Salt of the Earth Strike

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Salt of the Earth Strike

United States 1950

Synopsis

In October 1950, after several months of unsuccessful bargaining with Empire Zinc, the members of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW, or Mine-Mill) went on strike in Hanover, New Mexico. Neither side was willing to back down, and the strike lasted for 15 months. The strike sometimes became violent, as local authorities attempted to arrest picketers or strikebreakers tried to push through the picket lines. Finally, in January 1952 the sides negotiated a settlement in which both the company and workers made concessions.

The strike, which became known as the "Salt of the Earth" strike, was important on a number of levels. It took place in the context of the cold war, and the issue of communism was always present. In fact, the IUMMSW had been dispelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) because it was seen as being overly influenced by communism. After the strike, several blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers made a film about the strike. The film, however, was suppressed because of the anticommunist sentiment prevalent in Hollywood at the time. Ethnic relations in the United States also played a role in the strike, as most of the miners were Mexican American. One of the workers' complaints was that Mexican American workers were not paid as much as white workers. The strike also was important for the role played by women. Although the miners were all men, women took part in the strike and the picketing.

Timeline

  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers in World War II.
  • 1950: United States begins developing hydrogen bomb.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially, the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.
  • 1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
  • 1955: Over the course of the year, a number of key ingredients are added to the pantheon of American culture: the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of many classic models; Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Seven-Year Itch; Disneyland; and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
  • 1960: When an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet skies, this brings an end to a short period of warming relations between the two superpowers. By the end of the year, Khrushchev makes a scene at the United Nations, banging his shoe on a desk. As for Powers, he will be freed in a 1962 prisoner exchange.
  • 1965: Arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 others in Selma, Alabama. Three weeks later, in New York City, Malcolm X is assassinated.

Event and Its Context

The IUMMSW and the Cold War

The Salt of the Earth strike must be understood in the larger context of the cold war. The anticommunist sentiment that was so common throughout the United States in the years after World War II affected the labor movement. Big labor was relatively conservative and followed the main currents of the time. Both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and CIO were anticommunist. Thus in 1950 the CIO, once much more concerned with issues of social equality, purged its organization of communist influence, expelling 11 unions and affecting more than one million workers. Most of these unions were outside of the mainstream, and the CIO likely considered them unimportant.

One of the expelled unions was the IUMMSW. The IUMMSW grew out of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which had organized miners in the 1890s and was part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1916 the WFM became the IUMMSW and was a pioneer in organizing female and minority workers. Despite its sometimes radical positions, it did become an affiliate of the AFL. The IUMMSW later left the AFL to join the CIO. The organization's leaders included many left-wingers, including communists. Communism, however, was much less important among the rank-and-file members.

The IUMMSW membership included many Mexican Americans, in part because of its record on civil rights and racial equality. The organization also promoted Anglo-Chicano solidarity. Many of the white workers were from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas and were discriminated against just as were the Mexican American workers. One of the IUMMSW's strongholds was New Mexico, where there was much discrimination against Chicano workers. Indeed, there was de facto segregation. Furthermore, Empire Zinc only hired Mexican Americans for underground work.

During the cold war, the IUMMSW took a number of controversial stands. Its leaders opposed both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. They refused to sign the noncommunist affidavits of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Furthermore, the IUMMSW opposed participation in the Korean War. Soon, the union found itself expelled from the CIO and suffering from raids on its membership.

Local 890 and Empire Zinc

In July 1950 Mine-Mill Local 890 of Hanover, New Mexico, opened talks with the management of Empire Zinc. Juan Chacón and Ernesto Velásquez led local 890. In addition, the IUMMSW sent Clinton Jencks to aid in the discussions. The union entered the negotiations with two disadvantages. One was the union's radical reputation. The other was the depression in the metals industry. Indeed, half of Grant County's 2,000 or so mineworkers were unemployed at the time. The basic demand of the union was economic equality. The IUMMSW claimed that Empire Zinc maintained wage differentials so as to create ethnic tensions among workers. Also, the workers demanded "collar-to-collar" pay, which meant that miners would be paid for all of their time underground. In 1944 the War Labor Board had directed all companies to do so. However, Empire Zinc was allowed to maintain an unpaid lunch and keep an 8.5-hour day in exchange for higher wages. In addition, the workers were concerned with issues of paid holidays, working conditions, pensions, and benefits.

Empire Zinc refused to negotiate on the issue of collar-to-collar pay, claiming that the issue had already been settled. Company officials offered no proposals of their own until September, when they suggested a company-controlled pension plan instead of wage increases. When the union made a counteroffer, the company rejected it with no discussion and withdrew their own offer.

