Steelworkers in Arizona’s ‘Copper Triangle:’ A Proud History Fading
A note to readers: This and other recent Working In These Times articles by Kari Lydersen are drawn from her reporting for a forthcoming book on the history and resurgence of hard rock mining in Arizona and the Great Lakes region.
HAYDEN, ARIZ.—Stepping into the United Steelworkers hall in this town on March 24 brought back a flood of memories for Cecilia Cruz and her sister Carolina Cruz. Carolina had gone to school in the building back when Mexicans were segregated from whites and paddled for speaking Spanish. Cecilia worked a summer job there in a Head Start program, and went to school in the adjacent town of Winkelman. Both remembered romping in the playground as toxic clouds of dust and grit from the nearby copper smelter descended over the town, and splashing in the green water that ran off from the smelter.
The United Steelworkers union still represents workers at the smelter, now owned by Grupo Mexico. But the Steelworkers hall in Hayden is far from the bustling, vibrant nexus that union halls across the state’s “Copper Triangle” were in decades past. Only a few people came to meet Cecilia’s daughter-in-law, Wenona Benally Baldenegro, a Navajo lawyer who is running for Congress in Arizona’s First district. Earlier that morning, others struggled to find the Steelworkers hall in the nearby town of Kearny. I was also unable to find the correct hall for Wenona’s event there; I was given directions to a former union building that is now boarded up and overgrown with weeds.
Today many of the old mining operations have closed, and many that remain are no longer unionized, or unions' power has been weakened. Cecilia Cruz notes that in the old days, when a political candidate like her daughter-in-law visited, the union hall would be packed and on Election Day members would loyally turn out in droves for the favored candidate. But despite their waning prominence in daily life, the rich and powerful history of the Steelworkers and other unions in the region remains… as the Cruzes and Cecilia's husband Sal Baldenegro explained to me several days later at their home in Tucson.