The Empire Zinc strike, also known as the Salt of the Earth strike, was a 15-month-long miners' strike in New Mexico against the Empire Zinc Company for its discriminatory pay and housing practices. The strike drew national attention, and after it was settled in 1952, a movie entitled Salt of the Earth (1954) was released that offered a fictionalized version of events.
The Empire Zinc Company, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc Company, owned zinc mines outside the company town of Silver City, New Mexico. The company had created a two-tier system among its workers, paying white workers more than Mexican and Mexican-American workers and housing them better.
On October 17, 1950, the Local 890 chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers went on strike, demanding that the company end its discriminatory pay and segregated housing systems. They later added indoor plumbing and hot water for Mexican-American homes to their list of demands. The company fought back, sending police to harass picketers, posting eviction notices on company houses, and cutting off credit to strikers at the company grocery store. Labor activist Clinton Jencks, who was the union's business agent when the strike was organized and was elected president of Local 890 in early 1951, was arrested on strike and kept in solitary confinement for 16 months. Violence erupted on several occasions, especially when the company brought in strikebreakers. As reports spread of these confrontations, miners at other companies in the region joined the walkout.
Eight months into the strike, the company got a court injunction forbidding picketers to return to the picket line the following day. With the threat of jail time and fines looming over them, the men left the picket line, only to be replaced by their wives and, in some cases, children. Since the women were not themselves striking workers, the same legal tactics could not immediately be used against them. However, the women still suffered police harassment and some mass arrests. Eventually the court issued an anti-picketing injunction against the women, but prior mass arrests of women and some children had drawn unfavorable attention in the national news and the local sheriff delayed in carrying out the injunction.
After 15 months, the company came to an agreement with the striking workers on January 21, 1952. Empire Zinc gave the strikers nearly everything they asked for, agreeing to improve wages and benefits and provide hot water to homes in the town.
The following year, the movie Salt of the Earth was filmed in Silver City, with American actor Will Geer and Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas in leading roles. Local miners and their families played most of the other parts. The movie offered a fictionalized version of the strike, with a company named "Delaware Zinc" operating out of "Zinctown," New Mexico. Police harassment continued during filming, and the day after the filmmakers left town, Local 890’s union hall burned in a fire of mysterious origin.
Directed by Herbert Biberman of the Hollywood Ten blacklist, written by Michael Wilson, and produced by Paul Jarrico (both of whom had also been blacklisted), Salt of the Earth was controversial and in 1954 became the only film ever blacklisted in the United States.
Due in part to the efforts of activists in the 1960s and 1970s, the film was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1992 because of the cultural and historical significance of its depiction of the Empire Zinc strike.
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