Mexican smelter workers strike for eight-hour day in Clifton, Arizona, 1903

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Time Period:  
3 June
12 June
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
Arizona was a Territory at this time, not yet a State
To work an 8-hour day and resist 10% wage cuts.

From its start in 1870, Mexican labor was essential to the Clifton-Morenci mine in Eastern Arizona. Founding prospectors Clifton and Metcalf quickly sold the rights to the Longfellow Copper Mining Company. The copper smelter was highly productive during its early decades, especially after multiple railroad lines intersected with the area, many of which were able to transport copper. The area quickly began acting as a magnet for Mexican and Chinese labor, which created political tension in the Arizona Territory and also some minor disputes among workers.

Production increased exponentially under the direction of James Colquhoun and the Arizona Mining Company, requiring more labor than ever before. During the turn of the 20th century, the United States was in the process of implementing stricter and more discriminatory immigration policies, most of which did not affect Mexican laborers yet, until their rate of migration tripled from 1900-1910. The labor movement tried to respond to the changes; the union representing workers at the copper mine had three reported leaders: Mexican A. Salcido, Italian Frank Colombo, and Rumanian W. H. Lastenneau.

State government generally acted on behalf of the mine owners. In early 1903, the Arizona legislature passed a law creating Arizona Rangers, a special group to patrol the border and prevent cattle rustling, although they mostly worked as strike breakers against unions. However, after pressure from the unions, state government also passed an act prohibiting more than eight hours of labor in underground mines. This particularly impacted companies hiring Mexican laborers at below-market wages.

On 1 June 1903 the 8-hour-workday law went into effect. The mine operators dropped the work day from ten hours to eight, but only paid for nine hours of labor. With the less working hours, the workers faced a ten percent pay cut because they were paid for nine hours, as opposed to the ten to which they were accustomed.

Two days later workers (mostly Mexicans) walked out of the factory, halting production.

On June 5 the Bisbee Daily Review reported the progress of the strike as follows:

The strike is now composed of almost entirely Mexicans. Quite a number of Americans have left the camp. These men are taking no part with the Mexicans….At Metcalf, where practically all the men employed are Mexicans, the tie up of operations was complete from the start. The men prevented the loading of any ore in the cars which haul it to the Arizona [Copper Company] reduction works at Clifton….It seems that the Mexicans are being led by one or two prominent leaders; they gather two or three times a day in Morenci and listen to speeches from the leaders who are very industrious [and] have used harsh language concerning the “gringos”….This morning at 5 o’clock, more than two hundred Mexicans were already gathered at the mouth of the Humboldt tunnel, listening to the harangues by the leaders and music by the band….This will probably be the end of Mexican labor in the district.

Immediately, Governor Brodie deployed the Arizona Rangers. On 9 June the strikers openly ignored the threats of the Rangers and 2000 marched under a downpour. Since the demonstrators had rifles, pistols and knives, presiding Sheriff Parkes appealed for more law enforcement back-up. This researcher did not find evidence that union leaders supported the workers using arms, nor any reports that the strikers actually fired any weapons.

The rainstorm continued, resulting in flooding and thunderstorms in nearby mountains. Then, two “torrents of water converged on the junction of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River, forming a crest that ripped through the length of Clifton, destroy[ing] nearly $100,000 in property and [accruing] a death toll of nearly fifty persons.” Federal troops soon arrived, as well as six companies of the National Guard. By June 12, they declared that the community was under martial law, although at this point, the strike had ended.

Following the strike, the workers were disarmed and many were searched and arrested. The leaders were incarcerated in the Territorial prison at Yuma. (Arizona was a Territory at this point, not yet a state.)

The company won, but at a large political cost: on the company’s behalf the state government deployed more troops than ever before in Arizona history, resulting in loss of support in public opinion. The outcome in terms of labor movement unity is also of interest. The Mexican laborers significantly threatened the power of the mostly-white, anti-Mexican Western Federation of Miners. Later, however, the WFM went on to issue a statement in support of the striking miners.

Research Notes

This strike influenced a series of copper- and smelter-related strikes in later decades. (2)

Nugent, Walter T. K., and Martin Ridge. The American West: The Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Print.

Park, Joseph F. "The 1903 "Mexican Affair" at Clifton." Journal of Arizona History 18 (1977): 119-48. Recollections: Herbert Young. University of Arizona, 2005. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <>.

Perales, Monica. Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2010. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sam Shain, 11/11/2012