strike. Within a month, events had turned in a way I’d never seen before, nor heard of happening in my lifetime. These were the kinds of things that aren’t supposed to occur in the land of the First Amendment: People were being jailed for infractions no larger than picking up the phone and calling a neighbor scab. Helicopters and squads of armored men with tear gas and large automatic weapons were storming tiny, bucolic Main Streets, and strike supporters were claiming their right to hold the line with extraordinary resistance. The faces and hands of this resistance mostly belonged to women. Who among us with blood in his veins could pretend disinterest? This strike was not merely fascinating; as far as I was concerned it also looked terrifying, and it looked like history.

For the next year and a half I did my best to watch it happen. Some half-dozen mining towns were involved, but the locus of the strike over the long haul was at the Morenci mine, up the hill from Clifton. A second focal point, especially in the beginning, was the Ajo mine. Ajo lies two hours by narrow paved road to the west of Tucson; Morenci is three hours northeast. I wore out one set of tires and put another on my erstwhile foreign truck. I taped long interviews with some seventy-five people, mostly women, who lived and marched in the line of fire. Most of the interviews were not completed in one sitting but, rather, would leave off when our time was up and begin again breathlessly a few weeks later, continuing in this manner over the course of more than a year. And so these were not exactly interviews, it turned out, but a sort of community journal spoken aloud. I tracked my subjects’ changes of heart and mind as they held the line with their hearts in their throats. I stood with them, embarrassed, as they cried out to a wide world that either refused to believe what was happening to them, or didn’t care, or simply could not know. While I watched and listened, they forged new selves. After each trip I brought home dirty laundry and cassette tapes filled with conversations. The laundry was manageable enough; I discovered that even the evil scent of tear gas is absolved by a good strong detergent. But the tapes piled up on me in an impugning way. They came to fill half a dozen shoeboxes and spill onto the floor of my bedroom/office. Finally I wrote a book because I saw no other decent option.

I’d finished half a first draft of Holding the Line before I honestly began to believe I could write the book; I’d finished the whole manuscript and sent it off to a publisher before I understood how the project had quietly changed my life. For the writing began with listening—hours and days and months of it, on the squeaky front-porch swings of slant frame houses where twining Queen’s Wreath vines scented the dusty air in a summer of heartbreak. I drove away from Clifton with my radio tuned to a country station and my ear tuned more specifically to the music of rural Arizona. I learned the history of the Southwest’s mining camps, and I learned their unspoken rules. Almost without realizing it I learned their Mexican-spiced language, the idiom of my adopted home. I’d been trying hard to capture that language in fiction, for I had lived in Arizona already for what seemed to me, at age 28, a long time: five years. So far, though, my Arizona stories had failed to come alive, or else suffered a kind of mutiny in which my characters grimly packed up and moved the whole plot back to our point of origin, rural Kentucky, the only place I really knew.

Holding the Line was a watershed event for me because it taught me to pay attention: to know the place where I lived. Since then I’ve written other books, most of them set in the vine-scented, dusty climate of Southwestern class struggle. One of these books, a novel, is specifically placed in a mining town where people grow peaches, mix their metaphors, celebrate el Dia de los Muertos, and have to contend with a mining company that pollutes their groundwater with sulfuric acid—all of which I learned about from direct experience while following the Phelps Dodge strike.

But finding the doorway into a career as a novelist is hardly what mattered most. I listened for more than a year to the stories of striking miners and their stunningly courageous wives, sisters, daughters. Sometimes I had to visit them in jail. They suffered outrageous injustices. As a witness I was forced, almost against my will, to become a smarter, more sympathetic human being. I saw rights I’d taken for granted denied to people I’d learned to care about. I came away with a heart deeply cautioned against the great American tradition of condemning the accused.

