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A Lesson to Inherit: A "Back in the Day" Review of "Salt of the Earth"

By: 
Carlos Perez de Alejo
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010

SALT OF THE EARTH
BY HERBERT J. BIBERMAN

Independent Productions, 1954

In the aftermath of the Second World War, anti-communist hysteria cast a wide shadow over the United States. Elites within the public and private sectors unleashed a relentless assault against leftists and all who challenged the status quo. Labor militants were purged from countless union locals, government officials were fired for alleged communist ties. anti-communist literature and films flooded the market, and actors, screenwriters, and directors were fired and blacklisted, including those known as the “Hollywood Ten” in 1947. One of the blacklisted Ten was Herbert Biberman, who went on to direct the 1954 independent film Salt of the Earth, arguably the most heavily-banned film in US history. (The unparalleled censorship and repression of Salt is dramatized in the 2000 film One of the Hollywood Ten, starring Jeff Goldblum.)

Based on a real-life 1951 labor strike in New Mexico, Salt tells the story of Mexican-American miners and their families struggling to improve conditions in the workplace and at home against the unbending, profit-hungry Delaware Zinc company. A town once called San Marcos is purchased by Delaware Zinc and renamed Zinc Town—a company town designed to line the pockets of the “Anglos” and keep white and Chicano workers divided. Chicano miners and their families are forced to live on company land, purchase goods at the company store, and live in shabby company-owned housing with poor plumbing, while white workers enjoy decent housing and safer conditions in the mines.

Tension mounts between the Chicano miners and management as working conditions become increasingly dangerous. The company's drive for profits leaves lax safety regulations on the job and multiple injuries, putting the interests of the miners in stark contrast with Delaware Zinc: “Foreman wants to get the ore out,” says one of the miners in protest, “Miner wants to get his brothers out in one piece.” After an explosion nearly kills one of them, the Chicano workers ultimately decide to go on strike and form a massive picket line at the entrance of the mine.

Unlike most films then and now, Salt of the Earth portrays Chicano workers as proud, class-conscious, and militant, confronting both the police and management in their struggle for dignity. The militancy of the miners is reinforced by the democratic thrust of their union, where the voice of the rank-and-file drives the leadership. Throughout the film, Chicano workers are seen discussing campaign strategy, and major decisions are made based on a vote from the general membership.  

This image of militant [email protected] workers still resonates over fifty years later. The film’s emphasis on a more democratic, class-struggle unionism reflects current debates within the labor movement. Calls for “social justice unionism” or “solidarity unionism” have increasingly become part of the discussion about how to breathe new life into the “business unionism” of today, highlighting the need for a more bottom-up approach. 

Pioneering intersections

Beyond class struggle, the film also prophetically tackles debates about the importance of incorporating the intersections of race and gender into the labor movement. Although some of the white workers are sympathetic to the racial disparities of the miners' struggle, they still have a long way to go. Despite the democratic nature of the union, a white union organizer from outside the community heads up campaign strategy for the union local, at times undermining Chicano leadership. At one point during the strike, Ramon Quintero, the central miner character, confronts the white union organizer, noting that when designing strategy for the strike he “figure[s] out everything for the rank-and-file to do down to the last detail,” without giving them anything to think about. “Are you afraid we're too lazy to take initiative?” says Quintero.

Yet while Quintero and other Chicano miners are quick to point out the power imbalance between white and Chicano workers, their gender analysis leaves something to be desired. The division of labor is clearly marked from the outset of the film. While the men work in the mines, their wives stay at home—chopping wood for the fire, making family meals, doing laundry, and taking care of the children. When Ramon's wife Esperanza tells him that the union should take housing demands into consideration for the strike, he promptly responds, “You're a woman, you don't understand what it's like out there... First we gotta get equality on the job, then we'll work on these other things... Leave it to the men.”

In spite of their dismissive husbands, Chicanas in the story take matters into their own hands. When the strikers face a Taft-Hartley injunction that prevents them from picketing, the wives organize and demand a more central role in the strike—taking over the picket line and leaving their husbands to consider “the woman question” at home, as they're forced into a role reversal that puts the concerns of their wives into perspective. 

The women fight bravely on the picket line, resisting the police and the disapproval of their husbands to keep the strike alive. Through their participation in the struggle, the women become emboldened, challenging not only the police and the zinc company, but their husbands as well. One of the miners recognizes—as he hangs up laundry on the clothesline—that “there are two kinds of slavery, wage slavery and domestic slavery.” 

Rosaura Revueltas, the actress who plays Esperanza, was actually deported in real life during production of this film. She later said that since the INS “had no evidence to present of my 'subversive' character, I can only conclude that I was 'dangerous' because I had been playing a role that gave status and dignity to the character of a Mexican-American woman."

Salt’s treatment of intersectionality offers important lessons for a union movement still grappling with issues of white supremacy and patriarchy. As Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin note in their recent book, Solidarity Divided, “The post-World War II union movement has largely been unable to develop a politics that truly address issues of race, gender, and labor, apart from making superficial or rhetorical gestures.” For today's labor movement, Salt of the Earth reflects how far we've come and how far we still have to go.