UA Library

The Nation
Vol. 106, No. 2747 pgs 202-203
Feb 21, 1918

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Copper Camp Patriotism*

By ROBERT W. BRUERE

The loss of a hundred million pounds of copper last summer at a moment when the nation’s need for the metal was acute called sharp attention to the epidemic of strikes that had spread through the copper mines from Butte, Montana, to Bisbee on the Mexican border.  The press carried sensational headlines attributing these strikes to the colossal conspiracy of an “outlaw” organization known as the I.W. W., whose members were alleged to be anarchistic pacifists.  The general public paid little serious attention to these tumors of sedition until the copper companies of Bisbee, taking the law into their own hands, collected some twelve hundred of these alleged traitors and cost them out into the New Mexican desert.  Executed in the name of patriotism, these deportations failed of their ostensible object.  They were overtly designed to restore the maximum output of copper; but the copper production continued to lag.

The strikes which shut down the copper mines of Arizona broke out in June; it was not until October that the Government, through the President’s Mediation Commission subsequently described as a “shocking dislocation of a basic war industry.”  The disastrous interval of three months was marked by a reign of lawlessness and violence which, trumpeted throughout Europe by the anti-capitalistic revolutionists of Russia, has seriously damaged the reputation of America as a refuge of the oppressed and a bulwark of justice and liberty.  The President’s Commission, headed by Secretary Wilson, of the United States Department of Labor, reached Phoenix, Arizona, in the first week of October.  It was at Phoenix that I joined the Commission, and from Phoenix I accompanied them until they left Bisbee early in November.

In the meantime, the United States Department of Justice had thrown a dragnet about the leaders of the I. W. W. throughout the country.  Some of them had been apprehended in Arizona.  Almost two hundred of them had been imprisoned in Chicago.  I expected to find abundant evidence of their seditious activity in the copper camps.  At the forefront of the “patriots” who had engineered the deportation were the executives of the greatest metal-mining corporation in America, men distinguished for their philanthropy, and I felt certain that they would not have resorted to such unusual and extra-legal measures without consulting the Federal authorities unless they had been convinced that the best interests of the nation made prompt and drastic action imperative.

After some weeks of intensive investigation I was perplexed by my inability to substantiate this assumption.  I could find no evidence of a treasonable conspiracy, and no traces of German gold, although I enjoyed unusual facilities for getting at the facts.  These strikes, like hundreds of others that had broken out in the country, appeared to be nothing more than normal results of the increased costs of living, the speeding up processes to which the mine managers had been empted by the abnormally high market price of copper, and to that urge towards democratic self-expression which, stimulated by our war for democracy, has made itself felt throughout the world.  This impression was later confirmed by the findings of the President’s Mediation Commission.

The business of the Commission was not to find indictments against individuals, but to make a dispassionate investigation of the facts with a view to the elimination of unreasonable and seditious trouble-makers and to the composition of legitimate differences of opinion between the copper companies and their striking employees.  They say:

Behind and controlling the factor which immediately led to the strikes are the underlying  labor conditions of the mining industry of the State [Arizona], which were devoid of safeguards against strikes and, in fact, provocation of them…In place of orderly procedures of adjustment, workers were given the alternative of submission or strike…there was no demand for a closed shop.  There was a demand for security against discrimination directed at union membership…The companies denied discrimination, but refused to put the denial to the reasonable test of disinterested adjustment….The crux of the conflict was the insistence of the men that the right and the power to obtain just treatment were in themselves basic conditions of employment, and that they should not be compelled to depend for such just treatment on the benevolence or uncontrolled will of the employer…Such agencies of the :public” as the so-called “loyalty leagues” only server to intensify bitterness, and more unfortunately, to the minds of workers in the West server to associate all loyalty movements with partisan and anti-union aims…These conditions may not have been left unavailed of by enemies of our war policy nor by exponents of syndicalist industrialism, but neither sinister influences nor the I.W.W. can account for these strikes…The explanation is to be found in unremedied and remediable industrial disorder.

In other words, the main drift of the Commission’s findings was not only to acquit the I. W. W. of the specific charge of treasonable conspiracy proclaimed against them by the copper companies, but also to shift the burden of responsibility for the Bisbee deportation and other acts of violence which attended the strikes to the managers of the copper camps themselves.

Were the deportations then, the destruction of hundreds of homes without due process of law, the establishment of extra-legal “kangaroo” courts, the hiring and use of hundreds of detectives and armed guards – were these acts inspired by the ordinary strike-breaking motives rather than by extraordinary considerations of patriotism?  And did the companies, the masters of the copper camps, fail to consult the Government in advance in order to forestall its interference?  Was the bogey of the I. W. W. raised like the world-enveloping smoke out of the fisherman’s copper bottle in the Arabian Nights to becloud the real issues?  Difficult of belief as they are, we must nevertheless draw these inferences from the conclusions of the President’s Medication Commission.  “Patriotism” and the I. W. W. were raised as a screen between the lawlessness of the companies in their remote desert camps and justice the striking men might have made an effectively appeal.  Indeed, one of the mine managers frankly declared that the Government had not been consulted because if the plans of the operators had been known in advance the Government would undoubtedly have blocked them.

