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50 Years Ago: Dignitaries attend Fairchild opening

The Fairchild era began this week a half-century ago and the Navajo Times apparently considered it so important that the story took up almost the entire front page and was still continued inside.

The plant manufactured semi-conductors for the military and was probably the biggest accomplishment of Raymond Nakai during his eight years in office. It was something he would bring up every time he would run for chairman during the 1970s.

In his article, Dick Hardwick, editor of the Times, called the $1.1 million project “a proud monument of the Navajo people.” Among those who attended the special opening ceremony were Julie Eisenhower, daughter of President Richard Nixon and her husband, David, grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower. They were there representing Nixon.

Hardwick must have been a little smitten with Nixon’s daughter since he said in the article she was “much prettier than anyone had been led to believe.”

The commissioner of Indian affairs was there as well as a senator and a congressman. The tribe had renovated a warehouse in Shiprock for which Fairchild was paying the tribe $6,000 a month as a lease payment. On opening day, it employed 1,200 men and women, most of them Navajo.

The tribe gave the Eisenhowers an expensive Navajo blanket, which Julie said the family needed because her father had recently taken their only other rug with him when he was named ambassador to Belgium. There were a lot of speeches, most of which praised Nakai for his efforts to get the plant and Fairchild for coming to the reservation.

There was one thing everyone agreed upon: Fairchild would be providing jobs for Navajos for a long time. And that is what happened as long as you think five and a half years is a long time.

The reality of the situation didn’t take long to become public. Just a couple of years after opening their operation on the reservation came reports that something was going on at the Shiprock plant. Navajos who worked at the plant were reporting that people were getting fired at a higher rate than expected and for frivolous reasons – missing work because of an illness or getting to work late because of bad weather.

It soon became obvious what Fairchild was doing. As part of their deal with the Navajos, the tribe was supposed to use federal funds to pay for the training of workers at the plant. This resulted in a lot of savings for the company. But once training was over, the burden of paying for the employees fell to the employer and Fairchild resolved that problem by simply finding a reason, any reason, to fire the person so he or she could be replaced by someone in training. And those who managed to keep their jobs complained of not getting any raises and being stuck with minimum wages.

Tribal officials heard the complaints and the tribe’s labor office began an official investigation in late 1974. But before that investigation concluded members of the American Indian Movement stepped in and, in February 1975, they took over the plant. The takeover lasted eight days with Fairchild refusing to negotiate with AIM.

Tribal officials, who at first kind of supported the takeover, soon realized that it was destroying efforts by the tribal government to get outside companies to set up operations on the Navajo Reservation. After all, what company would consider the reservation as a viable site if there was a possibility of an armed takeover if employees felt that they were being mistreated by the company?

The Shiprock community also supported the takeover in its early stages. But after five days, reports began circulating that the company had decided it was just going to close the plant and set up operations elsewhere.

What AIM didn’t realize was that the company was looking for an excuse to close the plant because they realized that they could make far more money by taking the operation overseas where they could get really cheap labor.

Tribal police eventually took back the plant. Those involved in the takeover were never punished and if they were it amounted to nothing more than a slap on the wrist. It would take the tribe more than 25 years to get someone to set up operations in the plant and economic development officials reported the takeover made it impossible to attract new businesses to come to the reservation.

In another matter, the Times informed its readers of a method used by past generations of Navajos to grow hair: “Cut small place in wild grapevine in the spring. Catch the grape juice as it drips from the vine. Very good way to grow hair and keep it.”



About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.