New Mexican miners commemorate “Salt of the Earth”

GRANT COUNTY, N.M. – “Where is Anita Torrez?” growled the sheriff’s deputy at the young pregnant woman sitting at a table stuffing envelopes inside the union hall’s doorway.

“I really have no idea,” answered Anita Torrez with a good show of calm. The deputy had come on the sheriff’s orders to round up those on a “wanted list” of union wives. The frustrated deputy finally went on his way and the women laughed heartily. But it didn’t take away the fear.

More than 60 years later, Torrez is still iron-willed but soft-spoken, so she is reluctant to talk about herself and didn’t tell that story when she spoke on  Mar. 15 at the University of Western New Mexico on a panel titled “From Women’s Auxiliary to Women of Steel.” But she did eagerly share it with family and comrades over a plate of carne asada,  beans, rice, and plate-sized flour tortillas. The meal preceded the panel and was prepared by  brothers from a steelworker local in nearby Tucson using a portable grill outside the same local hall where Torrez outwitted the sheriff’s deputy.

The confrontation took place in 1951 during a miners strike here. The strike was marked by government and company intimidation and violence and a new role for women. The story of the courage of the women led to the making of a unique movie, “Salt of the Earth” whose 60th anniversary was commemorated last weekend..       

The movie depicts how wives, sisters, and mothers from miner families stepped up with women supporters from surrounding communities to take over the miners’ picket line after the Empire Zinc Company’s lawyers got a judge to issue an injunction barring the striking miners from picketing. Both management and the workers knew that it was only a strong picket line that could keep strikebreakers from defeating the strike; the purpose of such Taft Hartley injunctions was to defeat strikes.

Torrez shared more details. The sheriff deputized 25 thugs whose wages were paid by Empire Zinc. There was no semblance of impartiality: they cursed and beat, tear gassed, arrested, and even ran over the pickets – men, women, and children.

“Bob Hollowwa had warned me that they would probably be coming for me so I was ready,” she related. Hollowwa, a grizzly-bear-sized foundry worker was an  organizer from the International Mine Mill and Smelters Workers Union who had come to help out the strike. Off the frontlines, Hollowwa was a gentle and intelligent organizer, and a master of strike tactics. He was a veteran of Mine Mill, as the union was known. Mine Mill was the successor of the militant Western Federation of Miners. It was a rank and file controlled union in the tradition of the IWW, representing “hard rock miners” in the mountain states of Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. 

Bob was there to share the lessons from a lifetime of struggle. A member of the Communist Party, which had been the backbone of Mine Mill,  Hollowwa paid special attention to young comrades Anita Torrez and her husband Lorenzo, as well as to Virginia and Juan Chacon. Organizers Clint and Virginia Jencks were also part of the group that included the two young couples and many more at their club meetings. There they discussed  how to build unity and solidarity for the union and community.

In a 2003 interview, Lorenzo Torrez explained joining the Party at the height of the Red Scare: “Anita and I joined the Party just when McCarthyism was strongest. Many others got scared and tried to hide. But there’s no hiding place.”

Knowing the sheriff was out to arrest Torrez, Hollowwa advised her not to go home, so, she recalled with a laugh, she and Lorenzo just drove around till late into the night .

Hadn’t lived there long

The young couple hadn’t lived in the mining town too long. They both grew up in a tiny village in a rural part of this county along the Gila River. After Lorenzo returned from a stint in the army, they married in 1948. He got a job at the Empire Zinc mine in nearby Hanover, one of a cluster of towns including Bayard, Hurley, Fierro, Vanadium and Santa Rita, built around copper, zinc, and lead mines and smelters. The miners were unionized, but their bargaining position suffered because each mine had its own contract, and each expired at a different time. The various mines were owned by some of America’s richest companies: Asarco, Kennecott, and U.S. Smelting, Mining, and Refining Company.

Empire Zinc mine had one of the smallest work forces, and its workforce was almost entirely Mexican American, according to retired miner and local historian Terry Humble.  Wages there were 15 cents an hour lower than at the other mines, there was no paid lunch, no paid vacation, and workers did not get the same “collar to collar pay.” Workers in the other mines got paid from the time they arrived to work at the mine “collar.” At Empire Zinc, you didn’t get paid for lunch even though you spent that half hour underground in the mine. Safety conditions also suffered. And there was neither equality nor dignity when it came to company housing for the Chicano workers’ families. Unlike the homes of the Anglo miners, those of the Chicanos had neither indoor plumbing nor hot water.

Mine Mill had been working on a strategy for equality and to increase bargaining power by bringing together the scattered work forces of the various mines, aligning their contract expiration dates, and ending discrimination. Mine Mill was a progressive union, and its leadership consciously worked to build understanding that the differential was hurting all the miners. They brought the locals together and the other miners agreed to support the Empire Zinc strikers. The strikers knew they would face a tough battle, but many were recently returned World War II veterans and they were determined to be treated with dignity.

“I knew nothing about unions, and lo and behold, we went on strike!” Torrez told the panel at UWNM. Strikers had no paychecks and could no longer buy groceries at the company store in Hurley. But sacks of rice and beans came in by the truckload along with donations to the strike fund from workers across the country in a campaign organized by Mine Mill which put all its resources into the struggle. “If it hadn’t been for them, we would have lost ,” Torrez said.

