Today In Labor History: In 1954, 'Salt Of The Earth,' A Landmark Of Labor Filmmaking, Has Its Premiere

History Facts
Today In Labor History: In 1954, 'Salt Of The Earth,' A Landmark Of Labor Filmmaking, Has Its Premiere

screengrab from the film

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 "Mine, Mill" strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico. This classic example of labor filmmaking is both a window into the hard struggle of organizing Mexican-American workers in a racist nation. and into the redbaiting that decimated the best organizing unions after World War II.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico, went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical workers in western mines who played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported Henry Wallace's Progressive Party campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid for (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying positions to whites and the lower paying positions to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After eight months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support, and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies’ auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike.

So they did.

For the next seven months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention ones fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers, which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left, and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people.

Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with the House Un-American Activities Committee's bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) played a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, played the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 was the main miner, and his wife was played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles were played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives.

The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revueltas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February, 1953, Rep. Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture 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, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. The American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound, wrote that it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor rights and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it, and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationships change. The wife of one local union official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.


I have shown Salt of the Earth to my students. When I do, I just ask them, “What is communist about this movie?” They struggle with it. Despite what Kael or many conservatives said, this is a film about racial rights, union rights, and human rights. There’s no propaganda in it unless you think human rights is propaganda. This is a film about getting running water for homes. It’s a film about standing up to police harassment against unions. It’s a film about women taking the lead in fighting for their families. Calling this communist is a sign of just how ridiculous anti-communism became in the 1950s.

Today, we live in a new era of conservatives attempting to ban the teaching of human rights. Right-wing attacks on “critical race theory,” by which they mean all history that might critique racism, are effectively attempts to ban teaching the truth. They are already pretty successful in many states.

In the 1950s, we had campaigns against justice and we do again in the 2020s. Tennessee school districts banningMaus and America banning Salt of the Earth are part and parcel of this nation’s long and horrible history against art that challenges easy narratives about American greatness. We must fight back.


James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America

James J. Lorence, Palomino: Clinton Jencks and Mexican-American Unionism in the American Southwest

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).


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