What an Epic Women’s Strike Can Teach Us Over 70 Years Later

What an Epic Women’s Strike Can Teach Us Over 70 Years Later

What an Epic Women’s Strike Can Teach Us Over 70 Years Later

The 1951 Empire Zinc strike made history and spawned a landmark labor film. Its impact is still reverberating today.


The 53 women and children packed into Grant County Jail on June 16, 1951, were not normally ones for civil disobedience. But eight months into what would become New Mexico’s longest-lasting strike, they felt they had little choice but to put their bodies on the line to demand an end to racially discriminatory labor practices at the Empire Zinc Mine in the tiny town of Hanover.

When members of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Local 890 had gone on strike on October 17, 1950, they’d formed a picket line to keep strikebreakers at bay. But after a court injunction sidelined the miners, their wives, sisters, and mothers voted to take up the picket themselves. They were met with violence and arrested en masse, but they did not take their captivity quietly. In fact, they made such a ruckus that their jailers had little choice but to release them after just 12 hours. The next day, they were back on the picket line, where they continued to walk, sing, dance, and knit their resistance for another seven months.

More than 70 years later, the Empire Zinc strike still holds a totemic place in American labor history. And despite attempts to suppress the story, it was immortalized in Salt of the Earth (1954), a film that was blacklisted at the time of its release in the McCarthy era but that now streams freely online and has achieved a cult following among leftists.

That Salt of the Earth seemed so dangerous then and has become so beloved now signals that the Empire Zinc story is not just a relic of some bygone era—and much of the film’s ongoing relevance can be credited to the women at the heart of this story. In their insistence that race, class, and gender must be equally dignified, they were remarkable for what historian Ellen Baker described to me as their “prefiguring of second- and third-wave feminism.” And they still have important lessons to teach us now—lessons that are especially needed as we observe the first Women’s History Month since the fall of Roe v. Wade.

The Women’s Auxiliary of Mine-Mill Local 890 was spurred into organizing after the miners initiated a strike against Empire Zinc. Miners were disputing years of unfair and discriminatory labor practices, practices that were rooted in pervasive racism that impacted the entire community, including their wives’ work in the domestic sphere.

As Anita Torrez, a member of the Local 890 Women’s Auxiliary (who died in 2021), said in a 2019 interview with People’s World: “There was a lot of Mexican American discrimination…. Mexican Americans lived in one part of the mining town, the whites in the another; the whites had better homes, Mexican Americans had no running water, the others did. That was part of the reasons for the strike, along with the pay—the pay was much lower for Mexican Americans.”

The Empire Zinc strike was unfolding against the backdrop of the Red Scare. Anything that looked even remotely like communism, including the demand for fair labor practices, was liable to be targeted as “un-American.”

Authorities acting in cahoots with Empire Zinc were determined to shut down the strike, and they had a bevy of anti-communist tools to help them do so. In June 1951, eight months into the strike, regional courts invoked the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 to issue an injunction that stripped the miners of their right to picket. Without the picket line, the strike would be undermined by the unhindered flow of strikebreakers. The union was at a major turning point.

At a tense meeting on the night of June 12, 1951, the striking miners of Local 890 were debating their next steps when one of the women in the union hall spoke up with what, to some, was a shocking proposal:

“Why not have women take over the pickets? The injunction spoke only of ‘striking miners,’ so [the women] could picket and the sheriff would have no authority to stop them.”

Historian Ellen Baker writes about this moment in her book On Strike and On Film, and notes that this seemingly impromptu proposal was actually the result of strategic planning in the Women’s Auxiliary.

Some of the miners opposed the idea of a women’s picket out of fear that their wives would be subjected to violence, or that they just weren’t up to the task. Others saw it as an emasculating slight.

The controversial proposal went to a vote at the encouragement of Clinton Jencks, a labor activist who had been working alongside his wife, Virginia, to teach anti-racist organizing principles to workers in Grant County.

“They voted overwhelmingly to be in the strike,” former Empire Zinc miner Art Flores told Latino USA in an interview shortly before his death in 2019. And, he added, that’s when the men “found out that the women worked as hard as they did at some things.”

With a mix of fear and excitement, Anita Torrez bundled up her newborn in the early morning hours of June 13, 1951, and walked down a dusty road in Grant County. She was soon met by dozens of other women and children who had left their domestic duties behind to join the picket line.

When strikebreakers tried to walk through the picket line, the Silver City Daily Press reported that the women “grabbed them and tore their shirts.” When they attempted to drive through the picket line, the women threw rocks and physically pushed the cars back.

