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The Legacy of Arizona's Populist Movement

Here’s a test of your Arizona history.

Who wrote these words?

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not existed first.”

Sounds vaguely Marxist, doesn’t it.

How about this one from the same man.

The policies of the democrats and the republicans had divided the people “into two classes, …the pauper class…and the moneyed aristocracy.”

Ok, here’s a hint.

There’s a monument to this reform minded  populist in front of the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott.

If you haven’t guessed, the man who uttered those words about money and class, labor and capital was none other than William “Bucky” O’Neill.

The very same guy who was a Yavapai County Sheriff, judge, mayor, and one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

“Bucky was a free spirit," said David Berman. "He read a lot and he became an ardent populist and he thought the railroads were really ripping off the territory, they weren’t paying their taxes, they were being unfair to the workers, and so he became the first real populist, the first well-known populist in the territory at the time.”

David Bermanis Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Arizona State University.

And he’s just published Politics, Labor and the War on Big Business.

He says that back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mining, and railroad companies came to Arizona to take what they could.

And as a result, Berman says working and living conditions for labor suffered dramatically.

“These were worst industrial conditions were developing in Arizona at the time," he said. "So workers who used to be self-employed, entrepreneurs, are all of a sudden becoming what everybody would call a wage slave.”

And the wages mine workers did make often went right back to the company.

“Mining companies owned the homes and the hospitals and the stores," Berman said, "and in some place the miners were paid in tokens that they could only use in the company store, so that their wages were taken up by the high prices they had to pay for commodities.

And a few times, if the miners complained or tried to unionize, they were shipped out.

In Bisbee and Jerome hundreds of workers were rounded up by armed men, loaded into cattle cars and sent to neighboring states.

But organized labor did have a friend in Arizona.

That friend was none other than George W.P. Hunt, the state’s first and one of its longest serving governors.  

Berman says more than once Hunt showed up at strikes to support miners across Arizona.

"Hunt was up there in Clifton Morenci defending the striking miners who happened to be Hispanic," Berman said, "and he was governor then  and governors hadn’t done that hardly anywhere else. He called in the troops to keep the scabs out."

The American Federation of Labor praised what it called Hunt’s fearlessness.

Legendary labor leader Mother Jonesspoke at a Hunt re-election rally the next year.

But, Berman says, the mining and railroad companies started to get a clue.

They had been competitors, but came to realized their common enemy was Hunt.

Berman says corporations also bought the major newspapers.

Then World War I and the Russian Revolution came along.

Anyone who was even suspected of being a union sympathizer was considered anti-American…and Bolshevic

Berman says that as more farmers from the mid-west moved in, the state became more republican…

And when women got the vote, they tended to vote republican too.

But Hunt, O’Neill and the other populists left their mark.

They supported concepts of direct democracy like the initiative, the referendum and the recall vote.

They saw those powers as the way to counter a legislature they believed was bought by big business.

" Because with the initiative they could make their own laws and just bypass the legislature, and with the referendum, they could force whatever the legislature did to a vote of the people so they could reject it, and of course the recall was part of that too, and that was thought of a good way to get rid of those people before they did any more damage," Berman said.

And since Hunt served as President of the 1910 Constitutional Convention, those ideas found their way into the Arizona constitution. 

Berman says while those constitutional provisions were meant to protect citizens from the legislature, it also added an extra burden.

It meant voters had to pay attention to what their government was doing.

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