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On July 1, 1983, over 2, 000 employees of the Phelps Dodge Corp. who represented a total of thirteen believed that their dissatisfaction with a latest contract offer would be more publicized if they engaged in a strike. Consequently, they struck the company’s mining and processing facilities in Douglas, Bisbee, Ago, and Morenci, Arizona. Unfortunate events followed those who sought economic security over solidarity with their fellow workers. For example, Ajo’s heavy equipment operator, Keith Tallant who chose such a path subjected himself and his entire family to public harassment in addition to the unfortunate event where fragments of a bullet fired to his home entered into the brain of his three-year-old sleeping daughter.
In seeking to avoid further violence, the then Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt attempted to facilitate negotiations and dialogue between the two parties, that is, mine workers through the United Steelworkers on one side against Phelps Dodge Corp. but to no avail. Soon, police officers were using wooden bullets, tear gas, and batons to disperse violent labor-related melees. A few strikes have had a corrosive effect as the Phelps Dodge strike in the American history. It led to the partitioning of communities, division of families, decertification of union, and generally created a dangerous environment for all the people involved. On August 10, 1983, Governor Babbitt declared a state of emergency due to the violence resulting in the largest military force deployment in Arizona history. Soon, the company was bringing in replacements for the striking workers, which only aggravated the situation. However, through the replacements, the company was able to develop a corporate model that showed American companies that they could instill peace with strikebreakers without suffering adverse consequences.
Phelps Dodge was already notoriously known for its anti-union practices and dealings with organized labor even before the Arizona strike. Previously was the unfortunate Bisbee deportation of 1917where the company hired an armed vigilante force whose mandate was rounding up and expelling any militant union member and their potential allies. The United States entered into the World War I in the same year, which led to an explosion of the demand for copper used for ammunitions and communications. Consequently, the company’s smelters were producing 600 to 700 tons daily. At maximum capacity production, the mine workers went into strike due to a number reasons such as the inability of mine managers to formulate policies on behalf of the top management and the rapidly reducing supply of experienced and skilled workers as most of them joined the army or other companies with better working conditions and salaries (Gale, 3006). The strike also caught the attention of the International Workers of the World, which was largely concerned with the improvement of the working conditions, an increase of the daily wage by six dollars, and the abolition of the mandatory physical examination, which was believed to be a way of eliminating potential miners who had undesired political affiliations.
However, two weeks into the strike, the then Phelps Dodge’s president Walter Douglas ordered the shipping of over 1,200 employees into New Mexico where they were to be turned loose through a boxcar. This resulted in the largest forced migration in the US by a private corporation. The deportees lived in near starvation levels until the American army in a nearby El Paso army base brought them relief food. Unfortunately, no blame was placed on any specific individuals and the issue slowly petered out.
Causes of the Phelps Dodge Mines Strike
There were underlying issues that led to the dissatisfaction of workers and the eventual strike. First, the enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 critically affected the Arizona mines especially in Douglas. Three years after the anti-pollution laws were passed, the smelter had incurred $17 million in adapting its production mechanisms to reduce emissions. In addition, foreign firms were offering the same products at cheaper prices, which added to the sluggish demand that the company was already experiencing especially due to the end of the WWII. Phelps Dodge raised its prices to cover the costs incurred in installing the pollution control equipment and the frequent maintenance required. In the first three months of 1982, the company experienced a $19.1 million reduction in sales, which led to the laying off of 3, 800 employees and a closure of three smelters. The remaining workers experienced salary reductions but with higher amounts of responsibilities, which consequently led to a nation-wide strike in the industry. The counter-offer given by the company included abolishing the cost-of-living allowance, lower wages for new workers, and a three-year wage freeze, which the employees rejected. The company refused to alter its position, which the mine workers uneasily agreed to abide by in addition to decertifying the thirteen unions present at the mines.