My hope for you, as a person now holding this book, is that the reading will bring you some of what the writing brought to me. Whether or not you can claim any interest in a gritty little town smack in the middle of nowhere that hosted a long-ago mine strike, I hope in the end you will care about its courage and sagacity. After all, Cannery Row is not really about a cannery, any more than Moby Dick is about whales. Without suggesting that this book contains the greatness of either of those (or in fact, any resemblance), I’ll invoke them for the sake of encouraging readers to bring an open mind to Holding the Line. It is not precisely about the mine strike of 1983, and not at all about copper. It is, I think, about sparks that fly when the flint of force strikes against human mettle.

After Gloria Naylor wrote The Women of Brewster Place, she was asked by interviewers, What do you say to people who complain that there are no men in your novel? Naylor’s succinct reply: I tell them to look at the title.

I could have saved myself some trouble by titling this book The Women Who Held the Line, but I didn’t anticipate the question that would rise again and again. Since it seems dishonest to retitle a book many years after its initial release, I’ll instead explain the emphasis. One of the most remarkable facts of the Phelps Dodge Strike is that it was carried out mainly by women. As a result, the women’s lives were transformed in obvious and compelling ways. The dominant role they assumed in maintaining the long strike appeared—to anyone who noticed—to be one of the unique features of the conflict. If it wasn’t actually unique—if women have been shouldering the burden of labor struggles since mines and mills began—it still seemed very surprising to people both inside and outside the strike, leading one to believe that women’s aptitude for this kind of work is a well-kept secret. After the strike was over, their participation and accomplishments were doubted; such doubts, in fact, constituted the principal criticism of this book upon its release. A review of Holding the Line in the New York Times was less concerned with the book’s actual content than with what it did not contain, fretting greatly over the question: Where are the men? Several weeks later a limp, much-photocopied clip of this review had made it all the way to Clifton, Arizona. A member of the women’s strike committee called me on the phone and confided with good humor, "That’s just what we’ve been asking ourselves all this time. Where were the men?"

In truth, the men were present insofar as they were able to be. Many were there day in and day out, supporting the strike as best they could. All strike negotiations were carried out by union officials, and predictably, these were all men. Their absence from the picket line was not a choice but a predicament forced upon them, first by a legal injunction and eventually by economic necessity. When a strike wears on for more than a few weeks, a union family must look for some other source of income, if only temporarily. A Company Town is by definition a one-employer town, and for strikers during a strike it’s a no-employer town. The men trained to labor in the Phelps Dodge mines had to venture far from home, frequently as far as Texas and California, to keep their families fed during the almost two years the strike remained unresolved. Their contribution to the struggle was crucial. The best way to put it might be that many a great man stood behind the great women of the strike.

Nevertheless, this is a book about the people who held the line. Those people were women. Some of them, no doubt, were born noble and others were nudged or frightened or bamboozled into it, but there they were. Their ranks included women old enough to have worked the mines during World War II, and some young enough to be a little vague about Vietnam. Many had husbands or brothers or fathers or sons who worked in a mine, and some knew that work themselves. Most had children whom they saw threatened by the forces brought in to fight the strike. All had a fierce stake in the survival of their families, their unions, and their community—categories that don’t easily separate one from another in an isolated mining camp. That women would march to the front of a fight such as this hardly seems surprising, and yet it was. Husbands scratched their heads, bystanders hooted in wonder, armed guards sent to subdue them looked embarrassed, and the women stared at their own hands—which sometimes clutched rocks or baseball bats—and hooted in wonder themselves. Nothing in their lives so far, not their families nor their church nor their TV sets, had ever prepared them to look in the mirror and behold a fighter. But now life offered them no other vision. Women scrapping tooth and nail for survival, however commonplace, still don’t get much dignified exposure in our culture. That may be the best reason of all for a book about the women who held the line.

