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18 September 2018updated 06 Sep 2021 3:09pm

In 1917, corporate America deported more than 1,000 striking miners. Have we learned anything from Bisbee?

1,186 men, women and children linked to a strike by the Industrial Workers of the World were loaded onto trains from Bisbee, Arizona under armed guard.

By AndrAc Naffis-Sahely

On July 12 of this year, I attended the 101st commemoration of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, held in the city’s Evergreen cemetery, where some of the deportees are buried.

There were roughly thirty people in attendance, most were local residents, and Mike, the last member of the labour union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), left in town, led the memorial service. As we wound our way around the graves, Mike painted a moving portrait of the miserable lives led by those buried there.

Many belonged to Bisbee’s sizable Serbian community, while others were Americans, Mexicans, or immigrants from various other parts of Europe. Mike planted IWW memorial flags emblazoned with the words “’WE NEVER FORGET”, tears were shed, the histories retold.

This is what happened. On July 11, 1917, executives of the Phelps Dodge corporation, which ran the copper mines and border town of Bisbee, Arizona, like a medieval fief, colluded with Harry Wheeler, the local Sheriff, to deport over a thousand miners who had been on a peaceful week-long strike for better working conditions.

Bolshevik-inspired paranoia was in the air and, facing a sharp drop in copper prices, Phelps Dodge executives decided to break the strike by any means necessary. Their plan was ruthlessly ambitious: roughly an eighth of Bisbee’s population was to be exiled in a single morning.

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In order to arrange this mammoth expulsion, the Sheriff deputised two thousand local gunmenfrom the surrounding areas of Cochise County, gave them white armbands and weapons and unleashed them on the unsuspecting miners. The El Paso and Southwestern Railroad provided a dozen cattle cars for the operation, and following six hours of mayhem, from early morning to noon, 1,186 men, women and children were loaded onto trains under armed guard and sent to Hermanas, New Mexico, two hundred miles to the east.

To suppress all news of the deportation, Bisbee was placed under a communications lockdown: the telegraph office was seized by the Sheriff’s thugs, who also erectedcheckpoints on all roads leading in or out. Although lists of names had been handed out to the posse, many of the deportees didn’t belong to the IWW. Some were innocent bystanders, others were business owners who sympathized with the miners.

As Fred Watson, one of the deported IWW members (known colloquially as Wobblies) later recalled, “You either put a white rag around your arm, or you left town.”

Towards the end of our tour around Evergreen cemetery, a tale of two brothers stood out and we heard their story from their descendants. Their headstones, erected only a year before, a few paces away from one another, read: “Edward Leslie Cooke (1888–1948), Archie Wesley Cooke (1890–1949); brothers, separated July 1917, re-united July 2017”.

On that day in July 1917, Edward, a Phelps Dodge man, had joined Wheeler’s posse explicitly to arrest his younger brother Archie and thus spare him a beating, given that many of the Sheriff’s gunslingers used the roundup as an excuse to harm and loot. It had been an act of brotherly love, Edward’s granddaughter Sue Ray said, one all the more tragic since Archie wasn’t even a member of the IWW; he was simply a miner who believed in his right to struggle for better conditions.

Two of Edward’s great-grandsons, one of whom was present at the commemoration, played the roles of Archie and Edward in Robert Greene’s nonfiction feature film Bisbee ‘17, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and which was released in the US on September 5.

Bisbee ‘17 is built on a simple, but effective premise. Greene begins his journey in the present day, interviewing local residents, some of whom are aware of the Deportation and others who are completely oblivious. The presence of Greene’s film crew in Bisbee not only stirs repressed memories, but it also begins to blur the lines between 1917 and 2017, thereby producing a portrait of the “Queen of the Copper Camps” – Bisbee’s informal nickname – from its glory days as a mining town to its present situation: a tourist attraction that doubles up as a liberal stronghold in an increasingly conservative state.

As Greene himself stated in a recent interview: “The entire film takes place in 2017 … Once the people realized the severe relevance of the story, it became something else and took on a life of its own.”

It is difficult to overstate Bisbee ‘17’s importance given that the Deportation hasn’t left much of a mark on America’s political and artistic discourse. Aside from Greene’s film, only a single poem survives to tell that tragic tale. It was composed by a Wobbly on the second anniversary of the events, in 1919:

“We are waiting, brother, waiting / Tho the night be dark and long” the poem begins, before detailing the experience of that terrible day, “we were herded into cars / And it seemed our lungs were bursting / With the odor of the Yards. / Floors were inches deep in refuse / Left there from the Western herds. / Good enough for miners. Damn them. / May they soon be food for birds.”

As our tour of Evergreen that morning informed us, while some of the deportees returned to Bisbee and picked up where they’d left off, many instead moved elsewhere, never to see their homes again.


