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May Day: Arizona Teachers Have Resistance History on Their Side

Today's teachers are calling out the same issues of unfair wages and tax giveaways to corporations that gave rise to Arizona statehood a century ago

Arizona teachers march toward the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. Teachers state-wide staged a walkout strike on Thursday in support of better wages and state funding for public schools. (Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Now in their fourth day on the picket line, the striking Arizona teachers are following a century-old labor tradition that galvanized the founding of the state in 1912 and constitutionally required the legislature to adequately fund education.   

Arizona's first governor George W. P. Hunt oversaw a mile-long parade in Phoenix for the state's kickoff inauguration in 1912, marching along with patriotic tunes and ragtime airs. “Arizona is progressive,” he told the crowd, in a shout-out to the labor movement. 

Taking to the same Phoenix streets, an estimated fifty thousand striking teachers in Arizona revived this history lesson last week for Gov. Doug Ducey, demanding a restoration of education funding, a 20% raise in teacher wages, and a reversal of three decades of excessive corporate tax cuts and failed tax policies that have left Arizona education coffers in the bottom ranks of per-pupil student funding.  

Today's teachers are calling out the same issues of unfair wages and tax giveaways to corporations that gave rise to Arizona statehood a century ago.  

A new Invest in Education ballot initiative, in fact, was launched by educators and supporters on Friday, calling for an increase in the income tax rate by by 4.46 percent for individual income above $500,000 and household incomes above $1 million or 3.46 percent on individual incomes above $250,000 or household incomes higher than $500,000, to restore education budgets.

Over the past decade, Arizona has ranked anywhere from 46th to 49th in teacher salaries and per pupil funding nationally.  Last year, Ducey and his Republican-dominated legislature passed a 30% reduction in corporate tax rate. 

Hunt actually warned his fellow Arizonans that a similar showdown was taking place in their state last century. “The working class, plus the professional class, represent 99 percent,” Hunt said in 1916, speaking at a copper mining camp in rural Arizona. “The remaining 1 percent is represented by those who make a business of employing capital.” As Hunt put it, “It will be a happy day for the nation when the corporations shall be excluded from political activity and vast accumulations of capital cannot be employed in an attempt to control government.”

Arizona's first and defining major labor rebellion that launched its statehood campaign was “Mexican made” in 1903, as pioneering historian Rodolfo Acuña noted, along with the involvement of immigrant laborers. 

Within forty-eight hours of a new eight-hour workday law in 1903, copper miners in Clifton-Morenci, Arizona walked out of the pits and launched a strike. Their demand: daily wages should not have been reduced. 

As unions like the Western Federation of Miners watched from the sidelines, the immigrant miners defied the copper company guards, and then stood up to the detachment of armed Arizona Rangers. President Theodore Roosevelt eventually sent in the US Cavalry—more than 230 soldiers—and National Guardsmen as reinforcements in what was emerging as the largest armed showdown in the West in years. 

Although it would take more than a decade to see real unity among the miners, the strike in the Clifton-Morenci camps challenged a new era of critical labor activity and eventual statehood in 1912.

By the summer of 1910, unionized miners had joined with the trade and crafts unions (such as carpenters, blacksmiths, typographers, and railroad workers) and founded the Labor Party to agitate specifically for a more progressive state constitution.

Samuel Gompers, the legendary head of the American Federation of Labor, set the scene in Arizona: 

For a generation Arizona has been at the mercy of Federal Judges, Governors, and office holders, appointed from Washington at the dictation of the railroads and mining interests. The people were helpless and knew it. They were mercilessly exploited by Big Business— literally robbed—(there is no other word), political corruption was an accepted thing; the corporations ruled and the development of the Territory was impeded. With the chance to make a constitution and gain self-government through Statehood the hour of opportunity struck for the people.

Far from being removed from the rest of the country, Arizona’s labor movement served in the vanguard of the populist crusade of progressive Democrats like William Jennings Bryan, whose longtime tirades against the undue influence of railroad barons and corporations underlined his 1908 presidential campaign slogan—“Shall the People Rule.” 

A former miner and mercantile company owner, Hunt was elected as a Democrat to the territorial legislature in 1892, and quickly saw that “controlling influence” was in the hands of the railroads and the mining industries. “His defiance of money and the money interests,” historian Frank Lockwood noted, “his detestation of snobbery and pretension, whether social or intellectual; his big-hearted humanity and his extraordinary intellectual shrewdness and political foresight, have made him the trust champion and advocate of the people and the scourge of the unjust, the dishonest, and the autocratic.” 

In an essay that would resonate a century later, he drew the dividing line over democracy:

It is, regrettably, a fact that the same small, but powerful, coterie of capitalists, which has wrought havoc among the workers of certain other states, which greedily forced wages downward to a minimum far below the point of subsistence, and which—not content with doing that—thrust several millions of children into unsanitary mills and factories—all for the glory of the almighty dollar—is undoubtedly laying its plans to gain control of every function of government in the state of Arizona.

In an unprecedented campaign of union hall meetings, rallies, and effective pamphleteering, the Labor Party advocates framed the narrative of the constitutional debate in the largest mining towns—the de facto capitals of labor—and managed to get Democratic candidates to pledge to their pro-labor platform. More than 80 percent of the delegates heading to the convention joined Hunt, a rotund and bald politician nicknamed “The Walrus” for his imposing mustache, in the pro-labor camp.

On February 9, 1911, the convention ratified arguably the most progressive (and shortest) state constitution at the time by a three-to-one margin. “These things should commend it,” the Labor Party declared, referring to the un-abashedly radical planks, “to all those who believe with Lincoln that labor is superior to capital and that people are more important than property.”

In light of the looming national battle over ratification, including a controversial recall amendment, Gompers placed Arizona within the historical legacy of the nation’s forefathers:

If you have a picture of “Signing the Declaration” on your library walls, you should have a copy of the Arizona constitution on the shelves.

"The people of Arizona have adopted a constitution which is intended to restore to the people of that State all of the powers of government and to put it out of the power of special interests," declared Oklahoma Sen. Robert L. Owen.

That groundbreaking constitution matters today. 
 
As Tucson attorney Vince Rabago noted in a Facebook post last week, today's teacher strike "boils down to two simple points: the Governor and the GOP legislature continue to refuse to adequately public education as required by the Arizona Constitution, and they are violating the Arizona Constitution by their refusal to raise revenues for public education by way of taxation."
 
Article 11, Section 10 in the state constitution declares: "...the legislature shall make such appropriations, to be met by taxation, as shall insure the proper maintenance of all state educational institutions, and shall make such special appropriations as shall provide for their development and improvement."
 
“Many statehood campaigns,” noted the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, “seemed hopeless,” but in the end, Arizona had contributed to the education of “our neighbors of the East, regarding the resources of Arizona and the character of its people.”
 
Let's hope that education continues today in Arizona and across the nation.

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