Copper and the Class Struggle (Race and Labor in Western Copper; Copper Crucible; Recast Labor-Management Relations in America)

By Mouat, Jeremy | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Copper and the Class Struggle (Race and Labor in Western Copper; Copper Crucible; Recast Labor-Management Relations in America)


Mouat, Jeremy, Labour/Le Travail


Jeremy Mouat, "Copper and Class Struggle," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 277-84.

Philip J. Mellinger, Race and Labor in Western Copper: The Fight for Equality, 1896-1918 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press 1995).

Jonathan D. Rosenblum, Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners' Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America (Ithaca: ILR Press 1995).

THESE TWO BOOKS examine labour relations in copper mining in the American southwest. That is about the only thing they have in common: they are of very different quality and interest; they look at different periods; and their authors draw different conclusions. As his title suggests, Mellinger's Race and Labor in Western Copper looks at ethnicity and workers, while the subtitle of Rosenblum's book indicates his concern with the meaning and significance of the 1983 miners' strike in Arizona. Of the two, Rosenblum's Copper Crucible is a good deal more interesting. A fascinating exploration of corporate and union behaviour, his is an exemplary strike study.

Mellinger's book is more problematic. Although it presents much valuable information about ethnicity, the book's lack of structure makes it difficult to know just what to make of all the detail. Mellinger, however, is confident of its meaning. He claims that the book "demonstrates that industrialization and unionization catalyzed social action in Mexican and other Hispanic, Greek, Italian, and South Slavic industrial communities across a large part of the early-twentieth-century West ... The agents of south-western and intermountain working-class social change were activist factional ethnic subgroups which combined and recombined with one another during episodes of labor conflict." (15) Mellinger argues that historians who focus their attention on specific ethnic groups do so at the risk of over-simplification. Such groups were not monolithic and it was smaller factions that were "the real determinants of western working-class social change. ... the relevant building blocks in explaining western working-class history." (16) Although the book's narrative often lacks focus, it does provide considerable evidence to support this analysis. Mellinger also emphasises the importance of the workplace, arguing that it was there -- rather than in the community -- that social change began in the southwest mining regions of the US. The book's conclusion -- with a nod to William Kornblum's Blue Collar Community -- states this unequivocally: "attitudes derived from and related to the workplace helped initiate the process which eventually changed community attitudes on race and ethnicity." (201) This is a more contentious view and is asserted rather than proven. If Mellinger had discussed this point in greater detail and with greater clarity, he would have produced a much more interesting book.

Despite his insistence that the workplace was the site of change, Mellinger is strangely silent about the work of mining and tells the reader very little about the omnipotence of the large mining companies. This neglect of the social relations of production is curious: contemporary trade journals as well as virtually every historical account of the mining industry emphasise the pace of technological change throughout this period, while the power of the mining companies in the American southwest was graphically illustrated by events such as the Ludlow Massacre and the Bisbee Deportation. (1) Mellinger, however, downplays the inequities of social power identifiable in this context. At various points, he seems to imply that labour and management confronted each other as equals, as in the following metaphor: "The two sides [in Bingham Canyon, Utah] were like sparring heavy-weights ... probing for the opening that might lead to a knockout." (106) Further, Mellinger's claim about the importance of the workplace remains largely unexplored throughout the text.

The book is a frustrating -- at times, infuriating -- read. …

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