Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1954

[ 17 ] March 14, 2014 |

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.

For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.

The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.


For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.

This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

To the Shores of Iwo Jima

[ 64 ] March 13, 2014 |

The U.S. military’s use of film during World War II was remarkable. The bravery of the cameramen, risking and often losing their lives, in taking this footage is amazing. Of course, it took good direction to turn unbelievable footage into a good film. In The Battle of San Pietro, John Huston did that. To the Shores of Iwo Jima definitely fails in that task. Plus it’s racist and jingoistic when the former was smart and focused on the soldiers’ lives. But regardless of its shortcomings, the footage here is jaw-dropping.

The Bancroft Prize

[ 34 ] March 13, 2014 |

Columbia University named the 2014 winners for the Bancroft Prize today, which is the most prestigious prize in the field of U.S. history. This year’s winners are both close to LGM’s heart. One winner was Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, which Scott reviewed here. The other winner is Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre. We can all agree that Ari’s podcast he did with me for the book pushed him over the top.

I confess to not reading Fear Itself yet as I am insanely busy. But certainly Scott’s recommendation speaks highly of it. I have of course read A Misplaced Massacre and obviously you need to buy it if you have not.

Does AFGE Officially Support the Death Penalty?

[ 88 ] March 13, 2014 |

The American Federation of Government Employees released an interesting press release today:

The American Federation of Government Employees today expressed its profound disappointment regarding a plea deal that will allow one of two inmates charged with killing a correctional officer in 2008 to escape the death penalty.

The case involves Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old correctional officer and Navy veteran, who was stabbed to death while working at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California. Two inmates were charged in the murder: James Ninete Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan.

Leon Guerrero agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, under a plea bargain approved by Attorney General Eric Holder and made public by the Justice Department on March 7. Sablan will be tried and could face the death sentence if convicted.

“Jose Rivera was simply doing his job as a civil service employee when his life came to a violent and tragic end. On behalf of Jose and all the other federal employees who have lost their lives in the line of service, we must ensure that justice is done,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.

“Regardless of who did the stabbing, both men are responsible for taking Jose’s life and both should be prosecuted,” CPL Western Regional Vice President Michael Meserve said. “That’s not going to happen now, and it’s a bitter pill for the family to swallow.”

Meserve added, “Leon Guerrero pleading guilty in exchange for a life sentence he was already serving is meaningless and an insult to Jose’s memory. Jose didn’t get the choice between life and death, and neither should his killers.”

Donald Martin, president of AFGE Local 1242 at Atwater, echoed Meserve’s sentiments.

“I believe that both men deserve the ultimate punishment our society can administer, and that is death. Granting a reprieve to one of Jose’s killers is an injustice to Jose and his family, and it lets down all law enforcement officers who place their lives in harm’s way every day to protect the innocent,” Martin said. “God bless Jose’s family, and may we never forget the sacrifice of their beloved son and our beloved brother.”

The AFGE is not a correctional workers union or a police union. It is a government employee union with 650,000 members in many different fields. It does represent many correctional officers at federal prisons. It also represents environmental workers, mine inspectors, nurses, office workers, and many other government workers. So is supporting the death penalty the official policy of the American Federation of Government Employees? Does its membership know it has taken this position? Has the membership had a discussion over this issue? The union certainly doesn’t list supporting the death penalty as a key issue on its website.

What’s really going on here (I think) is that the prison locals are pushing the leadership to make a statement here, but it really feels inappropriate. It’d be one thing for the union to call for the prosecution of this person for killing a member. But to make a statement because one of the people on trial didn’t get the sentence you wanted and therefore demand the most controversial sentence in American jurisprudence, well, I’m not sure AFGE is really representing its members as a whole by making this call.

I know that if I was an AFGE member, I’d be asking some questions of my leadership.


[ 182 ] March 13, 2014 |

I look forward to Republicans discovering the interstates are a socialist program and thus Interstate 5 Brought to You by Microsoft can be a pothole-ridden road that would make no nation proud:

“Socialism, defined on Wikipedia, ‘is a social and economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy,'” state Rep. Andrew Brenner (R ) wrote in a post published Mar. 3 on Brenner Brief News, a website founded and edited by his wife. “That seems to summarize our primary education system. Public education in America is socialism.”