Analysis of Key Issues
One of the most important functions of public relations is developing a strategy for dealing with all kinds of crisis and conflicts within organizations, institutions, or other firms that involve human relationships. The objective is achieving a particular purpose that is acceptable to all the involved individuals (Okwumba, 2015). An industrial action cripples the productions activities of any organization making public relations strategies a veritable framework for creating mutual understanding through a deep consideration of the interests of each party. Consequently, the organization is able to establish and maintain beneficial mutual relationships with the public on whom the extent of its success is determined.
The relevant trade unions could to some extent also be blamed for the strike’s eventuality. The officials applied the old rules, which were no longer applicable as the crisis involved not only a bargaining deadlock but also a fight for their livelihood. They failed in effectively informing their members and the general community of what was truly at stake.
Trade unions as organizations are supposed to administrative institutions endeavoring to achieve the objectives of its members. They are involved in conflict management mechanisms, which in content are similar to negotiations (Krasenkiene, Kazokiene & Susniene, 2014). Typically, their role is to represent the interests of their members to the employers. To do this, they must possess a strategic plan that will catch the attention of the relevant organization’s policy makers in a convincing way in order to settle fast.
In this case, the trade unions only relied on their moral outrage for publicity thinking that the rest of the nation would view their strike in relation to social injustices of health, economics, and the diminishing power of the political minority and sympathize with their cause. However, in so doing, they failed to take full advantage of the media coverage of the strike to maximally and effectively speak to the rest of the nation. The role of the media in public relations cannot be overemphasized. Media houses present the fastest ways in which members of the trade unions and the general public are informed of important attitudes, positions, and circumstances and is critical in achieving public support and attaining the pursued objectives. Often, people seek information about the crisis, evaluate the causes of the crisis as well as the organizational responsibility based on the kind of media coverage that the crisis has received (Seon-Kyoung & Karla, 2009). Consequently, public relations have a stronger impact on public awareness at a much lower cost than advertising (Rivero & Theodore, 2014).
Phelps Dodge on the other hand took full advantage of the extensive media coverage to publicize its ruthless labor relations, which was quickly emulated all over the country. Previously, trade unions were strong organizations that were perceived to be invincible. However, Phelps Dodge proved that no one was invincible to its influence even big trade unions. In trying to sabotage bargaining in good faith, the company incurred large sums of money in terms of attorney fees where it tried to break the union up to the Supreme Court as well as continual expenses for lobbyists, newspaper advertisements occupying full pages, travel and accommodation arrangement for the management, and the alleged gratuities paid to the Arizona labor officials and other top politicians.
Regardless of the large amount of money that could have been saved if the company satisfied the small demands of the strikers, the company showed that losses bore little interest to them as compared to having their way and neither did the heavy criticisms that the company came under over whether the money used could have fully catered for the minimal cost of living adjustments that the mine workers were asking for. In addition to the expenses, there was the taxpayers’ money used on the National Guard called in to quell the violence, as well as the expenses of the Attorney General’s office in processing the numerous charges and felonies that were filed during that period. Moreover, some of these charges were successful especially those that related to harassment by public officers to private citizens, which resulted in settlements. In general, the activities that occurred during the strike were extremely costly especially for the taxpayers. Although the company expressed fears of bankruptcy if it let the unions have their way, this seems to be very far from the truth.
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Applicable Labor Laws
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 is the main federal regulatory framework for the regulation of labor relations. Section 7 of the Act provides that every employee has the right to engage in concerted activities (these include strikes) for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. Further, section 13 provides that no provision in the act shall be construed as to limit in any way the employees’ right to strike except for the limitations and qualifications set by the act. This means that a strike can either be lawful or unlawful. The lawfulness of a strike is determined by the National Labor Relations Board whose decision can have great implications on the striking workers. Workers who engage in lawful strikes receive the full protection of the law while those in unlawful strikes are unprotected and may fail to receive back pays or be reinstated.
