Michael Wilson’s ‘Salt of the Earth’ script, miracle of the blacklist era
March 14, 1954, ‘Salt of the Earth’ New York City premiere.

Michael Wilson (1914-1978) was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, and educated at the University of California-Berkeley, where he took a B.A. in philosophy in 1936. As an undergraduate, he was active in student politics and joined the communist movement.

Wilson had always planned to become a writer and initially experimented with proletarian short stories. Eventually, his brother-in-law, Paul Jarrico, persuaded him to try screenwriting in Los Angeles, where Jarrico had been writing movie scripts. Wilson moved to Hollywood in 1940 and earned five screen credits before his career was interrupted by service in World War II.

After the war, Wilson was hired as a contract writer for Liberty Films, where he developed his craft in relative anonymity. In 1951 he was called to testify before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. Designated an “unfriendly witness,” he was fired and blacklisted.

1954 poster promoting the theatrical premiere of the film, depicting Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the leading role.

Wilson used his first months of exile to begin a novel. During that period Jarrico and Herbert Biberman, both of whom were also blacklisted, had partnered with Simon Lazarus and Adrian Scott to form Independent Productions Corporation, an underground film company with the two-fold purpose of providing a creative outlet for banned artists and making films that were impossible in the conservative-controlled Hollywood industry.

For months the IPC floundered until Jarrico, on a family vacation to New Mexico, heard about an extraordinary labor action going on in nearby Grant County, where members of Local 890 of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union were on strike against Empire Zinc Company. The militant union, whose membership was principally Mexican American, had been expelled from the CIO for alleged communist influence. Now they were picketing for safer working conditions and an end to discriminatory practices that gave “Anglo” miners higher wages and better housing than Spanish-speaking workers.

The Jarricos drove to the company-owned “Zinc Town,” where they met the strikers and heard their story. The Mine-Mill union had walked out in October 1950 and had maintained its barriers against strikebreakers until June 1951, when Empire Zinc got a court injunction prohibiting the miners from picketing—a serious setback. At the next union meeting, the women of the Ladies Auxiliary had made a bold proposal: “We women…will take over your picket lines. This we promise—if the women take your places on the picket line, the strike will not be broken, and no scabs will take your jobs.”

When Jarrico returned to Los Angeles, he shared his impressions with Biberman, informing him that the women of the auxiliary had not only taken over the picket line; they were holding it with remarkable courage and ingenuity.

“This is it,” Jarrico said. The film they’d been looking for was “all there, ready to study.” Jarrico added that his brother-in-law Michael was the perfect writer for the project. Salt of the Earth is the fictionalized story of the Empire Zinc strike, directed by Biberman, produced by Jarrico, and written by Michael Wilson.

The fact that the film was made by a team of political pariahs was not its only unusual feature. Wilson accepted his scriptwriting assignment with an important precondition: “If I do this story,” he told Biberman, “I want to do it from the point of view of the people of Local 890. They are going to be the censors of it and the real producers of it.”

Benito Juárez (1806-1872), 26th President of Mexico (1858-1872).

A close look at Wilson’s script adds power to its dramatic dual narrative, focusing broadly on the events of the labor action, and narrowly on an emotionally complex Mexican-American couple.

Ramón Quintero works under dangerous conditions in the zinc mines while his wife Esperanza works in the home, raising two children with a third on the way. Disgruntled at the low wages and discrimination he encounters at work, Ramón lets off steam in the evenings in the beer hall. Esperanza, a representative miner’s wife, chops wood, cooks, washes clothes, and cares for her children in a cramped cottage. The routine of her life is one of hard labor. She takes pleasure in her flowers, and in the music brought into the Quintero home by the radio, which Ramón sees as a humiliating object because it was bought on an installment plan and is still being paid for.

Humiliating for Esperanza is the fact that the company homes of Anglo workers have indoor plumbing and hot water; she wonders aloud why such inequities have yet to become a union priority. Ramón condescends, “First we get equality on the job, then we’ll work on these other things, leave it to the men.” Esperanza snaps back, “I see. The men. You’ll strike, maybe, for your demands—but what the wives want, that comes later, always later.” Esperanza fights a fleeting “evil” wish that her third child “would never be born. No. Not in this world.”

When the wives propose their plan to subvert the injunction by taking over the picket lines, Ramón is threatened, at first because Esperanza votes against him in the union meeting that transfers a measure of power to the women, but later due to the changes manifested in his home. While Ramón hangs laundry and gathers stovewood, he laments, at times belligerently, the loss of male privilege. Conversely, Esperanza’s transformation from housewife to labor leader replaces her timidity with an attitude of resistance to the patriarchal status quo.

With masterful concision in both the spoken script and in stage directions, Wilson registers the gravity of the women’s decision to put themselves forward in a traditionally male role:

A 1957 Soviet poster for the film.


A profound stillness has settled over the hall. The men turn in their places, looking at their womenfolk with doubt, apprehension, and expectancy. CAMERA PANS to the women who line the side wall. They look at each other with breathless wonder as the full import of their undertaking dawns on them. FADE OUT.

Wilson’s screenplay also proposes analogies between the outcome of the strike and the outcome of Esperanza’s efforts to achieve gender equality and self-actualization. The climax of the domestic plot comes when Ramón returns home from the beer parlor after a grievance-filled discussion with coworkers. Earlier that evening he had stalked out in anger at the sight of Esperanza busily taking charge of a meeting to plan the next day’s picket line with the women who are now her comrades in the labor struggle.

Esperanza savors the victories already won in her struggle for dignity, but her husband’s relegation to the strike’s “stand-by” squad is too much for him to bear, as Wilson makes clear:

RAMÓN: Shut up, you’re talking crazy.