The strike in Bisbee began on the 28th of June.  This one alone, of all the strikes in the Arizona copper country, was initiated by the I. W. W.  On the evening of June 30, a colonel of the United States army telephoned to Governor Campbell of Bisbee that “everything was peaceable, with few gatherings of men and no riots,” and again on July 1 he reported to the Governor: “Conditions lightly improved here to-day…have assured Sheriff that all possible cooperation will be given him.”  The colonel had previously informed both the Governor and the sheriff that a squadron of cavalry was stationed within a few miles of Bisbee, and was ready for service at a moment’s notice.  Its aid was not called for by either Sheriff or “patriots” of Bisbee.

On the same date, July 1, the manager of the second largest property in Bisbee wired to the Governor that half his men were working that morning, and added: “Few pickets out…no violence or damage to property.”  Between July 2 and July 12, the day of the deportation, there is a break in the Governor’s official record.  There was no violence among the strikers in Bisbee, however; the army officer had reported that all was peace and that there was no need for the introduction of troops.

On the night of July 11 the same manager who had sent the reassuring message to the Governor, and who is now an officer in the United States army, addressed a meeting of “loyal citizens” who had decided to make a final clean-up of the troublesome strikers by deporting them and their alleged sympathizers. He conveyed the idea that the deportations were about to be carried out with the knowledge and consent of the United States Government.  This was the distinct impression made upon the mind of a business man who attended the meeting and reported it to me.  The “undesirables” were to be gathered up, placed upon a special train of box cards, and carried to Columbus, New Mexico, where it was alleged, they would be received as if by pre-arrangement by a section of the United States army.  Some twelve hundred men had been deputized as special sheriffs and armed.  At the call of the Sheriff they were to sweep down the canons of Bisbee, collecting all the strikers and their alleged sympathizers from their homes and the streets.  Men who agreed to tie white handkerchiefs on their arms and join the posse were to exempted.  All the rest were to be corralled in the ball park in Warren, about three miles from Bisbee, preliminary to deportation.

A rallying point of the “patriots” was the United States post office building.  The Sheriff told me that he had stationed a select company there because it was convenient to his headquarters, which he had established in the Phelps-Dodge or Copper Queen Dispensary near by.  To avoid governmental Interference, nothing was said of the plan to the officer of the United States army who was stationed at Bisbee.  An office of one of the copper companies, who was commonly called “Captain,” made use of this convenient title to “order” the local manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company to cut off communication between Bisbee and the outside world.  He made a similar attempt with the local manager of the Bell Telephone Company, but this manager knew that the “Captain” was not a “regular” and refused to obey.  Thus it happened that the news of the deportation got out of Bisbee as soon as it did.

In the early hours of July 12 organized bands of armed “Loyalty Leaguers” under general command of Sheriff Wheeler swooped down upon the unsuspecting strikers and their alleged sympathizers – storekeepers, laymen, contractors, many men who had taken absolutely no active part in the strike.  At the point of revolvers and under the muzzle of machine guns, the “loyalists” herded them together and drove them violently out, half-clothed and unfed, in the hot summer sun.  One of the most insistent instructions of the I. W. W. leaders to the men on strike had been that they should under no circumstances carry arms lest they become involved in trouble; that they should keep the peace, obey the law, and under no circumstances resist arrest.  This is one of the reasons why the deportations were carried through with so little bloodshed.  Had the strikers been guilty of such violence as was perpetrated by the companies and their sympathizers, there seems every reason to believe that the Governor would have found it possible to get troops into Bisbee.  An insignificant demonstration on the part of certain strikers in Globe, Arizona, had demonstrated his ability to get troops when he wanted them.

For days and months after the deportation Bisbee was governed by a “kangaroo” court, an improvised body without legal standing, composed ob Loyalty Leaguers sitting in state in a building owned by one of the copper companies.  Such astonishing details throw some light upon what was probably in the minds of the President’s Mediation when they used the phrase “autocratic conduct.”

After the Commission had completed their investigation of the strike and deportation in Bisbee, they addressed a letter to Sheriff Wheeler, in which they said:

After a thorough and impartial consideration of the facts surrounding the deportation of the 12th of July and the practices which have been pursued since such deportation by those in authority in Cochise County, the President’s Mediation Commission is convinced that once your attention is directed to practices which are subversive of industrial peace and denials of lawful rights, you will promptly take the necessary steps to have such practices abandoned.

Sheriff Wheeler’s answer was non-committal.  A few weeks after the Commission’s report, the leading citizens of Bisbee banqueted the Sheriff, who, as the guest of honor, made an address, in the course of which he said:

My friends, you pay me too much honor in this matter.  There were scores of men in that drive the morning of July 12 who are entitled to more honor than I, who did more than I that day for the district and our home fires.  I merely did my duty.  I couldn’t shirk.  You could.  But you didn’t!  President Wilson’s Commission reported to him things about this district and the deportation of the Wobblies that were not true.

In describing the banquet the Bisbee Daily Review, self-appointed voice of the copper companies, reported that “it was a splendid gathering of high-class, patriotic business man and workers and professional men of the district.  All were strong still in the faith, and they had gathered there to show the man who had led them and failed not just how they felt about him.”

What is the significance of such facts as these in our American life?  What bearing have they upon our successful prosecution of the war?  What public measures do they call for if industrial unrest is to be successfully allayed while the war lasts, and if after the war we are to become a unified and efficient nation?  For the lawlessness which deprived the nation of a hundred million pounds of copper last summer is only one symptom of a social malady which is by no means confined to the copper camps.


*In this article Mr. Bruere reports the results of his first-hand investigation of I. W. W. activities in the West, especially in the copper camps.  In next week’s Nation he will discuss the meaning of the conditions here described.