The Strike Begins

By October the two sides had reached an impasse. Empire Zinc took on a very militant, antiunion attitude. When the company refused to continue the talks in October, the union went on strike. Local 890 established a strike committee to determine policy and set up two picket posts around the company's property. The pickets had three shifts each of six men, creating a 24-hour presence. The company seemed to have the advantage in the strike. It spent more than $1 million in an attempt to maintain production and break the strike. The workers had some money in their own strike fund and also received funds from the IUMMSW, which issued food rations to the strikers and paid their utility bills. However, Local 890 was no financial match for Empire Zinc. The company's resources allowed it to wait while the workers' resources declined.

As the strike progressed, the leaders of the IUMMSW grew worried. They were concerned with the negative publicity that accompanied the strike and also were beginning to doubt that the leaders of Local 890 could end the deadlock. Indeed, the local union was showing some signs of division. Thus, after 18 weeks of the strike, the IUMMSW took control of the strike. This action in turn worried the local labor leaders, who felt that they were losing control of the struggle. At this time, some worker defections began, with some men deserting to find work elsewhere. Other strikers requested releases to find other work, although the strike committee generally rejected these requests. Those who did receive releases complained about the 25 percent kickback that they had to pay into the strike fund. By May 1951 some workers even had signed a back-to-work petition that was circulated by the company.

Women Join the Strike, and Violence Increases

In June 1951 Empire Zinc announced that it would reopen with nonunion labor. The company had assurances from Sheriff Leslie Goforth and the district attorney that the highway leading into company property would be open. This decision prompted the union to increase its picketing. Then in reaction to increased worker activity, the police took a more active role and made several arrests on the picket lines. The building tension led a federal district judge to prohibit picketing by union members. Despite the order, the union continued to picket, although with a change in tactics. The workers voted to authorize women to play a greater role in the strike and proposed that they take up picketing. This allowed the workers to avoid the prohibition on union members picketing, as the women were not union members. Women had already been increasingly involved in various support roles, including writing letters and providing the public with information on the strike. In particular, the militant roles played by Virginia Jencks and Virginia Chacón gave the strike a boost.

At first, Goforth was reluctant to deal with the female picketers. However, on 15 June arrest warrants were issued for six women charged with assault and battery. The issuance of these warrants led to a confrontation on 16 June. Goforth went to arrest the six women and to escort strikebreakers. The picketers, however, refused to allow the sheriff and strikebreakers through their line. In response, an angry Goforth ordered his deputies to arrest anyone who stood in their way. The deputies began to arrest the women picketers. However, others soon took their places. The situation became more confrontational, and the sheriff and his deputies used tear gas when the strikebreakers tried to go through and around the picket line. In all, authorities arrested 45 women and 17 children, including a 16-week-old baby. They were taken to the local jail designed to hold only 24 people. This event drew national attention to the strike. In the aftermath of this confrontation, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offered arbitration. Mine-Mill accepted, but Empire Zinc refused.

In August the strike became more violent as the number of incidents between the strikers, authorities, company employees, and strikebreakers increased. The worst incident took place on 23 August. On that day Goforth arrived at the picket line with 10 deputies and 9 armed, nonunion workers. Goforth argued with the strikers, but the picketers, who numbered about 75, refused to move. The strikebreakers then forced their way through the picket with their vehicles, striking three of the female picketers. The sheriff's men then fired shots at the strikers, wounding one man. The violent incident led to a general strike of the entire mining district, as workers from other mines joined the Local 890 strikers.

The End of the Strike

The end of the strike finally came in January 1952. On 21 January a new negotiating session opened. At this point, both sides made concessions. The company was able to keep the 8.5-hour day that it preferred. However, the company agreed to raise wages for the extra half hour. Instead of the paid holidays that the workers sought, they received an increased hourly wage. They also received an insurance program and pension plan. The company, however, was able to strengthen its no-strike clause in the contract. Furthermore, it still pressed charges against some of the strike leaders, some of whom served jail time. The union also had to pay a fine.

Key Players

Chacón, Juan: One of the leaders of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW, or Mine-Mill) Local 890, Chacón had a reputation as a hard bargainer. The son of a Mexican immigrant miner, he entered the mines himself at age 18. After serving in the merchant marine during World War II, Chacón returned to the mines in 1946. He rose from shop steward to vice president of Local 1890 and then became its president in 1953. Chacón was a strong believer in class solidarity and racial equality. He played the lead in Salt of the Earth, the film version of the strike.

Jencks, Clinton: A highly religious man from Colorado, Jencks was a political activist. After serving in the air force during World War II, he returned to organize veterans in Denver. He later joined the IUMMSW. He served as the union's representative during the Salt of the Earth strike in 1950. He was highly regarded by the local workers because he lived in the community and encouraged the Mexican American leaders.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Taft-Hartley Act; Western Federation of Miners.

Bibliography

Books

Cargill, Jack. "Empire and Opposition: 'The Salt of the Earth' Strike." In Labor in New Mexico: Unions, Strikes, and Social History since 1881, edited by Robert Kern. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Lorrence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth:How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Salomon, Larry R. Roots of Justice: Stories of Organizing in Communities of Color. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press, 1998.

—Ronald Young

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