But Esperanza moves right up to him, speaking now with great passion.

ESPERANZA: Whose neck shall I stand on, to make me feel superior? And what will I get out of it? I don’t want anything lower than I am. I’m low enough already. I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go….

RAMÓN (fiercely): Will you be still?

ESPERANZA (shouting): And if you can’t understand this you’re a fool—because you can’t win this strike without me! You can’t win anything without me!

He seizes her shoulder with one hand, half raises the other to slap her. Esperanza’s body goes rigid. She stares straight at him, defiant and unflinching. Ramón drops his hand.

ESPERANZA: That would be the old way. Never try it on me again—never.

She crosses to the doorway, then turns back.

ESPERANZA: I am going to bed now. Sleep where you please—but not with me.

She goes out. FADE OUT

Shocked by his own depravity, Ramón flees himself and his troubles. Grasping for manly validation, he reaches for his rifle and skulks off on a hunting trip with buddies. As Esperanza’s friend Teresa remarks, “So they had a little taste of what it’s like to be women…and they run away.” But once Ramón is away from society in the natural world, he has a sudden, intuitive change of heart: “Brothers, we’ve got to go back!”

At that very moment, the sheriff is evicting the Quintero family from their company-owned house. As the family’s furniture and possessions are carried out into the yard, union supporters pour in from all directions. Ramón finally realizes the power of a form of working-class solidarity in which both men and women are indispensable. He excitedly tells Esperanza, “This means they’ve given up trying to break the picket line.” Then the two become a team again, whispering to the onlookers and uniting the crowd, who foil the sheriff’s men by carrying furniture back into the house. The outnumbered sheriff and his deputies can only stare in bafflement. The Empire Zinc officials, watching in the distance, agree to settle the strike.

The script ends with a lyrical voiceover that gives the film its title and reinforces its vision of humanity:

ESPERANZA’S VOICE: Then I knew we had won something they could never take away—something I could leave to our children—and they, the salt of the earth, would inherit it.

Esperanza places her hand in Ramón’s. With the children, they walk into the house. FADE OUT.

The question presents itself: How did the screenwriter live up to the promise that his script would be censored and co-produced by the working class?

On his first month-long visit to Grant County, Wilson interviewed women on the picket line, asking probing questions but doing more listening than talking. He sat in the union hall during strike-committee meetings but kept on the margins, blending in without drawing attention to himself. He was deeply affected by the solidarity of the union organizers, miners, and families.

There was another factor bringing the artists and workers together. As Paul Jarrico put it, the Mine-Mill local had been “kicked out of the CIO in 1949 for being a left-wing union. We were kicked out of Hollywood for the same reason. So if there was some similarity in the thinking, it was no accident.”

Nevertheless, it took Wilson more than six months to finalize a script that met with the full approval of Local 890, during which his ideal of cross-class cooperation was tested.

When the strikers told him that his original draft had “too much Hollywood stuff,” he accepted the criticism. In one case, the miners and their wives overruled a subplot concerning adultery because it risked echoing ethnic prejudices. Wilson also changed a scene in which Esperanza used her dress to wipe up a beer spill. He did this because the miners felt it reinforced the stereotype “that Chicanos are dirty, and that they aren’t smart enough to use a towel.”

When told that his draft screenplay focused too much on the liberal white man Frank Barnes saving the Mexican masses, Wilson added a scene that showed the limitations of the Anglo perspective. Midway into the film, Frank is a guest at a christening party for Ramón’s newborn son in the parlor of the Quintero home. As the men discuss strike strategy, Ramón chides the white organizer, telling him that he’s “got a few things to learn about our people” and asking why rank-and-file Mexicans are left out of union decision-making:

RAMÓN: You don’t give us anything to think about. You afraid we’re too lazy to take initiative?

Author Michael Wilson

FRANK: (defensively) You know I don’t think that.

RAMÓN: Maybe not. But there’s another thing…like when you came in tonight—(indicates picture) I heard you ask your wife, “Who’s that? His grandfather?”


RAMÓN’S VOICE: That’s Juárez—the father of Mexico. If I didn’t know a picture of George Washington, you’d say I was an awful dumb Mexican.

Frank admits that Ramón is right, and the portrait of Juárez becomes a key symbol. As scholar Ellen Baker noted in her study of Salt of the Earth, Wilson “understood his task to be honoring the people of Grant County” and that “to do them justice meant to defer to them.”

Just after the film’s 1954 premiere, the radical writer Mike Gold, writing for Masses & Mainstream, elaborated and amplified:

Salt of the Earth, that miracle, first proletarian epic of our film culture, is the first fruit of Hollywood terror. Its making is an epic story in itself, an epic of the underground. What courage, what will to create was aroused in the former employees of Hollywood! They are re-finding the path to human greatness, and laying the foundations of the new American art.”

Salt of the Earth was the most daring script of Michael Wilson’s career. His radical trust in the people inspired director Biberman in the crucial matter of casting decisions, ensuring that most cast members were not actors but real men and women involved in the strike. The artist-worker alliance and model democracy at the core of Salt of the Earth produced a progressive vision of American culture in sharp contrast to a Hollywood industry controlled by reactionary anticommunism.

Calling the film a miracle was not an exaggeration.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Patrick Chura
Patrick Chura

Dr. Patrick Chura teaches courses in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature and culture studies at the University of Akron. He is the author of three books and has published articles on a variety of literary-historical topics. His book, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, won the 2022 Literary Encyclopedia Book Prize and the Paul Cowan Award for Non-Fiction.