Monday, October 17, 2022

The True Story Behind the Classic Labor Film Salt of the Earth

In reel life and in real life--women were the heroes of the mid-20th Century Southwestern mine strike made famous in the film Salt of the Earth.

When workers went on strike against the Empire Zinc Corporation in Grant County, New Mexico on October 17, 1950 it may have seemed like just another action in almost 60 years of struggle by hard rock miners and allied workers in the West.  But the bitter strike, which dragged on for 14 more months took place against a backdrop of anti-communist hysteria, government suppression, racism, and gender discrimination would likely be forgotten today except that it was documented in a classic film that had its own epic battle to see the light of day.

Almost everyone called the strikers Mexicans and continue to do so to this day, even in histories sympathetic to the workers.  In fact, although most were Spanish speaking, few had immigrated.  By in large they belonged to communities that had lived in New Mexico from colonial days.  In the film Salt of the Earth based on the strike the narrator, based on a striker’s wife, put it this way: 

...I am a miner’s wife. This is our home. The house is not ours. But the flowers... the flowers are ours. This is my village. When I was a child, it was called San Marcos. The Anglos changed the name to Zinc Town. Zinc Town, New Mexico, U.S.A. Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft…

The name of the real town was Silver City, named after an early mining boom.  The workers were members of the United Mine, Mill, and Smelt Workers, commonly called simply Mine and Mill.  The union was founded in 1893 as the Western Federation of Miners and had been on the front lines of often bloody battles against copper, silver, gold and other metal mine operators from Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and other Western states.

The organization was a pioneer of industrial union organization and early on was deeply radicalized by the common cause made by the Eastern trusts and cartels with local, state, and even Federal authorities in trying to smash organizing and strikes by violence and repression.  In 1905 William D. “Big Bill Haywood other leaders helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Western Federation formed the bulk of the new union’s original membership.

Internal disputes caused the Western Federation to drop out and return to independent status by 1907, although Haywood and many others stayed with the IWW.  Over the next decades both unions would continue to organize metal miners and fight strikes that often resembled open war.

But the union had largely been eclipsed by the IWW and was in decline just before American entry into World War I.  It changed its name Mine and Mill in 1916.  Although it escaped some of the repression that fell onto the IWW in the post war Red Scare, it limped along until the Depression.  In 1934, after re-claiming its old base in Butte, Montana the union began to aggressively expand across the West and into new territories in Ontario and even in the South.  It also organized smelters in New Jersey.  This burst of energy was largely due to the leadership of radicals, some of them former Wobblies but most openly members of the Communist Party.  The union became one of the founders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

However, another war ushered in another Red Scare.  Despite pressures from John L. Lewis, the conservative leader of the CIO, the union refused to dump its Communist leadership.  It also refused to stop organizing minority workersBlacks in the South and Hispanics across the Southwest.  The CIO then encouraged the United Steel Workers and the United Auto Workers to raid Mill and Mine shops and encouraged use of racial resentment against minority workers to do so.

Pressure increased after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 which required unions to sign an anti-communist pledge and purge their leadership of Reds.  In 1950, not long before the strike began, the CIO formally expelled the Mine and Mill Workers.

That meant that the New Mexico strike would not have the customary support of other unions.  In fact, other unions were encouraged to cross picket lines.

The issues in the strike were equal pay for the majority Spanish speaking miners with the minority of whites, mostly those in the skilled trades, and safety in a mine notorious for repeated injuries and deaths.  Some of the white miners crossed the picket line, though others remained loyal to their union and fellow workers.

Most of the miners in the Empire Zinc strike were of Mexican decent but whose families had been in New Mexico since it was annexed into the United States following the Mexican War.

Predictably the strike was marked by mass picketing and regular arrests by local authorities operating openly on behalf of the owners.  In addition, owners sought to have strikers’ families evicted from the shoddy company owned housing in town.

As the strike dragged on, the mine owners sought relief under the Taft-Hartley Act.  On June 12, 1951 an injunction was granted forbidding strikers from picketing.  Facing the collapse of the strike, which would have meant the blacklisting of their husbands and their families’ eviction from their homes, the strikers’ wives at a dramatic meeting, demanded that their husbands let them replace them on the picket line.  Resistance was fierce.  Cultural norms were macho and women were expected to be both subservient and stay at home.  Marriages were strained.

But with few alternatives, the women took their place on the line.  The strike held.  Intimidation did not stop.  Many of the women were arrested.  Famously, they were crammed into tiny cells in the county jail with their children.  But they would not relent.  The longer the strike lasted, the more militant they grew.  And so did the admiration of them by their once reluctant husbands.

The women’s participation also shifted some of the demands of the strike to include improvement to the appalling living conditions in company housing.  White workers had indoor plumbing.  Spanish speaking workers had none.  Many did not even have electricity.  Sanitation and safety improvement in housing became key issues.

Against all odds, the company finally capitulated on January 24, 1952.  The strikers won most of their demands. 

