Saturday, January 26, 2013

Grant County, New Mexico: A Revolution in the Middle of Nowhere

Mural about the Mine-Mill Strike by the Local 890 and the 209. Bayard, New Mexico

You're driving down a road. You pass through a small, rather despondent town by the name of Bayard. The only thing of interest that catches your eye is a mural on the side of a long, low building. You turn around, go back. Get out of the car, take the pics, get back in the car and zoom off. Nice artwork.

But when you get home and go through the pics, get ready to post them, you do a little due diligence on the ol' "Local 890" cited in the mural. Maybe there's a little blurb in a local paper about the mural, its artist, and a bit of history of a union group that used to be, and that probably is no more.

You google on "Hurley, NM" and "local 890." Nothing of interest comes up. So you broaden the search to "local 890" and "new mexico." (Update 11Feb2013: Note comment below from Anonymous. I had the town wrong, which explains why nothing much came up in my original search. Doh!

Goddamn. What a story!

Mural about the Mine-Mill Strike by the Local 890 and the 209. Bayard, New Mexico

The primary story

Back in the early 1950s, a lot of folks in Grant County worked at the Empire Zinc Mine in Hanover, New Mexico. Americans of Mexican descent were paid less than other Americans working in the mine - there was a two-tiered wage structure to ensure that. Furthermore, regardless of ethnicity, the company didn't pay for the time getting down into or up out of the mine - the clock didn't start until the miners were in place. Mining families living in company housing suffered poor living conditions - no hot water, for example. The company was not responsive to the miners' complaints about any of these issues, and they and the miners reached an impasse.

The miners' union, the Local 890, decided to go on strike. They kept the mine closed for eight months, with neither side budging from their positions. Finally, the company obtained a court injunction forbidding the miners to strike.

In a creative twist, some of the wives of the miners, affiliated with the Ladies' Auxiliary 209, suggested that they form the picket lines instead of the miners. The miners agreed.

The women stood fast against arrests, threats, and intimidation by union scabs, local law, and community members. In one narrative:
"The women’s picket was carefully organized, militant, and successful. Not only did wives of Empire strikers, such as Henrietta Williams and Virginia Chac√≥n, walk the line; many women from other towns in Grant County also participated. When County Sheriff Leslie Goforth ordered 53 women arrested on June 16, another 300 women took their places!"

Furthermore, in response to intimidation:
"Not only did women push cars, drag men out of them, and maintain their lines; they also jumped on cars, threw rocks at strikebreakers, and deployed various “domestic” items as weapons: knitting needles, pins, (rotten) eggs and chili peppers."

So who was back home taking care of the kids and house? The jobless miners, who had eye-opening experiences at home.
"For the next seven months, the women held the line in the face of violence from strikebreakers, mass arrests by the sheriff, and opposition from many of their own husbands, who were suddenly faced with the responsibilities of caring for children, washing clothes, and doing the dishes. In January 1952, the strikers returned to work with a new contract. They had failed to win their major demands, but did obtain significant pay increases that, in effect, undermined the Mexican wage. Several weeks later, Empire Zinc installed hot water plumbing in Mexican American workers’ houses--a major issue pushed by the women of these households."

Mural about the Mine-Mill Strike by the Local 890 and the 209. Bayard, New Mexico

The secondary story

Three filmmakers who were members of the Communist Party made a movie about the miners' strike. They were Herbert Biberman (director), Michael Wilson (screenwriter), and Paul Jarrico (producer).

Mr. Wilson wrote or collaborated on screenplays for, among others: Lawrence of Arabia, Planet of the Apes, Bridge Over the River Kwai, It's A Wonderful Life, A Place in the Sun, and Border Patrol. In some, such as Lawrence of Arabia, he was uncredited because he had been blacklisted during (and after) the McCarthy Era.

The movie was Salt of the Earth, and it included experienced actors and individuals who actually participated in the strike. Filmed on site, the movie production was beset with harassing actions by politicos fraught with commie fever.
"On February 24, 1953, as filming proceeded in Grant County, U.S. Representative Donald L. Jackson (Rep-Calif.), a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), delivered a speech on the floor of Congress that portrayed Salt as a dire threat to the nation. 'This picture,' Jackson charged, 'is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples.' 'If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India,' he warned, 'it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere.' 'In effect,' he concluded, 'this picture is a new weapon for Russia.'”

To harass the making of the movie,

"The Grant County American Legion post distributed printed copies of Jackson’s speech to local residents. Anti-Mine-Mill residents formed a vigilante committee that carried out physical attacks on the film crew and cast. And the day after Jackson’s speech, Rosaura Revueltas [one of the professional actresses] was arrested on immigration charges, based on the technicality that she had failed to get her passport stamped when entering the U.S., and was deported before filming ended. (The last shots of her in the film were done in Mexico and the film had to be smuggled back into the U.S.). Finally, due to collaboration between Jackson, studio executives such as Howard Hughes, the American Legion, as well as the conservative Hollywood technicians’ union--the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)--few Americans saw Salt of the Earth in the year of its release. In 1954, there were 13,000 movie theaters in the U.S. Only thirteen of them showed the film."
In addition, shots were fired nearby and planes buzzed the production in order to interrupt film making.

"Grandpa Walton," Will Geer, played the town sheriff in the movie. Mr. Geer was also on the blacklist for his alleged un-American activities.

Mural about the Mine-Mill Strike by the Local 890 and the 209. Bayard, New Mexico

The tertiary stories

Women's rights. Carl R. Weinberg, a historian and the author of this article, which as served as my main resource on the Local 890 strike, proposes that the women's role in this strike was one of a series of events that informed the modern-day women's movement.

Communism as scapegoat. The socio-political environment in which the strike and movie occurred used communism as a handy shield to maintain the status quo for the mining company and its employees.

Mural about the Mine-Mill Strike by the Local 890 and the 209. Bayard, New Mexico. 

So here's to the mural artist(s) in little Bayard, New Mexico, whose work compelled me to pause for a moment on my way home from Silver City. And to the people of the Local 890 and the 209, whose story is still so moving, more than 50 years later. 


Anonymous said...

Whoever put this together obviously didn't check their facts...this mural is on the union hall in BAYARD, N.M. NOT HURLEY.....

Mzuri said...

That "whoever" would be me. I've always said I'm geographically-impaired, so even though I was right there in front of the mural, I guess I didn't really know where the hell I was. Thanks for setting the record straight. I've corrected the post. Also, your correction allowed me to find this article in Desert Exposure about the mural, which is very interesting: