Gauging impact of year-long copper miners' strike

The unrest that has marked the first anniversary of the copper miners' strike against Phelps Dodge in Arizona is a testament to the company's ability to operate despite the walkout and to the frustration among strikers at the company's unwillingness to negotiate over their demands.

Some companies in the industry appear to be trying to capitalize on Phelps Dodge's apparent victory. They are seeking revisions to union contracts negotiated last year in an attempt to lower labor costs.

The Phelps Dodge strike began July 1, 1983, and is the longest in copper industry history, surpassing an eight-month walkout in 1967-68.

Last year, six major companies, including Kennecott Corporation, negotiated new contracts with the United Steel Workers (USW) and other unions. The agreements froze wages for three years but still including cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) clauses and other major contract benefits.

Phelps Dodge, which said its union contracts forced higher labor costs than those of its competitors, balked at the industry settlement pattern. Its 2,500 workers in USW and 12 other unions walked out. Phelps Dodge immediately announced that it would continue operating and that strikers who failed to return to jobs would be replaced. Picket-line scuffling has forced amassing of large - and costly - protective forces of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

The USW complains that Phelps Dodge has refused to negotiate since January, despite the willingness of unions to seek a basis for settlement along lines of the industry pattern set in 1983. Phelps Dodge is standing firmly on its demands for an end to COLA, for cuts in employer-aid help, in benefits costs, and reductions in some wages.

Recently the dispute has become even angrier over Phelps Dodge moves to oust strikers from company housing in order to turn homes over to those who are working. An outbreak of violence in May brought 800 police and Arizona National Guardsmen to the Clifton-Morenci area to restore peace.

USW president Lynn Williams has accused Phelps Dodge of ''ruthless strikebreaking activities'' that have caused the corporation more than $63 million in losses since the strike began. Mr. Williams told the corporation's annual stockholders meeting in New York in May that ''claims that everything is rosy and your mines and plants are operating full swing are not correct.''

He also charged that the company is operating with ''professional strikebreakers and armed guards, reminiscent of the days when brute force was used to deny workers their rights.'' But strikebreakers supported the Phelps Dodge management position.

Encouraged by Phelps Dodge's apparent victory, Kennecott has warned its unions that if costs are not cut, more than 2,000 workers in its Utah copper division face possible layoffs beginning this month. Kennecott and other copper companies want to freeze COLA increases, as Phelps Dodge did last fall.

Heavy wage losses (for most strikers between $400 and $500 a week) and the lack of other employment in the isolated strike areas led to the mass return to work that began last fall.

One returned striker said he is ''as angry as ever '' but is feeding his family and paying his bills. ''I'm bad-mouthed by my union, but I'm still a trade unionist. There comes a time when you see the game is lost.''

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