Despite the century separating us from those events, the tension inspired by the unresolved crimes of that day resonated around us,which was unsurprising given the present US administration’s knack for labelling its critics either “un-American” or “treasonous”, or both. Since labour activists have been painted as utterly anathema to the American mindset since the days of the Republic’s founding, it is only logical that anyone involved in repressing such activists was considered both a patriot and afforded greater protection from the law.

Although Harry Wheeler and a dozen of his Phelps Dodge paymasters were later indicted on kidnapping charges by the federal government, the Supreme Court ultimately decided Washington had no right to interfere and referred the matter back to the state of Arizona in the 1920 ruling United States v. Wheeler, since kidnapping wasn’t a federal crime at the time.

When questioned by Arizona’s Attorney General as to the legality of his actions, Sheriff Wheeler replied that it had nothing to do with the law, but rather with whether the striking miners were “American, or not.” As Wheeler told the Attorney General: “I would repeat the operation any time I find my own people endangered by a mob composed of eighty percent aliens and enemies of my Government.”

None of those involved were ever imprisoned for their actions, and Phelps Dodge’s rule over Bisbee actually tightened. Deportees who returned were denied work, while the unions were effectively shut out of mining operations. Further underscoring the company’s influence, all talk of the deportation was squashed until the 1980s, when most mining operations ceased, as many attendees at the commemoration recalled.

Nevertheless, Sheriff Wheeler’s reasoning that anyone dangerous enough to strike was not only an “enemy” of the US government, but also un-American, was emblematic of how conservatives have successfully painted labour reform and its proponents as foreign cancers needing to be excised.

Only foreigners, after all, could fail to see that the America before them was ripe for the taking, so long as one pulled one’s socks up and endured one’s tribulations in silence. As such, anyone who didn’t accept this myth and thus become American would forever remain an alien, and therefore unwanted. This is why the outrages of the Bisbee Deportation, the first Red Scare and the Palmer raids were largely condoned by American society.

From this perspective, a similar but more widely-known event, the anarchist Emma Goldman’s deportation to Russia aboard the USS Buford on December 21, 1919, was also seen as eminently justifiable. Like the Bisbee strikers, Goldman had dared to question the validity of the American Dream, and despite her thirty-four years in the US, her belief that the Dream was nothing more than a pyramid scheme, made it clear that she was still a foreigner.

The supposed foreignness of her political beliefs therefore came to justify, in the eyes of conservatives, her denaturalization and exile.


The unfortunate endurance of this reactionary myth might help explain the hatred and violence leveled against the IWW in the US throughout the early twentieth century. After all, as Stewart Holbrook once put it, the IWW were the “most American labour group” the country had ever known. They had a knack for turning true-blue stiffs into sympathizers.

Unlike their comrades on the left, the IWW truly embodied the Spirit of 1776: they were truculent, practical, and innately suspicious of politics. As far as the IWW were concerned, the robber barons who signed their paychecks were no different to the English oppressors booted out of the colonies by Washington’s militias.

No one, for instance, could question the Americanness of the IWW’s earliest and most famous leader, Bill Haywood, or “Big Bill”. The plain-speaking, six-foot tall son of a Pony Express rider, Haywood had worked as a cowboy and miner before being chosen to lead the Wobblies in the summer of 1905.

Kidnapped in Colorado not long after his election to stand trial for the murder of Idaho’s governor – a crime he clearly didn’t commit – Haywood’s eventual exoneration prompted Theodore Roosevelt to claim Haywood and his friends were nevertheless “undesirable citizens”. As was the case in Bisbee in 1917, industrial bosses and law enforcement all over the US began to work in cahoots, and one by one, IWW organizers were beaten, maimed and killed. Almost needless to say, no justice was ever served.

As I left Bisbee that evening, the sight of several border patrol checkpoints on the roads leading north out of town provided an eerie reminder not only of Trump’s recent caging of children, but of the fact that while the Bisbee Deportation was unsupported at the state or federal level, its methodology nevertheless entered the bloodstream of American politics.

The Deportation’s spirit lived on in the Mexican Repatriation (1929–1936), when millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, unfairly blamed for the Great Depression, were ejected from the US, and even in the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

The premiere of Robert Greene’s film in Bisbee took place only two weeks after the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision on June 27. Reversing decades of previous rulings, the Janus case essentially castrated unions’ funding by undermining the principle of collective bargaining, meaning that while union members can now profit from increased wages or benefits achieved by their unions thanks to collective bargaining, they no longer have to pay their fair share towards that struggle.

Many of the labor movement’s future battles may well be decided in the courts and given the Supreme Court’s recent tilting to the right, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), among others, plans to campaign against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Let us hope they prevail.

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