Brenner serves as vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee.

In the post, titled “Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution?,” Brenner laid out his argument. He noted that the Tea Party, which “will attack Obama-care relentlessly as a socialist system,” rarely brings up “the fact that our public education system is already a socialist system[…] and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” He addressed teachers unions — “an outgrowth of our socialistic education system” — which he granted originally improved things “temporarily” before they ultimately “became bureaucratic and they started to take the place of school boards and school management.”

Job Market Strategies

[ 22 ] March 13, 2014 |

For some of these women, this will probably be the most lucrative work their Ph.D. will ever get them.

Meatpacking, Immigration, and Capital Mobility

[ 175 ] March 12, 2014 |

In comments last night, dollared said this about the decline of unionized meatpacking:

Allowing free immigration and mass union busting by illegal aliens. Never, ever, ever should have happened. 800,000-1M union jobs lost in meatpacking. Bill Clinton.

Now I don’t want to pick on dollared except for his demonizing of migrant labor through describing human beings as “illegal aliens,” which he has an unfortunate tendency to do and then claim those who call him out on it “don’t give a shit” about the American working class. Rather I want to use this comment as a way to understand how corporations use capital mobility as a way to bust unions while concealing the real reasons for job loss behind blaming immigrants (or environmentalists or many other scapegoats). I talk about meatpacking for a couple of pages in my forthcoming capital mobility book. Let’s look real fast at why those union jobs were lost in meatpacking and who is to blame. I’m basing a lot of this off Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, which you should read.

Most readers here probably have some sense of the early history of American meatpacking, thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair wrote his novel to expose the terrible lives of workers and convert readers to socialism. But Americans mostly ignored those messages. Workers stood on floors soaked in blood and water in very cold temperatures, with flying hooks and knives risking their limbs and lives every second. They began forming unions in the 1890s to improve their lives but it was not until the creation of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1937 that they achieved major gains in pay and working conditions. Organized labor increasingly played a big role throughout the nation’s food economy in the 1930s. UPWA members cut beef in Chicago. Milkmen delivering glass jars of fresh milk to your doorstep were Teamsters. The conditions that led Sinclair to write his novel faded. The UPWA was one of the nation’s most progressive unions. It worked for racial and gender equality and had a strong tradition of internal union democracy. By the 1960s, unionized meat cutters made twenty-eight percent more money than average workers made for nondurable manufacturing.

While meatpackers came to terms with the UPWA, for trucking companies, grocery store chains, and the Republican Party however, unionization and good wages were a bad outcome. Here starts the recent history of capital mobility in food production. A 1955 union contract won by the meatpacker unions put a collective $50 million dollars in workers pockets. This frustrated Eisenhower Administration officials who faced heat over high beef prices. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and his undersecretary Earl Butz, who later created the modern farm subsidy system, wanted to raise farm profits without raising consumer costs. The answer was to undermine unions and squeeze wages through moving meat production out of the cities and into nonunion plants in the countryside, near where the cows and pigs were farmed.

New upstart meatpackers, with the support of trucking and grocery chains who profited from cheaper meat, introduced refrigerated trucks that allowed meat processing in union-free rural areas. This undermined the big Chicago packinghouses and their unions. The new rural corporations had ruthless anti-union mentalities. Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) became a leading meatpacker in the 1960s. Today part of Tyson Foods, IBP rapidly consolidated the rural meatpacking operations in the Midwest, built enormous feedlot operations on the Great Plains, and created nonunion workplaces with low wages. In 1969, IBP workers in Dakota City, Iowa went on strike. IBP hired scabs to replace them. Violence broke out on both sides and one person was killed. When union butchers in New York City refused to sell IBP beef, the company made a deal with the mafia to break the boycott, undermining the strike. Wages were soon fifty percent lower than in the Chicago plants. The big meatpackers could not compete, closed their unionized slaughterhouses, laid off 12,000 workers, and moved to the Plains as well. Further IBP hardline anti-union strategies led to the rapid weakening of what was now the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The new geography of meatpacking, with its decentralized production, low wages, and poor working conditions meant that farmers earned more money and consumers maintained low beef prices. Workers were caught in the middle, people never seen by meat consumers. Nonunion factories demanded vastly increased production from workers. Fatigue, repetitive motion injuries, serious accidents on the job, and high turnover followed. One IBP manager considered an average annual turnover rate of 96% at a plant “low,” showing how little the corporation cared to provide labor dignified enough work to keep them on the job.