“I remember we pulled the hood up on one car and put sugar in the gas tank,” Torrez later told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “We also used knitting needles” (as weapons).

Citizen cops newly deputized by the sheriff’s office responded with force, but even then the women did not easily acquiesce. When police forced Dolores Jimenez into a squad car, she darted out the other side and rejoined the picket line. When they demanded that the women provide their names, they all gave the same response: “Jane Doe.” And when the deputies threw tear gas grenades into the crowd, the noxious fumes blew back in their own faces.

Rachel Juarez Valencia was 14 at the time of the strike and had been ordered by her striking father to join the picket.

Decades later, in an interview for the Salt of the Earth Recovery Project, she still vividly recalled the violence she experienced that day:

As I was going around the circle, one of the cars that a deputy was driving caught me by surprise. As it was moving fast, the only thing I could do was hold on to the hood of the car the best way I could. I was able to hold on for approximately fifty feet. At that time, I knew I was either going to go under the car or I had to throw myself to the side of the road, which I did. As I lay on the ground, I could see some women coming to get me. I could see that a car had completely run over Mrs. Consuelo Martinez, an elderly lady of about seventy-five at the time. The women dragged me back to the side of the rode and the deputies started to arrest us.

After briefly receiving medical treatment at a local clinic, Juarez Valencia was booked into the county jail. She was one of 53 picketers arrested that day, including several children, an infant, and a 90-year-old woman who kept losing consciousness.

In her book, Baker recounts that, despite the dangerously crowded and unsanitary conditions in the jail, the picketers refused to bargain when the sheriff offered to release anyone who would promise never to return to the picket line. They had entered together, and they would leave together. For the next 12 hours, Barker writes, they yelled, they sang, and they clanged on the bars. They also played cards to pass the time, tended to their children, stopped at least one nosebleed, and soothed the infant who was badly in need of formula.

Eventually, the authorities came to terms with the fact that they simply didn’t have the resources to handle this unruly lot, nor to provide basic accommodations for them. The women were released after just 12 hours. They were arraigned two days later, but showed up at the courthouse with hundreds of supporters, once again overwhelming authorities with their numbers and bombast.

The women had upended not only the authority of their husbands but also of law enforcement. They took their newfound power back to the picket line, where they remained for the next seven months.

They continued to be subjected to violence and disparaging remarks, but they were also newly empowered to fight back. When Mrs. Tex Williams, the wife of one of the sheriff’s deputies, made disparaging remarks about the women and the children, whom she called “brats,” in a July 1951 letter to the Silver City Daily Press, teenager Lupe Elizado responded with a sophisticated rebuttal:

“You know why we’re living here, Mrs. Williams? Because we have a right to do so, even more than you Anglo-Americans because this land once belonged to Mexico. We’re not Spanish or Spanish-Americans as you call us. We are Mexican-Americans, our parents came from Mexico, not from Spain.”

The women continued to employ clever tactics to hold the picket line and deter strikebreakers. They made weapons out of straight pins and knitting needles. They stuffed gas tanks with mine tailings and threw red pepper in the faces of their opponents. When morale started to flag, they organized themselves into competing teams for picket line duty. When mortal means weren’t enough, they arranged for a high mass in order to pray for divine intervention.

Finally, in January 1952, Empire Zinc returned to the bargaining table. They ultimately agreed to some of the miners’ key demands, including a wage increase and vacation pay.

The 15-month strike was over at last, but the women’s remarkable organizing didn’t end there. Shortly after the strike ended, Clinton Jencks relayed the story of the strike to leftist filmmakers who immediately seized upon the idea of depicting the strike on the silver screen.

Just a year after the union’s victory, production on Salt of the Earth, a dramatized version of the strike and women’s picket, began in Silver City—about a 20-minute drive from Hanover—in January 1953. The film’s director was Herbert Biberman, one of the “Hollywood Ten” who had been imprisoned for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It was produced by Paul Jarrico and written by Michael Wilson, both of whom had been blacklisted for their left-leaning politics.

The film was, in many ways, an extension of the messages at the heart of the strike. It was funded by the Mine, Mill, and Smelters’ union and, while it embellished the story, it echoed the core messages of the strike and women’s picket by insisting that class struggle is intricately tied to gender and race, and that true solidarity means settling for nothing less than equity on all three fronts. The full script was read at a union meeting, and the Local 890 voted to approve its production. The women of the Women’s Auxiliary demanded a say in this too.

