Empire Zinc strike and Salt of the Earth: by Labor, for Labor
January 11, 2015 3:18 PM   Subscribe

From October 1950 to January 1952, the Mexican American miners at the Empire Zinc mine in Bayard, New Mexico were on strike, protesting the racial discrimination between them and their Anglo counterparts in pay, safety standards, and quality of life in company housing. Two events make this particular strike stand out from similar strikes at other mines are the involvement of the miners' wives in both requesting better living conditions and later in taking to the picket lines themselves, and after the strike was over, the feminist and pro-labor docudrama made by blacklisted Hollywood film makers, Salt of the Earth (YouTube; lower quality on Archive.org; Wikipedia).

Salt of the Earth drew on both style and content from films of the Epoca de Oro (Golden Age) of Mexican cinema, as well as on the look and political views of Italian Neo-realism of the postwar era, in casting many local people who had taken part in the strikes, including Clinton Jencks. Called "El Palomino" for his blond hair, Jencks stood out among the brown-skinned, black-haired Mexican American workers in Arizona and New Mexico who struggled with him to build their Mine-Mill unions. He played a fictionalized version of himself as Frank Barnes in the film, and he was instrumental in getting blacklisted producer and screenwriter Paul Jarrico interested in the story of the Empire Zinc strike. He was joined by Michael Wilson (PDF), who wrote the script, with deference to the miners and local community (Google books preview), and Herbert J. Biberman, who was one of the Hollywood Ten (short documentary featuring the 10, from 1950), directed the film.

Biberman and Jarrico formed a company to produce the film, in coordination with International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who had been ejected from the CIO for alleged communist leanings. That wasn't their only source of complications.
Residents of the New Mexico towns while the movie was filmed made life miserable for them, with vigilantes starting fights and merchants who wouldnt do business with them. State police finally had to be called in to allow the filming to be completed. Even then RKO chief Howard Hughes jumped on the bandwagon against the movie, with a plan to stop its processing and distribution. After eight labs refused to process the film, Biberman finally had to submit the reels under the title "Vaya Con Dios" to even get a print made.
History Net has an extended recounting of the woes of the film, in an article titled Salt of the Earth: The Movie Hollywood Could Not Stop. Beyond Hollywood, there was the U.S. Congress, where the movie was depicted as a Russian tool.
On February 24, 1953, as filming proceeded in Grant County, U.S. Representative Donald L. Jackson (Rep-Calif.), a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), delivered a speech on the floor of Congress that portrayed Salt as a dire threat to the nation. “This picture,” Jackson charged, “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,” he warned, “it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere.” “In effect,” he concluded, “this picture is a new weapon for Russia”
That article from the Organization of American Historians also covers the very real (and movie depictions of the) shift of gender roles, from "the women’s picket [that] was carefully organized, militant, and successful," to "the forthright discussion of job discrimination, the politics of housework, and the sexual double standard [that] was far ahead of its time. "

The Empire mine remained open up to the 1970s, when Salt of the Earth was being rediscovered and discussed anew, viewed on everything from pirated copies to official 35 mm prints. 40 years after the film was produced, it was added to the fourth wave of U.S. National Film Registry selections, often mis-credited as being one of the hundred films due to the Registry adding 25 films per year since its founding in 1989. 40 years after the film, Salt of the Earth Labor College opened in Tuscon, Arizona, and in 2005, a mural depicting the men, women and children who took part in the 1950s strike was painted on the side of the union hall in Bayard.

Salt of the Earth remains relevant, 60 years later. There were a host of events to celebrate this anniversary, in Baynard and nearby Silver City, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, and at the Salt of the Earth Labor College. Unfortunately, this was also the year that the inheritor of Mine-Mill Local 890, Steelworkers Local 9424-3, was decertifed by its members.
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. Been meaning to watch this for a while now.
posted by univac at 5:02 PM on January 11, 2015

Excellent - thanks.
posted by rtha at 5:43 PM on January 11, 2015

From the wikipedia article: "Because the film's copyright was not renewed in 1982, the film is now in the public domain."

So very odd... It's almost alien to me to have a talkie be in the public domain.
posted by el io at 7:26 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

hal_c_on, thanks for that information and link. I wasn't aware of that strike.

I should have written "different from other strikes at that time." The Empier Zinc strike was 3 decades before the Arizona Mine Strike of '83, when women couldn't work in the mines, and the Mexican American houses weren't supplied with electricity or hot water, so the women had to chop wood to heat the homes, cook food, and for any warm water.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:04 AM on January 12, 2015

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