Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why the 1954 zinc miners' strike was almost forgotten

This is the original trailer for the only blacklisted American film. Wouldn't you know it, it's about a labor strike. It opened on March 14, 1954, in just a handful of theaters.

The good news is it's now one of 100 films to be saved for posterity by the Library of Congress.

Our friends, Working Class Heroes, tell us,
The classic film centers on a long and difficult strike led by Mexican-American and Anglo zinc miners in New Mexico. Real miners perform in the film, in which the miners’ wives – as they did in real life – take to the picket lines after the strikers are enjoined.
According to,
The strike nearly collapsed after eight months when Empire Zinc opened the mine to scab labor and obtained a court injunction prohibiting union pickets on company property. Then the wives and mothers of the union's Ladies' Auxiliary circumvented the injunction by marching in place of the men.
...It was a violent time. 'The company would hire guys who were out-and-out gunmen and send them over to the sheriff and the sheriff would deputize them,' says Jencks. At one point the sheriff locked up 45 women and 17 children, an action that appalled New Mexico's governor. In late summer, strikers descended upon three carloads of strikebreakers nearing the company entrance. The scabs attempted to push their cars past the picketers and knocked down three women. A strikebreaker shot into the crowd, wounding a picketer in the leg. News of the confrontation flashed through the mining district. Nearby mines emptied as their workers went to bolster the picket line.
The strike was settled on January 21, 1952. The company agreed to higher wages and insurance benefits but denied the union's demand for paid holidays and remuneration for all time spent underground. Although it wasn't part of the settlement, the company soon provided hot running water for the miners' homes.
That year, another film about labor unions did much better at the box office -- and at the Academy Awards. "On the Waterfront" won four Oscars and is today viewed as a film classic, while "Salt of the Earth" is largely forgotten.

But consider: The message of "On the Waterfront" is that labor is corrupt and informing is a good thing. The director, Elia Kazan, and writer, Bud Schulberg, had both named names before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.

In contrast, we learn from the Film Society's Tripod,
Salt of the Earth was made independently by several victims of the Hollywood blacklist that resulted from the notorious hearings of the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Commission in the late forties. A particularly venal episode in the ignoble social history of Hollywood, the HUAC offered the world the spectacle of leading figures of the film world throwing their colleagues to the lions of fanatical cold-war paranoia. Ten of their number were convicted of contempt of Congress for attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights and were blacklisted with unseemly alacrity by the studios. The director, writer and producer of Salt of the Earth were erstwhile members of the Hollywood Ten, forced to set up their own independent company in order to continue making films under their own name. The subject of their film was defiantly anti-establishment: a restaging of the events surrounding a particularly vicious miner's strike in New Mexico.
So....a movie about union corruption wins acclaim, a movie about brave workers successfully fighting for respect and dignity is marginalized. Any of this sound familiar?