Labor, Community, and Culture in Montana's Smelter City
Awards and Recognition:
Winner of the Clark C. Spence Award, the Mining History Association, 2004.
Laurie Mercier's hard-hitting study of "community unionism" examines the tenacity of union loyalty and communal values within the confines of a one-industry town: Anaconda, Montana, home to the world's largest copper smelter and the namesake of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.
Mercier depicts the vibrant life of the smelter city at full steam, incorporating the candid, sometimes wry commentary of the locals ("the company furnished three pair of leather gloves . . . and all the arsenic [dust] you could eat"). She documents the early history of the town and the distinctive culture of cooperation and activism that residents fostered in the 1930s and 1940s. Ultimately, their solidarity and discontent with the company converged in the successful 1934 strike and sustained five decades of devoted unionism.
During the cold war years, Anacondans held to their communal values and to unions in the face of antilabor and anticommunist pressures, embracing an "alternative Americanism" that championed improved living standards for working people, rather than unlimited corporate power, as the best defense against communism. Mercier chronicles the bitter struggle between two rival unions--the anticommunist United Steelworkers of America and the red-tainted International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers--that undercut the town's labor solidarity in the postwar years. She also explores how gender definitions--especially the male breadwinner ideology and the limits placed on women's political, economic, and social roles--shaped the nature and outcome of labor struggles. Mercier carries her investigation through the closing of the smelter in 1980, covering debates over the environment and the community's transformation into a deindustrialized, nonunion town.
Underscoring the role of the community in molding working-class consciousness, Anaconda offers important insights about the changing nature of working-class culture and the real potential for collective action under the midday sun of American industrial capitalism.
"An important and evocative story of community unionism, the values of solidarity and mutual support, and the creative agency of men and women working together and, at times, against one another in making a living and a life. . . . The seamlessness with which Mercier weaves the tensions and possibilities of gender, class, ethnic and labor relations into the larger community story is particularly impressive."--Janet L. Finn, Oregon Historical Quarterly
"Mercier's Anaconda demonstrates the great potential of a community study- she respectfully probes the bonds and divisions of a vibrant town and in the process places Anaconda within a broader regional and national framework."--Journal of American History
"With painstaking attention to ethnic, gender, and class dynamics, and utilizing rich archival and oral history sources, Laurie Mercier has produced a finely written and richly excavated study of the century-long relationship between the powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) and the local working-class community it helped create."--Indiana Magazine of History
"In Laurie Mercier's Anaconda, the smelter city once called the ‘City of Whispers' rings with the voices of working people whose community unionism contested corporate control and whose memories challenge corporate history. Subtle, sophisticated, passionately human, Anaconda recasts in local textures the opposing claims of class, capital, and gender in the cold war West."--Elizabeth Jameson, author of All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek
"Anaconda is a splendid study of one of the most neglected topics in western history. In richly textured prose laced with the voices of dozens of Anacondans, Laurie Mercier reveals the intricate twinings of gender and class that enabled this working-class community to resist the conservative and confining ideologies of cold war America. This is a work that will help rewrite post-World War II western history."--Mary Murphy, author of Mining Cultures: Men, Women, and Leisure in Butte, 1914-41
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