In the foothills of Pinos Altos, in the small town of Hanover by Silver City, miners walked out on a strike that lasted from October 1950 until January of 1952. After eight negotiating sessions before the contract expired at the end of September of 1850, the local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, called Mine-Mill for short, defied both the Empire Zinc Corporation and Grant County Government. The miners, all Mexican-American men who worked underground for longer hours and less pay than their majority white counterparts, could not win one concession from the company. Empire Zinc refused to discuss any of the miners’ proposals and offered none of their own. The miners had to suffer separate wages, payroll lines, bathroom facilities, and housing—the latter of which did not have indoor plumbing. Their above ground brethren, mostly white Anglos, had plumbing, shorter hours, and better pay—not to mention safer working conditions. When governor Edwin Mechem offered to mediate, the miners agreed but the company refused.
The county government, sheriff’s department, and local newspapers—colluding with the company—eventually opposed the strike with many of the motives were racial. For example, Todd Ely of the Daily Express wrote, “if you have a dark skin, belong to a minority religious, political, or racial group, look no further for an excuse for your ill success.” In a separate editorial he added that Mexico was “poverty stricken” because it lost its identity “in a mestizo melting pot” that lowered its society “to a point little above that of the swarming aborigines.”
At the request of the company’s lawyers, a Federal Judge granted a temporary restraining order that prohibited the men on the picket lines from impeding strike breakers in any way. This action could have defeated the strike if it were not for mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters who agreed to take the place of the men on the picket lines. The subsequent threats, harassment, arrests, and violence aimed at the women jettisoned the local strike into the national headlines and resulted in the creation of popular cult film Salt of the Earth.
After almost sixteen months, the strike was settled when both sides made concessions. However, beyond the settlement and subsequent implementation of indoor plumbing for all company workers, the role of the women commanding recognition as well as respect as the brave saviors of a strike on the verge of defeat is a singular and remarkable episode in New Mexico’s labor history. Their action served as a catalyst for a quicker evolution of a civil rights movement among Mexican-Americans in the area. They gave incentive to the creation of a cohesive swing vote that gave Mexican-Americans a political voice for the first time in the county. Finally, the strike itself opened up the union to give its Mexican-American members more upward mobility.
The Silver City Museum. Museum Director and Archivist, Susan Berry; co-author of Built to Last: An Architectural History of Silver City New Mexico.