Memorial honors labor organizer, professor Clinton Jencks

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A memorial tribute here Jan. 8 celebrated the life of legendary labor organizer Clinton Jencks, who died in San Diego Dec. 15 at the age of 87.

Jencks, an international representative of the Amalgamated Bayard District Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in New Mexico, helped lead the largely Latino union in a 15-month strike against Empire Zinc Co. that began in 1950. The strike became the subject of the classic film, “Salt of the Earth.”

During the McCarthy era Jencks was convicted of falsely swearing a non-Communist affidavit required of union officials at the time under the Taft-Hartley Act. In a landmark 1957 case, the Supreme Court reversed his five-year prison sentence, ordering the government to give defense attorneys statements by the prosecution. When the FBI refused to comply, prosecutors had to dismiss the case. The Department of Justice later cited this ruling as a reason to abandon anti-Communist prosecutions under the Smith Act.

Among speakers at the memorial tribute was San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, who said Jencks was a colleague and friend, and a steadfast defender of workers’ rights when they were both San Diego State University professors. Jencks, who taught there from 1964 until he retired, represented the union on the San Diego and Imperial County Central Labor Council for many years.

Jencks’ widow, Muriel Sobelman-Jencks, recalled her husband’s remark that he “taught economics as if people mattered.” She added that they both “believed that the so-called war on terrorism has become a war on the whole world, eroding our hard-won freedoms,” and viewed it as “more damaging and far-reaching than the hysterical climate of the McCarthy period.” Both felt that “nonviolent solutions and a better world are possible,” she said.

“It is with great sadness that we learned about the death of Clinton Jencks,” said a letter from an auto workers’ local in Canada, read at the tribute. “Clinton Jencks, along with Joe Hill, are unabashed heroes in unionism. Mine Mill Local 598 out of Sudbury, Ontario, is the last remaining Mine Mill and Smelter Workers local in North America and we proudly carry on the legacy of Joe Hill and Clinton Jencks.”

Calling Jencks a true egalitarian, National Lawyers Guild President-elect Marjorie Cohn quoted his observation, “We can have individual dignity only when we all have dignity.”

San Diego teacher Ramon Espinal, a leader in the teachers union and in the city’s Cuba solidarity movement, spoke of Jencks as a believer in the right of all nations to choose their own leaders and system of government.

As the tribute ended, all present joined together in singing “The Internationale,” the world-famous song of workers’ solidarity.

In a ZNet obituary, Marjorie Cohn quoted Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, as saying Jencks’ “life was one of extraordinary bravery. He was a pioneer, such a leader in an organization of mostly Spanish-speaking people. He earned everyone’s respect.”

Cohn wrote, “Jencks said his work ‘concentrated at an intersection of several important struggles’ — the proliferation of union organization after the Great Depression and World War II, and the new struggles of Mexican American workers and of women.”

She quoted Lorenzo and Anita Torrez, who walked the picket line with Jencks during the strike at Empire Zinc: “Clinton’s contribution has not been matched since then. The coalition work which resulted from his leadership was a phenomenal improvement from the past and still is present.” In a recent letter, Lorenzo Torrez stressed Jencks’ personal courage and tenacity in the fight to defend workers’ and constitutional rights.

“Salt of the Earth,” produced by blacklisted filmmakers on a shoestring budget with few professional actors, featured strikers, including Jencks, portraying themselves. At the time, pressure from the witch-hunt House Un-American Activities Committee and others kept theaters across the country from showing the film. Now Salt of the Earth is one of 100 films selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, and is one of the most widely viewed films around the world.

Armando Ramirez contributed to this story.