“The women had a lot to say. That’s why it took so long,” Anita Torrez recalled in a 2013 interview. “There were several instances where they did have to change [the film] because of the women.” For instance, she explains that the directors initially planned to cast a white woman in the lead role, but the workers “didn’t agree” and insisted that “this [is] our story…we should take that part.’”

The filmmakers soon found their lead in Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, another “alleged communist,” according to the FBI. Around 500 locals were conscripted to play supporting roles and extras.

Production reignited tensions in the community that had just barely been put to rest. The cast and crew were threatened with lynching and other forms of violence by a group of rabid anti-communists that called themselves the Central Protection Committee. The FBI sent informants to report back on the film’s production, ultimately producing a 227-page classified report. Reveultas was even arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service on trumped-up charges and forced to return to Mexico, where she recorded the remainder of her lines from a clandestine studio. The film crew fled New Mexico after local vigilantes threatened to send them away in “pine boxes” if they didn’t leave of their own volition.

Decades later, the film would become an icon for members of the Chicano movement and progressives alike, but its unapologetic embrace of leftism, feminism, and anti-racism in the midst of the Red Scare extinguished its chances at the box office at the time of its release. Allies were hard to come by, even within the union movement. In an interview, Jencks summed up labor guru Harry Bridges’s reaction thusly: “Why did you have to bring in the woman question? Why couldn’t you have made a straight film?”

When Grant County Commissioner Alicia Edwards moved to Silver City in July 2004, she was shocked to hear the stories of the Empire Zinc women’s picket, and couldn’t believe more people weren’t still talking about it. With many of the women still living at the time, Edwards took it upon herself to interview and photograph them.

“The women generally were really interested in telling their story. And really, no one had ever asked them to tell [it] before in any sort of formal way…. it was just amazing to listen to them and to be around them,” said Edwards in an interview in July 2022.

Some people are still downplaying what the women accomplished. In 2022, Audible released The Big Lie, a scripted podcast featuring Jon Hamm as a beleaguered FBI agent tasked with spying on the Salt of the Earth production. The podcast marginalizes the women at the heart of the strike and the film and instead centers the story of a fictionalized FBI character and his chaotic love life.

Despite this persistent refusal from those in power to treat the women’s story with the respect it deserves, grassroots efforts to document the strike have increased in recent decades. The Salt of the Earth Recovery Project, spearheaded by University of New Mexico professor Michelle Kells, documents the legacies of the strike and film. In May 2022, Grant County Commissioners installed at the site of one of the pickets a new plaque engraved with the names of every member of the Local 890 Women’s Auxiliary.

And now, the Silver City Museum has opened an exhibit featuring the archives of union leader Arturo Flores. The museum’s director, Bart Roselli, says “about a third of the exhibit is on the women.” He also noted that while the strike is still a “raw nerve” in the community, there’s more receptivity to talking about it than there had been in the past. The Flores exhibit, he said, “really brought people out”—some of whom had never before set foot in the museum—and has received overwhelmingly positive praise in the local press.

Despite the unevenness of our collective memory of the Empire Zinc strike and women’s picket, they left an indelible mark on the lives of the women who participated.

Historian Ellen Baker interviewed many of the participants for her 2007 book On Strike and On Film. For many of the women, Baker told me in a July 2022 interview, “being involved in the strike set them up to be able to…stake out a more equal relationship in their marriage. And in other cases, it was a transformative moment.”

That was the case for Anita Torrez, who carried on as an activist for the rest of her life, supporting her husband Lorenzo’s 1980 run for Congress in Arizona, and eventually founding the Salt of the Earth Labor School in Tucson, Ariz. For others, the events left open wounds. Rachel Juarez Valencia, the 14-year-old who was hit by the sheriff’s deputy, still can’t watch the film because, she has said, the experience is still “very traumatic” for her.

Yet there are still ways we can learn from the women’s radical acts of civil and domestic disobedience today. Their story represents a fact that is as threatening to the patriarchal, capitalistic status quo in 2023 as it was in 1951: that women have as much power as they’re willing to organize for, and that that power extends far beyond the workplace.

As we grapple with increasing threats to women’s bodily autonomy in this post-Roe era, let the Empire Zinc strike be a reminder that women and their needs cannot be ignored—and that no movement can be won if we don’t let the most marginalized among us lead.

In reflecting on the strike in the shadow cast by the Dobbs decision, Alicia Edwards observed: “Now of all time, we cannot lose sight of the power that we have as women. When we organize and when we work together, it’s pretty incredible.”

Correction: This piece originally stated that Ellen Baker’s book On Strike and On Film was released in 2012. In fact, it was released in 2007.

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