Lawful strikes are divided into economic strikes and unfair labor practices (ULP) strikes. The former may occur when workers are dissatisfied with the employer’s offers and counteroffers on issues such as wages, working conditions, benefits, and working hours. Such workers, called economic strikers, are protected by the law. However, during the striking period, the employer has a right to employ replacement without firing the union workers. The company is not entitled to reinstate the employer if he/she offers to go back to work without conditions, that is, without complete fulfillment of the conditions negotiated for by the union. However, the employee can be rehired if he/she seeks an equivalent of the same job held in the organization. ULP strikes arise where workers are in opposition of some unlawful activities by the employer such as the violation of the Act. Such an employee cannot be fired or permanently replaced.
Unlawful strikes on the other hand occurs when the purpose or object of the strike is unlawful. Workers are prohibited from striking in order to compel their employer or trade union to engage in an unfair labor practice or to commit an unlawful act. In addition, if the employment contract contained a no-strike provision, such a worker would not be protected by law in the event that they decided to strike. Most importantly, lawful strikes can easily turn into unlawful strikes if the striking employees engage in misconduct, which may lead to a loss of the right to be reinstated. Such misconduct involve physical blockage of people from entering or leaving the firm, threats of violence to non-striking workers, and striking employees attacking the organization’s management.
With regards to the Phelps Dodge strike, the workers were protesting the company’s low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. Hence, their strike was an economic one. In addition, the company had also engaged in unfair labor practices where unionized workers were singled out and received worse treatment than their counterparts who were non-unionized hence interfering with the worker’s right to belong to a trade union. Consequently, their strike was also based on ULP and therefore lawful. However, some employees engaged in misconduct by threatening and harassing the workers who had crossed the line such as Tallant’s family. Such employees were not entitled to reinstatement.
Every organization has an obligation of establishing support among its internal and external publics. Within the internal environment, the most viable public relations initiative is establishing good internal communication channels between the management and the employees within which each party communicates its desires for growth and development. Corporate sustainability and achievement of institutional goals and objectives essentially hinges on the value that the corporation has attached on its labor relations. These are the lessons that organizations can learn from the Phelps Dodge labor relations crisis. It appears like the company had waged a personal battle against unions. It refused to compromise with the unions even though its competitors had done so and paid a steep price financially for it.
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- Phelps Dodge should have applied public relations strategies in managing the strike. An organized unit with trained professional would have gone a long way into containing the situation.
- The losses incurred by the company following the loss could also have been reduced if it had attempted to settle the employees’ grievances early on into the strike just as its competitors had done. Better yet, it could have offered its employees motivational factors in order to avoid the strike altogether such as better working conditions and salary increment.
- Good internal communication channels, which facilitated the communication of the desired changes by the employees to the management would also have been effective in preventing the strike. Further, the top-down and authoritarian structure adopted by the trade unions in which the voices of the miner workers were stifled also worsened the situation. The appropriate strategy would have been an all-inclusive model where even the least skilled miners were involved in the decision-making process and had a way of directly communicating with the union officials.
- Gale, T., (2006). Phelps Dodge Corporation. Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/economics-business-and-labor/businesses-and-occupations/phelps-dodge-corp.
- Krasenkiene, A., Kazokiene, L., & Susniene, D., (2014). Relationships of the Trade Unions with the Media: The Lithuanian Case. Administrative Sciences, 4, pp. 1-14.
- Okwumba, E., (2015). The Relevance of Public Relations Strategies in Managing Strike Actions in Nigerian Universities. International Journal of Management and Applied Science, 1(8).
- Rivero, O., & Theodore, J., (2014). The Importance of Public Relations in Corporate Sustainability. Global Journals Inc. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi77ffOm7jTAhVIJMAKHe0KDXQQFggqMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fjournalofbusiness.org%2Findex.php%2FGJMBR%2Farticle%2Fdownload%2F1339%2F1246&usg=AFQjCNHnbhN8RbvcaKkdhWyPC6QMOf0BMg&sig2=CskNUfY9WQFOYW0ng8AyQw.
- Seon-Kyoung, A., & Karla, K. G., (2009). How Do the News Media Frame Crises? A Content Analysis of Crisis News Coverage. Public Relations Review, 35, pp. 107-112.