Monday, September 06, 2010

We've been celebrating LABOR DAY since 1882.

Thanks to the United Auto Workers, when my father-in-law retired from General Motors in the late 70s, he had enough pension, benefits, and savings to do what all Detroiters dream of doing: escaping winter. He and his wife became snow birds. They'd spend summers in Michigan and winters south of Tucson near another center of union organizing (though I doubt that they knew it) Bisbee, Arizona. Southeast of their retirement condo, past Tombstone and the OK Corral, almost on the Mexican border, sits Bisbee, a settlement formed to serve the Phelps Dodge mine, the Copper Queen.

Bisbee is bizarre. When the Copper Queen played out in 1975, Bisbee became an art colony. Now it's a tourist stop of galleries and jewelers in the middle of nowhere. It's a desert town of rickety Victorian houses sitting on mineral-streaked hillsides threaded with narrow, winding streets.

It's also the site of one of the seminal events in labor history. On July 12, 1917, after repeatedly refusing the demands of striking miners, the mining companies used an army of vigilantes to round up more than 1000 men--some on strike, some just in the wrong place at the wrong time--and march them two miles to a waiting train of cattle cars. The plan was to take the men east to Columbus, New Mexico, but when that town turned the train away, the men were left stranded in the desert.

Although a federal investigation found the transport illegal and some of the hijacked men sued (no one died, but some were imprisoned for weeks), no one was ever held liable, and mining interests continued to call the tune in southern Arizona. The Bisbee Deportation of 1917 helped energize the labor movement to create the strong unions that buoyed the American middle class, including my husband's family, after World War II.

If my in-laws had read some of these books, they would have known that they spent their GM pension shuttling from one hotbed of union activity to another:

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