If this book does not purport to be mostly about men, neither is it meant to be the sole, archival account of the strike. It does not attempt to place the negotiations and strategy of the Phelps Dodge strike and its aftermath into the full context of modem labor history. It was clear to me at the time that many different books could be written about the events I saw, and writing even one of them seemed a lot to take on. My hope was to record a dramatic cautionary tale and make it public, the sooner the better—in any event no more than five years after it happened. In service of that hope, I completed the book before very much historical context had revealed itself. I trusted that other writers more schooled than I in labor history would eventually write more analytical accounts of the strike, and in fact that has happened. The most thorough to date is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners’ Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America, by Jonathan D. Rosenblum, published in 1995. This book not only answers the question, Where were the men? but also What did it mean? and Where does it leave us now? The ultimate decertification of the trade unions that represented Phelps Dodge mine workers ended over forty years of union history in Arizona. It was a sober turning point for all organized labor in the United States. Only in retrospect has it become possible to understand what moved the strike and what it would stand for. It was a battle between two giants: a national union organization and a multinational copper corporation. Many people were hurt in this clash of Titans, and the ending of that tale is very much more discouraging than the story I’ve chosen to tell here—a story played out on a smaller stage and completed in the space of less than two years. I did not choose the plot of Holding the Line on account of its happier ending, for I seem to have come to it long before anyone could know how it might end. I chose it simply because I was there, and it’s the story I witnessed.

Bearing witness, however, is not so straightforward a thing as we narrators would have you believe. We are just like the blind men who examined the elephant and came away crying Rope! No, tree trunk! No, stupid, it’s a wall! Seven or seventy witnesses can come away from the same event with seven or seventy stories, and generally do. I believe that while some of those stories are bound to be more relevant than others, every one of them carries its own particular truth. This belief of mine is heresy against the first commandment of journalism, which claims that the objective writer will convey events directly from the scene of action to the reader’s mind without casting his or her own shadow on the page. According to this tenet, all the good journalists will come away from an event with essentially the same story.

The sooner we have dispensed with this myth, the better. Anyone who has been alive for more than fifteen minutes has begun to form judgments and preferences. Journalists, like other mortals, must sift through the thousands of data points in their field of vision and decide which few among them really matter. That these decisions reflect our personalities is not deliberate malpractice, but a symptom of humanity. It’s a phenomenon well known to psychologists who study perception; we see what we are prepared to see, and ignore what we’re not. The figure-ground experiment reveals visual bias in its simplest form: a familiar example is the test image showing two dark faces in profile, nose to nose, flanking the white shape of a vase. It’s impossible to see both vase and faces at once; when subjects are prepared to see a picture of a vase, they’ll see nought but vase.

All the world is a complex figure-ground test and we walk through it loaded for bear, scanning every landscape for its prospects. True objectivity may only be possible for those who do not care in the least what happens next, and have formed no expectations—an undirected camera snapping at random, the sound and the fury, a tale told by an idiot. It’s not what we should expect from our peers, especially those to whom we look for information. We place our trust in those who have intentions. And in every science, journalism included, the thing that one expects—or hopes for—will inevitably influence one’s perception of the outcome. Believing themselves the very soul of objectivity, nineteenth-century scientists measured men’s and women’s skulls of various races and constructed a hierarchy of brain size and intelligence—with Caucasian men settled comfortably at the top. Scientists who measure those same skulls now are baffled by their predecessors’ results, as no such concrete differences seem to exist. With similar righteous zeal, we journalists threw ourselves in 1983 upon the strike zone. Many were sent by newspapers that sought intrinsically to reinforce the law-and-order appetites of an urban, white-collar readership. They measured strikers’ skulls and came away with reports of craven, violent anarchists. Industrious photographers looked past rows of orderly strikers to snap the singular disorderly drunk or—in one famous case—the lone man whose frustration at a violent attack on unarmed strikers led him to walk stark naked into the cloud of tear gas. Every other striker, without exception, wore clothes every day for eighteen months, and yet in the outside world it was the Naked Man of Morenci who became a sort of poster boy for the strike.

Perhaps most surprising of all, reporters who visited the strike zone tended to overlook the participation of women in the strike. TV cameras hinted of women on the line, if not their actual predominance, but interviewers drastically favored men over women. For outsiders who weren’t familiar with the daily business of the strike, this might not seem so surprising—they hadn’t come here looking for a vanguard that sported ponytails and nail polish, so they just couldn’t see the leaders lined up in front of them. What makes it surprising is that in order to perpetrate this oversight, especially after the first week of the strike, it became necessary to use some version of Clark Kent’s X-ray vision to see through what were frequently all-woman picket lines.