Then, eight months into the strike came the Taft Hartley injunction. “There were meetings, more meetings, discussions, and more meetings,” recalled Torrez. “The idea came up for women to take over,” she continued. Technically, it was Empire Zinc employees, the miners, who were covered by the injunction, but not the women. “Some men said no,” Torrez continued. “But the women raised their hands.”

At first many of the men resisted the idea of the women standing in for them on the picket lines. It was dangerous and an affront to their position as head of the household. But the injunction left no alternative. It was the insistence of a few very strong women that turned the tide, Anita said. “They said ‘Are you going to give up? This will be the end of it.'” She recalled. Then, “as word spread out, more and more women wanted to go. They said ‘I want to go if my sister could go.'” And so the movement spread.

As for herself, Torrez recalled, “Lorenzo didn’t object to me being there, but he didn’t go so far as to do anything to make it possible for me to go either. Anita Torrez pointed out that at that time she had a 1 year old at home. “It was up to me to figure it out. Because Lorenzo wanted to spend every minute of the day at the picket line.”

The women continued the picket line for another seven months, ’till Empire Zinc finally came to an agreement with the union. Torrez described the struggle to the audience at the UWNM. “We were striking against discrimination. For dignity.” And “for socialism,” she added.

The workers did not win paid vacations or lunch, but they got a 50 cent an hour pay raise. Not a total victory, but a step toward it.

Went on to become president

Juan Chacon went on to become a long time president of Local 890. Lorenzo Torrez served as chair of the local’s grievance committee for a decade. After a shutdown in the 60s, he was laid off from Empire Zinc and even though he had years of experience as a highly skilled mine mechanic, no other mine would hire him.

The Torrez family left New Mexico in the early 70s for Lorenzo to head the Communist Party’s Chicano Liberation commission based in Los Angeles. He then served 30 years as chair of the party’s Arizona district until his passing in 2012. In Tucson Lorenzo and Anita Torrez helped found the Salt of the Earth Labor College. He authored several pamphlets including: Short History of Chicano Workers, Part 1 and Part 2; “Juan Chacon,” and Sindicalismo Hacia Adelante. Anita worked for 18 years in a garment factory in Tucson where she chaired the shop committee of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Despite its dramatic and timely story, few Americans have seen “Salt of the Earth.” Made by blacklisted Hollywood producers with a cast of of miners and their families in addition to renowned Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, the movie itself was blacklisted and banned from American theaters for decades.

It wasn’t coincidental that the impetus for the 60th anniversary celebration came from the union that now represents the Sheriff’s Department employees, according to American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 18 Communications Director Miles Conway. The union members, upon learning of the dastardly role played by deputies during the strike, were eager to put themselves on the better side of history, Conway explained.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE, the union representing movie projectionists, also wholeheartedly pitched in. They wanted to atone, said their president Jon Hendry, for the role that union played, succumbing to anti-communism, in suppressing the film. Hendry, who is also head of the New Mexico AFL-CIO,  recalled how the FBI successfully pressured the union to order its members to refuse to screen the movie. 

AFSCME and IATSE joined with the Steelworkers Union, into which Mine Mill merged in the late 50’s, in sponsoring the weekend’s activities. Hundreds of Grant County residents attended, including many veterans of the strike and film making and their proud descendants.

Organizers of the event put together a caravan of buses to visit some of the film’s locations. The first stop, Hurley, brought to mind images of the Jim Crow South. Representative Rudy Martinez, from New Mexico’s 39th legislative district described the situation in the 1950s. Mexicans lived on the north side of the railroad tracks, he said, Anglos on the south. The only connection was an underpass beneath the railroad tracks, and access to that tunnel was controlled by a security guard at the north entrance. Schools were segregated. Next to the south side exit of the tunnel stood the company store.  In town, Chicano children were barred from the swimming pool and bowling alley. The theater had separate seating, “The Anglos had comfortable theater seats, but Chicanos had to sit on wooden benches,” Martinez said. This mirrored the workplace division in Hurley, where Chicanos and Anglos were assigned separate facilities to shower and change after leaving the mine.

The crowd also heard from the Grant County Sheriff, Raul Villanueva. He was eager to distance himself from his villainous predecessor. In those days “they were on management’s side,” he told the People’s World. “Now we try to work things out.” That change didn’t come about without struggle. In 1965, Steve Aguirre, a worker at Kennecott Copper, was elected the first Latino sheriff of Grant County, It was Juan Chacon who urged me to run,” he told the People’s World. “Juan was president of Local 890, and they helped get me elected.”

Steelworkers District 12 Director Robert LaVenture, another panelist at the WNMU program, connected the New Mexico miners’ history to the present moment. “We’re in for one hell of a fight with Asarco,” he predicted. That anti-union, multi-national mining company, with more than 1000 workers in an open pit mine in nearby Tucson, is now owned by Grupo Mexico and is expected to fiercely oppose Steelworkers in upcoming contract negotiations early this summer.

Responding to Anita Torrez’s presentation, LaVenture pointed out that workers today face the same kind of struggles, “voter suppression, discrimination against people of color.” He continued, “If supporting Salt of the Earth means you’re considered a socialist or a communist, I guess I’m a goddamn communist!” he said defiantly.

“What have we learned?” concluded Anita. “Women have the right to have their place. We are as strong as men. We need cooperation, we need unity. And we are brothers and sisters. We look out for each other. We want to be equal.”

Photo: Scott Marshall/PW


Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.