Salt of the Earth

Tacoma Film Club co-sponsored the 2006 Banned Books Events with Kings Books of Tacoma, our host for the TFC’s Third Wednesday Discussion.   We presented the film Salt of the Earth in October 2006.  

 Salt of the Earth (dir. Herbert Biberman, 1954).
“Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Lives Felt”

Based on the historical event of a successful union action, Salt of the Earth is the story of poor souls uniting for political strength, striving to rise above the deprived conditions of hard mining life. Empire Zinc Company near Silver City, New Mexico, site of the Mine and Mill union strike that lasted from 1950-1952, employed poor American and Hispanic miners, whose families lived in company houses close to the mine. 

 Plot summary

 In the early 1950s, the social injustices that beset Blacks in the inequities of jobs, work conditions and wages are also visited on the Mexican mine workers, whose families live in sub-standard shanties, without the indoor plumbing, adequate heating and electricity the Anglo miners’ families enjoy in their segregated houses.  Down the mine, the Anglos worked in pairs, one partner being able to watch out for the dynamiter in case of problems.  Hispanic miners, however, work solo at the mine faces to set the dynamite and fuses, with increased danger and less secure conditions for the lone blaster.  After one particular blast accident, the Hispanic men decide to meet to air their grievances and discuss demands that the company improve their work conditions and wages.

The problem of the workers’ concerns is exacerbated by the participation of the women, who act in force to join the meeting and eventually add their demands for better housing and health conditions to those of the men.  To illustrate the general situation, the plot focuses on the economic and sexist tensions of one family, Ramon and Esperanza Quintero, (played by Juan Chacon, a real-life unionist, and Rosaura Reveultas, a professional Mexican actress, who was deported during the filming by the FBI to stall the film’s completion).  By social pressure and intelligent argument, Esperanza and the women gain political voice.  After the company’s rejection of workers demands, the strike becomes necessary and the women show their spirit.  Their support becomes pivotal in the success of the workers’ union organization.

 An Anglo union organizer (played by Clinton Jencks, the real official of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who managed Bayard, New Mexico’s Local 890 fifteen-month strike) and his wife, who live and work among the underpaid Hispanics, keep the miners’ faith alive in the possibility of bringing the company around, even though the local sheriff (played by blacklisted actor Will Geer) and malevolent “red-hunting” FBI agents came to the picket site to deter the fearful workers with threats and strong-arm tactics. At one point, while Esperanza gives birth to a child unassisted, Ramon suffers a severe beating by the police to set an example and to dissuade him from leadership. 

After the injunction of the Taft-Hartley Act, the men, thinking all is lost, give up the pickets to their brave wives who continue the strike.  With domestic roles reversed, much to the discomfort of their macho egos, the husbands find housework to be considerable labor.  Stresses of domestic disturbances, family quarrels and nagging despair wear the families down.  Finally, when the sheriff jails the strike women, Esperanza shows her undauntable spirit by taking her infant into the jail and the company eventually buckles to the union demands.  By political activism the working community realizes much more has changed in their lives than merely the improvement of working life, wages, and housing conditions:  they have acquired greater dignity by their soulful determination and set an example for others by their success

Commentary

Many who feel the pressures of our present oppressive American regime, which has joined with corporate power against amelioration of economic conditions and rights of working poor, cannot help but feel the resonance of social injustices and gender inequalities played out in Salt of the Earth.  The U.S. has experienced decades of union busting since the Reagan Era; today barriers against new union organization have continued to be erected and enforced by powerful companies with intense lobbying bureaucracies.  The enslaving of worker populations by keeping wages inadequate to the demands of transportation, housing and family rearing has become a recognizable fact to most conscious individuals who know about the labor history from research or from working class upbringings.  The mining accidents that still occur around the world, not to mention the alarm set off by the recent Sago West-Virginia disaster and its bureaucratic mishandling of information in the aftermath, are examples of how little has been done to ensure miners’ safety, health, and livelihood.* 

 Learning about the artistic personalities who strove to bring the film to light and especially those who acted out their original roles in the story, one can come to understand the intense struggle that must take place to stand up for one’s rights and preserve one’s dignity.  Clinton Jencks+, for example, became renowned for his successful union strategies demonstrated in the film; then after the film was banned, barred from distribution in the U.S., he was tracked by the FBI, so that he became politically unemployable.  Even after sanction in 1959 by the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation for university work at UC Berkeley, Jencks’ teaching years at San Diego State were hampered by continued redbaiting.  Herbert J. Biberman, Salt’s director, who refused to testify to the HUAC hearings and was jailed in 1950, was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten and gave up actively making movies. In our time, similar censorious pressure has been put on filmmakers, actors and performers with liberal minds; namely, those who chose to speak out (in 2003) against the present Iraq War—e.g. Tim Robbins, Martin Sheen, Janeane Garofalo.

