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
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.
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
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 workers—Blacks 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
It fared better in both Eastern and Western Europe where it played to appreciative audiences, rave
reviews, and garnered film festival
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 women’s
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
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
As for the Mine and Mill union, it
was finally coerced into a merger—swallowed 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
The once proud union evaporated
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.