The dramatic story would have faded to obscurity if a blacklisted Hollywood writer had not stumbled upon the women’s picket line while vacationing at a near-by dude ranch.  Returning to California he rounded up other blacklisted artists to undertake a fictionalized film about the strike. 

Black Listed Hollywood screen writer Paul Jarrico stumbled on the strike and made a crusade of bringing the story to the screen with other black listed talent.  Seen here, left, refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) in 1951.

Paul Jarrico was the writer who recruited others for his vision and became producer of Salt of the Earth.

Writer Michael Wilson, who had won an Oscar for A Place in the Sun, would have to work anonymously if at all for the next ten years working on films like The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, Friendly Persuasion, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia unaccredited. 

Director Herbert J. Biberman was one of the famous Hollywood Ten and had served time in prison for refusing to “name names.”

Wilson produced a draft of the script after extensive interviews with the participants.  It was then given to the strikers for comments and the final drafts reflected their concerns and sensitivities.  Interestingly, the strikers themselves wanted greater attention paid to the family struggles to come to grips with assertive women. 

Juan Chacón , the Mill and Mine local President during the strike, played the chief union steward Ramon Quintero and Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas played the key role of his indomitable  wife Esperanza (Hope.)

It was decided to cast actual participants as far as possible.  In the end only five professional actors were used, the best known was blacklisted Will Geer, who played the Sheriff.  Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas was cast in the central role of Esperanza, the pregnant wife of a striker who also narrated the film.  Real life local union president Juan Chacón was cast as her chief union steward husband.  Lead union organizer Clinton Jencks and his wife Virginia played versions of themselves. 

From the beginning filming in New Mexico attracted as much opposition as had the strikers themselves.  The crew was run out of the originally selected location by death threats.  Harassment of the cast and crew—and of the union miners themselves was constant.  At least one union family had their house burned down. The local American Legion organized vigilante attacks, including firing live ammunition at the company on location.

On February 24, 1953 Representative Donald L. Jackson (R-Ca.), a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), bitterly denounced the film as the bidding of Communist Russia in a widely publicized speech on the House floor.

The next day Revueltas was arrested and deported on the flimsy grounds that her visa had not been properly stamped.  Although most of her scenes were in the can, some scenes had to be shot with a double at a distance and her narration had to be recorded in Mexico and smuggled into the states.

After on-site cinematography was ended, postproduction was a problem with all of Hollywood’s facilities denied them.  Black listed editors, sound dubbers, and other crafts people had to work in secret in their homes or, at great pers. l peril, in un-used studio facilities late at night.  The raw footage and prints were actively being hunted by both Federal authorities and the Studios themselves hoping to prove their loyalty.  The reels were hidden in a shack.

                                A DVD release of Salt of the Earth.

And the trouble did not end when the final cut was made.  Producers found it almost impossible to distribute and show the film.  Only a handful of theaters agreed to show it and most of those withdrew under pressure.  The AFL Projectionists Union ordered its members not to show the movie.  In the end Salt of the Earth was only shown on 13 of America’s more than 13,000 screens.

It fared better in both Eastern and Western Europe where it played to appreciative audiences, rave reviews, and garnered film festival awards.

Mine and Mill union organizer Clinton Jencks, second from left, in Jail with union members during the strike.  Under anti-Communist pressure his union abandoned him and he was imprisoned for falsifying his Taft-Hartley loyalty oath.

Shortly after the film was released Clinton Jencks was charged by a Federal Grand Jury for lying when he signed a Taft-Hartley oath in 1950.  He was convicted in 1954 and sentenced to prison.  Even his union abandoned him.  In 1957 his conviction was overturned in a landmark case on the grounds that the prosecution had not shared exculpatory evidence with the defense.  Jenck’s was never able to return to union organizing but became a college teacher.

By the 1960’s writer Wilson and other victims of the blacklist were able to work once again under their own names.  The blacklist was looked on increasingly as black mark on both Hollywood and the nation.

In the ‘60’s 16 mm prints of Salt of the Earth began to be circulated in union halls, on college campuses, and especially among Chicano and womens organizations for which it was both an inspiration and a revelation.  Soon revival houses were putting it up, finally, on the big screen. 

In the 1980’s the film was intentionally allowed to go into the public domain.  Copies circulated freely on VHS and latter on DVD.  It can be viewed in its entirety here on YouTube.

Salt of the Earth is now hailed as a classic.  It is one of the very few films with a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In 1992 the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

As for the Mine and Mill union, it was finally coerced into a mergerswallowed up really—with the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) in the U.S. in the early 1960s after the union’s once proud flagship local in Butte, Montana voted to switch in 1962.  The merger was completed in 1967.  The  Sudbury, Ontario local which had a long, contentious, and sometimes violent history with the city’s Steelworkers locals, voted against the merger. It remained the last autonomous remnant of Mine Mill until 1993, when it merged with the Canadian Auto Workers.

The once proud union evaporated from memory. 

Today many of its former Western mines and mills have closed.  After decades of unrelenting company opposition, some locals were de-certified.  The USWA, fighting for survival in the basic Steel industry, has little time or resources to support organizing efforts in the West.


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