The New Arizona

by Brendan Walsh

On November 15, over 500 people gathered at the Maricopa County Recorder’s office to celebrate the emergence of a New Arizona.  Young and largely Latino, the New Arizona is vibrant, energetic, forward-looking, and ambitious.  It gives the lie to stereotypes of the Grand Canyon State as a transient home to retirees and a refuge for right-wing conservatives.

The New Arizona, though, is not a “sleeping giant” awoken suddenly from slumber by the momentum of demographic changes in the Southwest.  Instead it is built on a tradition of little-remembered social movements of Arizona’s past–movements that were crushed by Arizona’s two dominant corporate interests and a government dedicated to serving those interests.

In 1917, for instance, Sheriff Henry Wheeler of Cochise County teamed with Phelps Dodge, the largest copper mining company in the Arizona, to form a posse of 2,200 armed men to break a strike by miners in Bisbee Arizona.  The Wheeler posse forcibly detained over 1,000 striking miners and citizen bystanders.  Loading them into boxcars inches deep in manure, Wheeler’s men deported the detainees to Hermanas, New Mexico, and left them there with no money and no food.  Appeals to state and national authorities did little to abate Wheeler’s vigilante tactics.  For decades, however, mining families in Southern Arizona continued to battle Phelps Dodge and the other mining corporations.  Earning a measure of dignity and decent living standards for their communities, they were the dominant force for Arizona’s working class until August of 1983, when Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt sent 325 National Guardsmen and 426 state troopers, armed with tanks and helicopters, to crush escalating miners’ strikes Clifton and Morenci.  “Operation Copper Nugget” was devastating:  not only did it break the strike, but it broke the backs of the unions at the center of the mine-working families’ movement

In the agriculture industry as well, immigrant workers came in droves to work as Arizona became one of the world’s largest midcentury producers of lettuce and other crops.  Farm-working families settled in communities across the state and began to seek their fair share of the American dream.  By 1972, with the California grape boycott settled, Arizona briefly became the heart of the national farmworkers movement, when Governor Jack Williams responded to organizing efforts in the state’s agricultural communities by signing a law making it illegal to picket, strike, or boycott during harvest season.  In response, Cesar Chavez initiated a 25-day “Fast of Love” (out of which the phrase “Si Se Puede” originated), while farmworkers and their allies collected 168,000 petition signatures in an ultimately-unsuccessful attempt to recall Williams.  Just two years later, though, a massive voter-registration drive among Latinos in Arizona led to the election of Raul Castro as Arizona’s first Latino Governor.  Still, with the decline of the UFW as an organizing force in Arizona’s Latino community, that election failed to ignite a lasting social movement among Latinos and working people in the state.

The New Arizona is a product of the third great industrial expansion in Arizona’s history–a housing boom that created the greatest population explosion in Arizona’s history.  Metropolitan Phoenix alone grew from 2.8 million residents in 1980 to 6.2 million in 2006.  As in the state’s two preceding booms, however, the economic rewards generated by that growth were far from evenly distributed among Arizona’s populations.  Indeed, of the 300,000 new jobs created in metropolitan Phoenix between 2000 and 2008, fully 100,000 were poverty or near-poverty jobs in construction, retail, transportation, food service, and custodial/mainteanance services.  Housing prices soared out of reach for working families, and anti-immigrant legislation began to hamper residents’ access to education and other public services.

Signs of a resurgent Latino/working families movement surfaced with the massive rallies for immigration reform in Phoenix during the spring of 2006, but with the economic collapse of 2008, and Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano’s departure for Washington in 2009, the arch-conservative Arizona government, led by Governor Jan Brewer, State Senate President Russell Pierce, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio unleashed an all-out attack on working people worthy of Sheriff Wheeler and Governor Williams.  Arpaio stepped up his workplace raids; SB1070 became a model for anti-immigrant legislation across the United States; the Arizona legislature referred an anti-affirmative action ballot measure to voters which was approved by a wide margin; and a slew of anti-union bills appeared on the legislature’s docket in the aftermath of the Wisconsin assault on workers’ rights to organize.

To the great surprise of many, however, this most recent wave of attacks on the efforts of new Arizonans–Mexican and intranational immigrants to the state who came here for boom-era job opportunities–has been met with unprecedented resolve by an emerging social movement.  That movement has not arisen spontaneously, as some would believe.  Rather, it is the result of painstaking movement-building undertaken by an emerging group of young leaders, between the ages of 15 and 45 (I say 45 to fit myself in under the wire!), who are all affiliated in one way or another with international service-worker’s unions, locally-rooted community organizations and national philanthropic foundations.

The first pillar of this movement is UFCW Local 99, Arizona’s largest private sector union.  Representing almost 20,000 workers–primarily grocery workers throughout the state–Local 99 has led the effort to maintain job standards for the state’s service workers while providing moral and material support to nearly every effort to promote Latino civic participation, racial justice, and workers’ rights in Arizona over the last several decades.

The second pillar of this movement is the One Arizona Roundtable.  One Arizona was convened in the aftermath of SB 1070 by Mi Familia Vota (a national Latino voter engagement organization backed by the Service Employees International Union), the We Are America Alliance, and a handful of local organizations.  And it has been sustained by generous and consistent funding from the Four Freedoms Fund and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, among a few other national funders. Today, One Arizona comprises more than a dozen locally-based organizations (one of them being CASE, for which I serve as Executive Director).  Since 2010, One Arizona organizations have registered more than 30,000 Latino voters, driven a 130% increase of Latinos on the state’s permanent vote-by mail list, increased Latino voting each election cycle, and trained a new cadre of political organizers in Arizona.

The third institutional pillar of the New Arizona movement is UNITE HERE.  Since 2007, UNITE HERE has been the undisputed leader of a political transformation of Phoenix, the sixth largest city in the United States.  UNITE HERE played a decisive role in electing the first two Latino City-Council members in Phoenix since 1991.  And those Council members have helped turn electoral victories into organizing opportunities (between 2008 and 2011, UNITE HERE grew from 25% to 75% union density in Downtown Phoenix, while growing to represent more than 1,000 Phoenix airport workers) and policy gains (working with community partners to secure an historic worker-retention requirement which has now become the norm in contracting at the City of Phoenix).

In 2012, UNITE HERE made its most ambitious intervention yet in Arizona politics, funding a campaign that recruited 2,000 high school volunteers who registered more than 34,000 primarily-Latino voters in an effort to unseat Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  While the “Adios Arpaio” campaign may have fallen short of that goal, it is clear that that the volunteers who served on that campaign feel like there is a new sheriff in town.

Only time will tell if the New Arizona will be able to withstand the kind of attacks that led to the demise of the movements that surged around the mine-working and farm-working families of Arizona’s first century.  If it has nearly the cultural effect though, that the farmworker’s movement had on the United States (see Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields for a great read on that subject), then those of us in Arizona today are surely living in the middle of a world-historic social and cultural event.

Brendan Walsh is a UNITE HERE! Organizer, Executive Director of CASE. His blog is Brendan Walsh: Views from the Ground in the Valley of the Sun,  where this post originally appeared. and  the views there are his own.

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One Response

  1. I think that it’s great that the public (regardless of ethnicity) can gather peacefully to have their voices heard.

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