I was no less prejudiced than other reporters of the strike. I’ve always claimed simply that my prejudices are equally strong but different from the mainstream. This assertion of mine has led some critics to describe this book as an admittedly biased account. True enough, but I know when I’m being patted on the head. The implication is that the alternative to an admittedly biased book is a real-live honest, accurate one. I contend, on the contrary, that among books written by humans the only alternative is a secretly biased one. Both sorts of accounts can be more or less accurate, but where honesty is concerned, an unacknowledged bias hits a lot farther off the mark than an acknowledged one. The latter is less insidious, and probably more useful to the reader.

The biases that frame this account are plain enough: I was open to the possibility of a vanguard in ponytails and nail polish. I belong to a contrary generation. After having spent my education reading of men’s experience almost exclusively—in American and English literature, in history, in philosophy, in science, in the world at large—I’d begun to look for balance. Even as a child I could see very well that the world was abundantly populated with women, and now as a writer I hoped to articulate the relatively uncharted terrain of women’s experience. Naively I expected these contributions to be as welcome as the day’s fresh catch. My expectations did not exactly bear out, and my interest in women’s issues was ultimately balanced with my need to make a living as a writer. When I first drove into Clifton to watch and report on a strike, I expected a manly tale of picks and shovels and union halls. My ears perked up when it began to tum into something else, a morality play whose iconography always included a pot of menudo simmering dead center. I identified easily with the women of the strike, and it’s fair to say they were more willing to talk with me than were the men, though I found distinguished exceptions, especially among the strike’s older patriarchs.

I also started this project with a sympathy for the strikers’ cause. I grew up in a part of rural Kentucky that teaches nothing if not the lessons of class struggle and the survival value of collective action. Still, where this strike was concerned I intended to be a good journalist: to remain anonymous, talk to both sides, and render a balanced account. This absurd intention had a short life. Anyone who has passed time in a small town knows that anonymity in such places is a daydream. And anyone who has lived in a town deeply divided over a life-and-death issue knows that if you aren’t willing to declare your allegiances, you’re unlikely to get served a cup of coffee in the diner, much less engender anyone’s trust. Long before I became The gal that’s writing the book, I knew I did not want to be a hit-and-run reporter. I wanted to write something more than the nightly sound-bite wrap-up or the extended analysis of the surface of things that passes for news in our society. I wanted the people in this strike to show me the heart and soul of their struggle; I needed to be trusted.

By the time the strike was a few months old, driving a motorized vehicle through Clifton, Arizona, was as perilous as steering a ship through the Persian Gulf. Never mind the make of your truck; it’s the brand of your allegiance that matters. Which side are you on? Neither is a traitor’s option. Try watching a mother dragged from her house by policemen who crack crude jokes while they bind her in chains in front of her young daughter. Say to her, You know, I’m really not sure whether I’m on your side or theirs. When she gets out of jail a week later, go knock on her door and ask her to tell you what happened. Expect to see that door slammed in your face. Please understand you deserve it. By October I’d completed my newspaper assignments. I put away my objective pretensions, flagged my truck front and back with bright orange Support the Copper Strikers bumper stickers, drove back to Clifton, and began to look for the story.

From time to time, bumper stickers notwithstanding, I did manage to talk with police and National Guard officers, and sometimes with people who had crossed the picket line. Even high officials of the Phelps Dodge Corporation—the bitterest enemies of the strikers—were surprisingly helpful and forthcoming. I gained insight from all these conversations, and they do add a layer of balance to this account. But mostly I talked with men and women who, sooner or later, gave their all to the strike. We talked

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  • (5/5)
    A brilliant true story of working class struggle and women's capacity to organise, fight and transform themselves and those around them. It's extraordinary that it's not fiction, it's a gripping tale well told by Kingsolver.