I recently watched this powerful film that I heard about on a podcast on Latino USA. It reminds us, if we needed it, how much we owe to the unions who fought hard to get the benefits and working conditions that so many of us now take for granted. The film also brings to the fore the major but often unrecognized role that women played in these struggles by keeping things from falling apart by maintaining homes and raising children under very difficult conditions. This film, though, shows an occasion when women actually took the lead role.
The story involves how mining companies took over land that had once been owned by the Mexican-American residents in order to exploit the ores that were underground. But the companies treated the Mexican-American workers (called Mexicans) quite differently from the white workers (called Anglos). The Mexicans had to work alone in the dangerous mines while the Anglos worked in pairs and thus reduced the risk of injury. The Mexicans got paid less than the Anglos but had to do the more dangerous jobs. The Mexicans had to live in shacks while the Anglos got houses. The shacks had no indoor plumbing or running hot and cold water unlike the houses of the Anglos, and so on. The companies ignored the demands for better wages and conditions by the small fragmented unions that each mine had.
In the late 1940s, a representative of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers arrived and helped to combine the small unions into one big one. In 1950 contract renewals came up but the company refused to agree to better conditions and equal pay and treatment with the Anglos. So the miners went on strike and set up pickets on the roads leading to the mines to prevent scabs being brought in.
Recall that this was during the period of intense anti-Communist hysteria and the Taft-Hartley Act required all union members to sign an affidavit saying they were not Communists. But the miners refused to sign. After eight months of striking, the company lawyers got a judge to issue an injunction ordering the miners to remove the pickets or be arrested. Since the miners had refused to sign the affidavit, they could not ask the government to intervene and thus were faced with a devastating loss.
But then something unexpected happened. The women volunteered to takeover the picket lines since they were not miners and thus the law did not apply to them. Over the objections of some of their husbands, they succeeded in having the town vote in favor of their proposal and organized effective pickets, aided by women who came from neighboring towns to support them. The women refused to be intimidated by the harassment and tear gas and law officers threatening to mow them down in their cars. Many were arrested and beaten and put in crowded jails, some with their children, but they never gave in.
While women had always been asking the miners to demand running water and plumbing as part of their negotiations, the miners had consistently refused, seeing them as lesser demands that could wait. But now suddenly things were different. With all the women on the picket lines, the men had to go stay home, do the cooking and cleaning, take care of the children, and wash and dry clothes. It was an eye-opening crash course for them in how hard women had been working all along in taking care of the home and children.
With the women running the pickets, the strike lasted another seven months but the company finally gave in and the miners got a wage increase, extra vacation days, pension and health plans, and other benefits.
A very lightly fictionalized film was made a year or so after the actual events by filmmakers, including director Herbert J. Biberman, who were part of the original ‘Hollywood Ten” who had been blacklisted. Only a few theaters showed it and one can see why it was not welcomed. Not only was it strongly pro-union and showed the company and the law enforcement agencies in a bad light, it made the case for equal treatment of Mexicans and Anglos and showed women successfully challenging gender stereotypes. The film was banned in 1954, the only film to be banned in the US but was rediscovered in the 1970s by people who realized the many important issues it raised and is now recognized as a classic.
Nearly all the Anglos in the company management and law enforcement roles were played by professional actors but all the Mexicans and Anglo miners and their families were played by members of the local mining community, except for the lead role of Esperanza Quintero, the wife of a particularly traditional and chauvinistic miner who tried to prevent her taking part in the pickets. It is through her eyes that the story is told and who provides the voice-over narration. She was played by Rosaura Revueltas who, according to her IMDb bio, was already a star in her native Mexico but was branded a Communist and deported from the U.S. after making this film.
The entire film can be seen for free.
Here’s the trailer for the film.
Here’s the Latino USA podcast that alerted me to its existence. The first 20 minutes discusses the events and the film and the next 20 minutes looks at the legacy of the strike.