By David Correria - La Jicarita, September 31, 2014
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.
Web Editor's Note: According to one of our members, "(The) 'Salt of the Earth' union was destroyed by the company union a long time ago. I am friends with someone with roots in Bayard, NM and whose mother was involved in the strike. The USWA recent had a 60th anniversary celebration of the film here in March. They didn't 'merge', Mine, Mill Smelter was purged." Nevertheless, the following article shows just how ruthless the copper bosses still are and why a union like the IWW is needed more than ever, not just for the workers, but for the environment as well:
Members of Steelworkers Local 9424-3 in Bayard, NM are employed at one of the world’s largest open-pit copper mines owned by one of the world’s most profitable companies, Freeport-McMoRan. They voted last week 236 to 83 in favor of decertifying the union.
The vote was the culmination of six months of union busting work by Freeport employee Irvin Shane Shores, a Deming-resident and recent Freeport-McMoRan employee. According to the National Labor Relations Board, any employee who no longer wants a union to represent him or her is entitled to seek an election to determine if a majority of their coworkers agree.
In mid-August Shores circulated a petition asking members of the Steelworkers to decertify the union. He collected signatures from more than 30 percent of members of the bargaining unit, thus triggering the decertification vote. The National Labor Relations Board scheduled the election for September 17 and 18.
The local Steelworkers union Shores decertified is the inheritor of Mine-Mill Local 890, a union made famous by the 1954 film “Salt of the Earth”, which dramatized Local 890’s 1951 Empire Zinc strike. A number of members of the creative team behind the film had been blacklisted by Hollywood. The director, Herbert Biberman, went to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated communist “infiltration” in politics, entertainment and education, among other industries.
The film was financed by the national office of Local 890, the International Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Union, which was expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1950 for presumed communist influence.
The aggressive, pro-labor message made the film an instant favorite among leftists and labor unions. It found an enthusiastic audience in union hall screenings all over the US. It was banned or boycotted everywhere else. The film and its creators were condemned by the House of Representatives, investigated by the FBI; theaters refused to play it and it was widely denounced by newspapers and chambers of commerce throughout New Mexico.
It was rediscovered by Chicano Movement activists in the late 1960s and remains today a neo-realist classic for its focus on Chicano activism and feminist politics.
The strikers found success in the film but the real union found little more than struggle. Mine-Mill Local 890 organizer Clinton Jencks was arrested by federal agents in 1953 and jailed for alleged communist connections. The Kennecott Copper Company refused to negotiate with Mine-Mill Local 890 in the mid 1950s, telling the union’s members “we have refused to bargain with unions whose officers have failed to file the non-Communist affidavits required by the Labor-Management Act, 1947 [Taft-Hartley]. We believe, with Congress, that the spread of Communism in the United States is fast becoming a menace that presents a serious threat to our free way of life.”
Apparently, Kennecott defined “freedom” as its ability to reap windfall profits while its workers, on whose backs it made those profits, labored in miserable working conditions for immiseration wages. Kennecott Copper Company was the world’s largest copper producer with mines in the US and Chile. Its domestic production at four mines in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico accounted for nearly half of all copper produced in the US and 20 percent of the world’s copper supply. The mine in Bayard was the largest industrial operation in New Mexico and accounted for 12 percent of Kennecott’s total copper output. In the years prior to the “Salt of the Earth Strike”, and despite a series of strikes that shut down mines in Utah, Kennecott reported more than $23 million in profit. It had $17 million dollars on hand in reserve and reported to its board of directors an earned surplus of nearly $165 million of accumulated profit.
While the mine recorded record profits throughout the 1940s and 50s, most Anglo workers at the mine made less than $5 per day. Kennecott paid lower wages to Spanish-speaking and Navajo workers.