Housing issue sparks violence in 11-month-old strike by Arizona copper workers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tempers flared over the weekend as Phelps Dodge Corporation strikers, faced with possible evictions from company-owned housing, clashed with nonstrikers and police after a peaceful demonstration in Clifton and Morenci, Ariz.

The brief outbreak of violence, in the heart of one of the country's richest copper mining areas, was sparked by a report that a nonstriker had drawn a gun on pickets.

The violence resulted in stone-throwing and scuffles and led to the use of tear gas by massed police. There were no serious injuries reported. About a dozen were arrested, including the nonstriker, who was said to have been armed.

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Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt called out a unit of the National Guard to keep the peace, the second time guardsmen had been sent to the area in the angry labor confrontation between Phelps Dodge and the United Steelworkers and 12 other unions. The strike is now in its 11th month, with no signs of progress toward a settlement and tension mounting over the eviction issue.

Phelps Dodge, the largest copper producer in the country's most important copper-producing state, was struck by United Steelworkers and 11 other unions last July 1 when the company refused to go along with wage and benefit settlements that the unions had negotiated with six other major producers. Phelps Dodge sought contract concessions, and when unionists walked out, the company mobilized replacement workers.

Bargaining positions have frozen since then. According to USW spokesmen, strikers are now ''even stronger in their resolve, angry, and militant,'' and are convinced that it is ''only a matter of time before the company has to capitulate.''

Phelps Dodge management scoffs at that. One official in Arizona said that ''it's a lost strike.''

Most of some 4,500 mine strikers at Phelps Dodge and a number of small producers that have been struck have exhausted personal reserves.

Even with the increasingly serious financial pressures on strikers, union leaders insist there is ''no force in the world that can beat us.''

Some of the union confidence probably arises from the fact that copper producers have experienced five strikes since 1968 without successfully resisting union demands.

Phelps Dodge may change this. Although the USW says the company is finding it hard to recruit enough workers, particularly skilled employees, the company reports ''nearly normal'' operations in mines and smelters.

The company says that some 1,500 or more union members have returned, a figure disputed by unions.

Phelps Dodge, for its part, scoffs at USW predictions that losses of some $60 million since the strike began will eventually make the company give in. Phelps Dodge says that cost saving put into effect during the strike have made the company more competitive.

After losing $74 million in 1982 Phelps Dodge went into bargaining last year. A series of settlements between the union coalition and other major producers froze base wages and benefits for three years but retained a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) clause.

Phelps Dodge has hired new workers at rates reported to be as low as $7 an hour. Saying that this undercuts the company's wage structure, USW is insisting that newly hired workers receive ''scale'' wages as part of any settlement, that a COLA clause be retained in new contracts, and that strikers be allowed to return to prestrike jobs.

The housing issue is new. Phelps Dodge has served eviction notices on strikers living in company-owned houses, arguing that the houses are needed for ''employees'' and that strikers are no longer eligible. The unions are fighting the eviction notice in court.

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