• July 21st, 2024
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Digging into New México’s Long Fight for Workers’ Rights


Digging into New México’s Long Fight for Workers’ Rights

 

Austin Fisher

 

Exactly 69 years ago, a group of blacklisted filmmakers and a cast of professional and local actors completed the filming of “Salt of the Earth” in Grant County, N.M., over Labor Day Weekend in 1953.

 

That’s according to a declassified report by an FBI informant, now part of the archives at the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections at the University of New Mexico.

 

Before the movie even came out, the House Committee on Un-American Activities called Simon Lazarus, the founder of the film’s production company, to testify as part of its anti-communist investigations during the era of McCarythism.

 

Photo: Public Domain
The theatrical release poster for Salt of the Earth reads: “At last — An Honest Movie about American Working People.”

Earlier that year, California Republican state Rep. Donald Jackson said the movie was “deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds,” and was “a new weapon for Russia,” according to the American Film Institute.

 

Vigilantes attacked the set, assaulted the cast and crew, blared music, fired bullets into an empty car owned by one of the actors, and burned down one of their homes, according to The Guardian. Before production finished, immigration officials even deported the leading actor in the film, Rosaura Revueltas.

 

How could a movie inspire such violence, government backlash and scrutiny from FBI agents before it was even released?

 

It probably has something to do with the film’s depiction of a successful labor strike against racist bosses and their collaborators at every level of government, based on a real 15-month strike by white and Chicano members of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County.

 

Initially, the film relays, the strike started over a racist safety rule that allowed white miners to work in pairs but not Hispano miners.

 

When the leading man, played by real life UMMSW Local 890 President Juan Chacón, tells the company to negotiate, the bosses tell him, “You let those Reds stir you up.”

 

And as the strike dragged on for months, miners were arrested or starved out, and forced to find work elsewhere.

 

When the miners’ wives and families demand to join the picket line and that they include in the union’s demands indoor plumbing and hot water for their homes near the mine, they are rebuffed by their husbands, who are stuck in their sexist views about who gets to take part in the strike.

 

“You’re moving too fast,” a man tells one of his union sisters in the film.

 

Chacón’s character prohibits Revueltas from joining the picket line, and sounding a lot like his own boss, says: “You let those Anglo dames stir you up.”

 

But the women convince the men that they need them to keep the strike going by exploiting a loophole in a court order declaring the strike illegal. The order only prohibited miners from striking, not their wives, they argued.

 

Chacón’s character finally realizes that Revueltas has been right all along, and that the women should have just as much say in the union’s activities as the men.

 

So the movie opens with the women marching in a circle in front of the mine, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” In real life, they also sang “Solidarity Forever” with help from folk singer Jenny Vincent, according to music critic Bill Kohlhaase.

 

One of the movie’s core messages is that organizing around issues of class is inextricably linked to issues of race and gender, and limiting perspective to one side those fault lines as Chacón did will get you nowhere, and blinds you to a more nuanced view of what it means to be New Mexicans.

 

That view is summed up in a line by Revueltas character at the beginning of the film: “Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft.”

 

Further reading: See the film for free here, or on many streaming services including Pluto TV and Amazon Prime. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in the American Cold War. Women Labor Activists in the Movies: Nine Depictions of Workplace Organizers, 1954-2005. Citations Needed Ep. 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative.

 

 

Austin Fisher is a Reporter with Source New Mexico. This article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license.

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