Companies might not have wanted unions, but many in the new rural workforce did. The UFCW had major successes organizing southern poultry factories during the 1980s. Poultry truck drivers joined the Teamsters in North Carolina. The largely African-American workforce in these plants took major personal risks to improve the low wages and unsafe working conditions. Companies responded by closing unionized factories and opening new non-union plants nearby, threatening new hires into signing union decertification petitions, and declaring bankruptcy and then reopening the plants without union contracts. They also began replacing African-American workers with immigrants from Mexico and Central America, often undocumented. Beef plants in Iowa and Nebraska did the same thing after workers went on strike in the 1980s. An Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation led to 1991 accusations that Tyson Chicken paid smugglers to bring employees up to their plants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most unionized plants faded in the face of this determined effort.

In other words, Republicans, trucking companies, and anti-union rural business interests teamed up to reshape the beef industry for each group’s political gains. That forced Hormel and other big meatpackers to do the same to compete. Each were more than willing to sacrifice the American working class to make this happen. Capital mobility was the tool to see this project through. Yes, if the borders are closed to migrant labor, the new anti-union meatpackers have a harder time treating labor poorly, but they were determined to find a way to do this anyway. In any case, undocumented migrants are hardly to blame for the situation. Yet dollared, like so many people, first points to the workers forced to take jobs in this new system as the problem, not the underlying causes of why these factories moved. IBP, Tyson, and other meat companies covered up their own culpability through creating the same kind of scapegoating of migrant labor that has separated the American working class since the arrival of the Irish in the early 19th century.

And let’s note, if a president deserves blame for this situation, it isn’t Clinton, as dollared claims. It’s Eisenhower. That isn’t to say that Clinton did enough on this issue, but it’s important to place blame where it most properly belongs.

Overtime Pay by Executive Order

[ 109 ] March 11, 2014 |

Some of our more third party oriented commenters like to say that Obama has done nothing for workers. Well….

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

Psychiatry in Russia

[ 3 ] March 11, 2014 |

I am no expert on psychiatry. I do however have a great interest in American visions of the Soviet Union. Albert Maysles’ 1955 film “Psychiatry in Russia” is a pretty interesting entry in that category.


A Message to Rahm

[ 33 ] March 11, 2014 |

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan of spoken word performance art. I am however a fan of grassroots protests against Rahm Emanuel and his policies of making the poor poorer and the rich richer.


[ 23 ] March 10, 2014 |

I suppose tonight’s all-nighter pulled by Senate Democrats on climate change is a good thing but it also shows the limits of political theater because really, who cares. Which is a good argument as well against spoken filibusters. Everyone just waits for them to be done, forgets about it, and moves on.

New American Manufacturing and the Crushing of the American Working Class

[ 106 ] March 10, 2014 |

Lydia DePillis has a typically great story on conditions within the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. Nissan now subcontracts a majority of its employees. Those employees make half as much money as Nissan employees doing the same work and do not qualify for benefits. Workers are forced to toil seven days a week during periods of peak production and are so tired they crash their cars on the way home.

What’s really happened here is that decades of capital mobility has undermined American unions to the point of inability to resist these problems. The methods companies use in their factories in the world’s poor nations to maximize profit and minimize liability are imported back to the United States, bringing working conditions in the United States down towards those of Mexico, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Even the talk of unionism brings out the specter of capital mobility as a threat. Says Mike Sparks, who represents Smyrna in the Tennessee legislature, “If UAW gets a foothold, they’ll go to Alabama, they’ll go to Georgia, they’ll go to Mississippi.”

Once again, capital mobility is the single biggest factor in the undermining of the American working class because not only does it lead to jobs disappearing, but what jobs are left (or return) are worse because capital mobility also sabotages the institutions American workers created to fight for equity and a fair slice of the capitalist pie. Without some restriction on capital mobility, becomes nearly impossible for industrial workers to unionize and without those unions, it becomes nearly impossible to enact legislation that would improve the lives of the American working class. It’s a terrible situation and it isn’t getting better.

Page 109 of 313« First...102030...107108109110111...120130140...Last »