BAYARD – The southern New Mexico mining town of Santa Rita no longer exists, even as a ghost town, except in the memories of Terry Humble and others who lived there.
The ground beneath Santa Rita has been blasted, shoveled and trucked away over the last century to feed the world’s demand for copper, leaving a hole a mile-and-a-half wide and 1,500 feet deep.
In September, another vestige of Santa Rita disappeared when workers at the Chino Mine voted 236-83 to decertify a 72-year-old union celebrated for its heroic struggle to improve the lives of Hispanic miners and immortalized by the 1954 movie “Salt of the Earth.”
The Chino Mine, located about 12 miles east of Silver City, is among the world’s largest open-pit mines and still growing. Endless lines of huge Caterpillar trucks, each hauling 300 tons of copper ore and waste rock, grind slowly up steep inclines day and night. Some 960 workers continue to expand the massive hole.
All around are mountains of waste piles that dwarf many of the taller peaks in this rugged area.
When Humble, 73, returned to Santa Rita in 1963 after a hitch in the Navy, he realized that he needed to begin collecting photos and other evidence of his hometown before the growing pit swallowed it completely.
“That’s when I realized that Santa Rita was disappearing,” he said. “Better get what I could.”
Today, Humble and others are mourning the end of the labor union he joined in 1967 when he began work as a mechanic at the Chino Mine.
The Sept. 18 union election ended one of the nation’s most storied unions, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 890, commonly called Mine Mill Local 890.
The National Labor Relations Board certified the election results Sept. 30.
The union’s supporters say the move reflects a generational change by young miners who didn’t live through the struggles faced by their predecessors.
Improved mine safety and better wages played a role in declining union membership, said Humble, who co-authored a book, “Santa Rita del Cobre,” about the town and the mine.
In 1970, wages at Chino ranged from $24 a day for laborers to $32 a day for machinists, he said.
Hourly wages today at the Chino Mine range from $12.35 an hour for laborers to $23.20 an hour for a top mechanic, according to a three-year United Steelworkers contract negotiated in 2011. Wages are raised $1.50 an hour if copper prices exceed $2.75 a pound.
Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., which owns the Chino Mine, issued this statement: “We believe that safe and productive mining operations can continue to be achieved in the workplace without a union at Chino, where employees are compensated fairly, treated with dignity and respect, and work as a team in a positive work environment.”
“If you’ve got a safe environment and a good wage, you don’t need a union,” Humble said. “Let’s hope it lasts.”
A 1916 photo of the Grant County mining town of Santa Rita, east of Silver City. By 1970, the town had vanished to make way for the expanding open-pit Chino Mine.
‘Can’t believe it’s over’
The Chino Mine, the town of Santa Rita and the union all are tightly braided in Humble’s memories.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” he said recently, sitting on a folding chair in the 1940s-era union hall in Bayard, where Local 890 members held often-raucous meetings for seven decades.
“I had a feeling the union would be decertified sooner or later. But I did not think it would be this soon and not by such a large margin. I was very, very disappointed.”
In this hall in 1950, Local 890 members voted to strike for better pay and working conditions at an underground mine north of Bayard owned by the Empire Zinc Co.
When a court injunction barred miners from manning the picket line, union members voted to allow women to continue the strike, over the strenuous objections of some miners.
The 15-month action in 1950-52, called the Salt of the Earth strike, forced Empire Zinc to grant better pay and working conditions for the mine’s Hispanic workers.
The strike was dramatized in the 1954 film “Salt of the Earth,” which was made by blacklisted filmmakers and cast with men and women who participated in the strike. The movie starred Juan Chacón, who served several terms as president of Local 890 from 1953-74.
“That really was our civil rights movement, both for Hispanic women and men,” said Frances Gonzales, 49, whose father participated in the strike.
Gonzales said she grew up around the union hall, where she attended meetings at her father’s side. Murals memorializing the Salt of the Earth strike line the hall inside and out.
Salt of the Earth, both the strike and the movie, called attention to the dangerous and discriminatory conditions faced by Hispanic miners, both at the Chino Mine and the many underground mines that dotted the area.
