The struggle of railway workers was at least three years in the making. The recently-announced agreement between freight rail workers and the corporations that oversee their labor contracts, reached after 20 hours of negotiation, is hardly the end. While both elected Republicans and Democrats have ignored, dismissed, and downplayed the demand of the workers in this sector of the economy over the past decade, rank-and-file workers within different sectors of the freight transportation industry have continued to organize.
As Vox reports, "Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions."
The strike planned for Friday September 16 has been averted—for now. Union members will vote in the next few weeks. The engineering and conductors union is still not in agreement with the new terms. Their votes will be determinant.
This scenario—organized attempts at negotiation, rebuttals, the threat of dismissals from management and owners, the threat of a strike that leads to a hasty negotiation and a brief impasse – is a long-standing script of US American capitalism.
Yet, this dialectic is not inevitable or new. Contingency and the efforts of workers to struggle for better condition can cause different outcomes than simply power enforcing itself through soft coercion and violent consent.
Take, for example, labor organizing in the copper mines of the US Southwest during the 20th century in New Mexico, and the film Salt of the Earth. Narrating the events of the Empire Zinc Strike in Grant County, New Mexico, in 1952, the feature film Salt of the Earth was released a short two years later in 1954.
In the 1952 labor action, workers from the radical International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) Local 890 shut down the mine of this transnational company, while local law enforcement colluded with mine owners to violently break the strike. Check out Palomino: Clinton Jencks and Mexican-American Unionism in the American Southwest for more on the strike.
Salt of the Earth depicts these events from the perspective of the miners and their families. It is a brave and searing critique of capitalism, white supremacy, US nationalism, and patriarchy. Salt of the Earth is a feminist labor story, centering the voices and stories of workers collectively organizing for, and sometimes disagreeing about, social change.
After a worker is injured on the job, a strike is organized. The striking miners are arrested for violating an injunction of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, in response to which women take over on the picket line. Then they too are arrested. Esperanza Quintero and Ramón Quintero are the central protagonists. Married and expecting a child—who is born during the strike—they represent the struggle against the mining company, and the rapacious extractive capitalism, which is also a struggle around social relations and the terms of order—at work and at home.
Rosaura Revueltas, a well-known Mexican actress played Esperanza, while Juan Chacón, a non-professional actor in his first role was cast as Ramón. The majority of the cast was from Grant county, New Mexico, and/or a member of the union who had taken part in the strike. The 1966 French film by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, that depicted the last years of the Algerian Revolution, made a similar casting decision: the residents of the Algerian Casbah and participants in the revolutionary struggle made up the cast of that film, which the French government banned from being shown well into the 1970s
This was smack dab in the middle of the anti-communism trials and blacklisting of suspected radicals in Hollywood (YEAR/s).
Click here for research on the trials of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the origins of the blacklists. For more on the cultural and social history of the Hollywood blacklists, click here.
The IUMMSW was expelled from the AFL-CIO in 1950 for not denouncing communism. Salt of the Earth was blacklisted and the anti-communist clamor destroyed Revueltas's career. As the New York Times obituary for Revueltas indicates, "The film barely got made, after powerful figures in Hollywood and the Government began attacking it. Members of the miners' union received death threats from local vigilantes, who set fire to the union's headquarters in Silver City, N.M. Toward the end of filming, Ms. Revueltas was arrested by immigration officials and charged with entering the United States illegally. She was deported to Mexico and the film makers had to use a double for the remainder of the movie. Once in Mexico, she was banned from acting there and never acted again."
For more on the censorship and politics of the cold war marshaled against the film, see The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. Click here for the director, Herbert Biberman's, memoir of making the movie. Finally, check out the recent creation of The Salt of the Earth Recovery Project, "to honor the stories of the women and men of Local 890 and to support restoration and preservation of the Local 890 union hall in Bayard, New Mexico for the benefit of the local community, the citizens of New Mexico, and the historic memory of the nation."
Miners, rail workers, nurses, students, baristas, warehouse, and cannabis workers are flexing. Their respective industries are flexing back. Who makes money from your labor? What do these struggles reveal about what is possible for a different tomorrow?