 Regarding the checkered career of Elia Kazan, who did “name names” in 1951, it’s interesting to reflect upon his Oscar-winning On the Waterfront in 1952.  Why did that movie about dockworkers and Longshoremen’s union get acclaim in those McCarthy days? It can be understood when one knows it was about corrupt union bosses and the poor boxer who testified about their injustices.  With propagandistic ambiguities, it promoted witness behaviors against unions that the authorities approved of, and most viewers did too, given the specific characters and theme of the fictional work.  Obviously the struggle to learn and combat injustices, to sort out the ironies and deceptions must continue, for the victories of the past can be lost in later repressive times.

Salt’s intertwining themes about society’s struggle for improvements and enlightenment are most insightful, being in advance of any activist feminist movement at the mid-century.  The scenes that most affected this viewer were those in which the women showed their bravery over the objections of their husbands, who expressed stereotyped male egoism.  One scene, in particular, stands out, in which Esperanza tells Ramon how intensely she despises her own social and cultural inferiority.  Ramon, treated by bosses as a lowly Mexican peasant, is nevertheless above her and now she determines not to put up with even this inequality any longer.  She asserts that she wants to rise up and carry others with her. The emphasis of this feminist heroic element came as a surprise for most viewers I saw the film with recently. 

 Perhaps this film was especially objectionable to the American and Mexican authorities because it was not just the male workers’ issue that was under consideration but also the combining of workers’ and women’s rights in conjunction with both labor and domestic issues.  The Mexican government, and Hispanic men generally, would probably have found the feminist assertions an attack on their socio-cultural male superiority.  However, over and above these gender and socialist/union issues, I think a third element was included that gave the authorities a fright:  the children of the workers were also learning about the struggle for rights out on the strike line.  Once the next generation has experience of the struggle and possibility of success through organizing, their vigilance of the bosses may well continue and making demands for rights may be increased.               

 In the days of Hollywood’s preeminence as a filmmaking capital, it was most unusual that a film would be produced outside of the normal film production bureaucracy.  However, in 1954 the producers and director of Salt of the Earth, working on location in Bayard, New Mexico, knew they had to make their film independently. The Hollywood studios had already kow-towed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities by blacklisting liberal filmmakers and stars who had probably at some point earlier in their lives joined left-wing or communist groups.  Made on a very small budget, far below Hollywood’s normal limits, Salt of the Earth, by employing some of the Hispanic and Anglo people who worked in the Empire Zinc Company became one of the earliest film products that go by the name “Independent Films” today.  The blacklisted actors and producers had no choice, given the anti-unionism and “red-scare” propaganda that prevailed in the HUAC era.  The whole endeavor was a brave act and, ironically, thanks to the government and Hollywood censorship, international markets sought the film out.  Today, it is one of the most watched films the world around for its educational value, and has been included, since 1992, as one of the top 100 films of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, but the American Film Institute has not yet included it among its 300 most inspiring American films. 

In a class about art, labor and globalism, Salt of the Earth is a remarkably enlightening film for its place in film history and the educational impact of its story about an incident in labor union history among a racially mixed population.  For our particular time, in which separation between workers and management, both in power and income, has grown, in which racial and gender discrimination continues in both positions and pay, it makes one consider how little has changed.  Machismo, though not so overt, is still prevalent at work and at home; the struggle of minorities, especially in schooling, welfare-to-work programs, and probably in non-union labor jobs has not been won.  The immigrant marches, which are economic and work-related as much as matters of nationalization papers, bring to mind the masses of exploited laborers, whom President Bush called the ones who take the petty jobs Americans don’t want.  Only the strongest trade unions have lasted and anyone who belongs to a union knows that the fight for rights must go on.   Salt of the Earth from 1954 reminds us in 2006 that our government and the corporate powers, because they are now twinned, are still hampering the advances of the ordinary worker, who must be alert to the struggle to gain raises for living wages, to secure a pension promised from savings plans and (401)k’s, to advocate for adequate personal and family health benefits, and, if possible, to join or create a union to aid in job protection.   

 


* http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4585482.stm.  (Cited from 4/16/06 reading).

+ His death in December 2005 was followed by some insightful obituaries by American and foreign commentators:  Paul Buhle, “Clinton Jencks,” Guardian Unlimited, December 31, 2005 http://guardian. co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,1675659,00.html  and Marjorie Cohn, “Clinton Jencks, Legendary Labor Organizer, Dies,” truthout, December 28, 2005 http://truthout.org /issues _05/122805LA.shtml (4/16/06 reading).

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