“It helped us to cross that barrier, to be accepted by the Anglo people who lived here,” she said. “They started to realize that we were treated very badly and very differently. That’s when a lot of barriers, little by little, started going down.”
Local 890 led periodic strikes at the Chino Mine to put pressure on company leaders during contract talks, including a nine-month strike in 1967-68. Chacón often spoke for the union in news stories about the strikes.
Mine Mill Local 890 was largely a Hispanic union, said Humble, who was among a handful of Anglo members. For many years, Hispanics were barred from the mine’s craft unions and the more-desirable jobs they represented.
“There was a strong incentive for Hispanics to join Mine Mill,” he said. “It was a chance for them to have some solidarity and a voice.”
On the eve of the Sept. 18 union election, union leaders felt confident that they could fend off decertification, as they had in five previous elections from 1993 to 2004.
In most cases, union members had voted nearly 2-to-1 to remain unionized. In 1998, for example, members voted 333-172 to reject decertification.
Union leaders went door-to-door, handing out fliers and reminding members of the union’s heroic past.
“We had done a lot of house visiting,” said Ray Teran, a 40-year employee of the Chino Mine and chairman of United Steelworkers Local 9424-3, the successor to Mine Mill Local 890.
“We had a lot of people from out of state to help with organizing and helping people understand the difference between union and non-union.”
The results of the election, and the nearly 3-to-1 rejection of the union, stunned supporters.
“It’s just kind of hard to stomach,” Teran, 61, said in an interview at the union hall, located about three miles west of the Chino Mine.
Generational changes in attitudes toward unions help explain the results, he said. Most voting members were in their 20s and 30s, he said. Teran was one of only a half-dozen members who had worked at the mine 30 years or more.
“It’s the generation,” he said. “They have no sense for unionization. They weren’t around for the struggles that their grandparents and parents went through. They don’t realize the sacrifices that took place to get to where we are.”
Dwindling membership over the years took a toll on the union, Humble said.
At least 10 unions flourished at Grant County’s two copper mines in 1967 when Humble started work as a mechanic at the Chino Mine.
One after another since 1991, members voted to decertify unions for machinists, carpenters, boilermakers and other trade groups, he said.
At the Tyrone Mine, a second Grant County copper mine owned by Freeport-McMoRan southwest of Silver City, all three unions were decertified in 1994.
Local 890 had a membership of 560 in 1996. Its successor union had a membership of 343 last month when it was decertified.
Grant County’s mining workforce and union membership have fluctuated with the ups and downs in copper prices.
The Chino Mine’s closure in 2008-09 may have delivered the fatal blow to the union, Humble said.
In 2008, operations at Chino were curtailed and hundreds of miners laid off after copper prices dipped under $2 a pound. Union membership dwindled to just a couple of dozen while the mine was closed in 2008-09, he said.
Copper prices have since rebounded to just over $3 a pound. In October 2010, Freeport-McMoRan announced it was restarting mining operations in Grant County. Today, 960 work at Chino and 620 at Tyrone, the company said.
“Everybody that has been hired lately, in the last several years, are new hires – a lot of younger people who have no idea of the advantages or disadvantages of a union,” Humble said.
Many say money also played a role in the union’s defeat.
Teran and others contend that Freeport-McMoRan paid annual bonuses to workers at the non-union Tyrone Mine but not to Chino employees. Some miners believe they will get bonuses, and possibly pay raises, now that Chino is non-union, he said.
Freeport-McMoRan said in a written statement that the company does not publicly discuss employee compensation. The Journal left repeated telephone messages with Irving Shane Shores, who organized the petition that led to the decertification vote, but they were not returned.
Many area residents say they are relieved the mines have reopened, even if they may regret the death of the county’s last miners’ union.
“This area is lucky to have (the mines), otherwise there wouldn’t be an economy in this area,” said Esther Gil, a councilwoman in Hurley, where Chino copper was smelted until 2007.
Her husband belonged to a Chino Mine union until his retirement a decade ago.
“Younger people don’t feel the attachment to the unions or understand that unions served an important purpose in improving people’s lives,” she said.