Fired for His Pro-Union Stand, a Doctor Treats Strikers for Free in An Arizona Company Town
01/16/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
It's midmorning at the People's Clinic in Clifton, Ariz., a converted seed store filled with secondhand furniture and a noisy assemblage of sniffling, coughing children, pregnant women and an out-of-work copper miner who fractured his hand in a fit of rage. These people are the flotsam of twin traumas that have torn apart the company mining town: a bitter six-month strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation and a devastating flood in October that destroyed or damaged some 600 of the community's 1,800 homes. For the past 14 weeks men and women have trooped into the clinic at the rate of 35 to 40 a day to receive free medical care from Dr. Jorge O'Leary, 43. He was fired from his $50,000-a-year post as a physician at Phelps Dodge's Morenci Hospital (the only one in the county) for outspokenly supporting union members and urging the hospital to continue treating even those strikers who couldn't pay. Dependent upon donated medical supplies and working without a salary, Dr. O'Leary has vowed to continue his work, despite a bank account that has dwindled to nothing. "These people are still my patients," he explains. "How can I leave them?"
Strikes are nothing new in the gritty, smoke-filled, copper-mining towns of Clifton and neighboring Morenci, but the current dispute is the most bitter since 1917, when some 1,200 striking miners were herded into boxcars at gunpoint and deported to the desert in New Mexico. This time miners walked out when Phelps Dodge, which lost $78 million in the 18 months ending June 30, requested a three-year, company-wide wage freeze. Since then there have been numerous acts of violence against company property—burned railroad bridges, broken windows, bomb threats. The strike—and the company's hiring of nonunion workers at a lower pay rate—has deeply split families and neighbors. After the rampaging flood of the San Francisco River, many jobless miners and their families found themselves homeless and destitute as well. "People call us animals," says Mike Diaz, 42, a miner who was laid off some 15 months ago. "But when we were out there cleaning up from the flood, scabs were driving by waving dollar bills and check stubs out of car windows. One guy said, 'We've got your jobs, and now the river's got your homes.' "
O'Leary sided with the community's powerless. The son of a Yaqui Indian mother and an Irish father who ran one of Mexico's largest breweries, Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc, O'Leary earned his medical degree at the University of Mexico in 1967 and has been a U.S. citizen since 1980. He has served the largely Hispanic towns of Clifton and Morenci for 12 years, during which time he has delivered 2,500 babies and come to know virtually every family. Increasingly vocal in his charges that the company hospital was intimidating strikers and their families who needed medical attention but couldn't afford the $26 to $75 initial exam fee, O'Leary offered to treat patients free. Instead, despite his high professional reputation, he was fired on Oct. 7. Hospital administrators deny turning away patients. "Anyone who arrives at the hospital is going to be provided care," says Phelps Dodge personnel director Richard P. Boland. "Then we'll take care of the billing situation."
Strikers learning of O'Leary's dismissal were outraged. Fillmore Tallez, 34, a former Phelps Dodge manager who quit his position in disgust last August, says: "It was an absolutely blatant violation of his civil rights. The company thought that it could place loyalty to itself far above loyalty to humanity." Late last month the Labor-Management Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a report critical of Phelps Dodge's role in the strike. The subcommittee said it was "probable" that the company was prolonging the strike in order to bust the union. "Phelps Dodge, in attempting to force its will, has used its tremendous financial hold over the communities as a powerful weapon," the report said.
So far the People's Clinic has been scraping by, stocked with medical supplies donated by pharmaceutical companies, an examining table given by a Phoenix hospital and scales, bandages, medicine and instruments supplied by other facilities. O'Leary's existence is similarly precarious. He earns $400 a month as chief medical adviser to Greenlee County, plus an additional $125 a month as an Army Reserve officer, but his malpractice insurance alone costs $800 monthly. With no end of the strike in sight, Phelps Dodge has asked him to surrender his company-owned home. "It's a big hassle," he admits. "I have kids, and there are no houses left in Clifton." O'Leary's second wife, Anna, 29, and their six children (four his, two hers) remain solidly behind him. "I don't know what I was doing with my life before the strike," she says, "except being a housewife and buying groceries. All of a sudden you're standing up for your principles. I tell the kids, 'Take advantage that you're living with a very special dad.' "
As for O'Leary, financial destitution clearly takes second place to his populist spirit of resistance. "I feel rich," he says. "I feel free of belonging to a lousy company. I'm not worried about the economics. This is the most happy time of my life."