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.
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