By: Mercedes Mack
On October 17, 1950, in Hanover, New Mexico, workers at the Empire Zinc mine finished their shifts, formed a picket line, and began a fifteen-month strike after attempts at union negotiation with the company reached an impasse. Miner demands included: equal pay to their White counterparts, paid holidays and equal housing. As a larger objective, the Local 890 Chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was to end the racial discrimination they suffered as a product of the institutions created by the Empire Zinc company in their town. For example, Mexican-American workers were subject to separate pay lines, unequal access to sanitation, electricity and paved streets as a result of discrimination by company sponsored housing, segregated movie theaters, etc. But for now, Union members of the 890 chapter voted to go on strike until Empire Zinc addressed their immediate workplace demands.
By June 1951, the strike had stopped production for eight months. Empire Zinc obtained an injunction against any further picketing. Wary of the mass jailing and fines that would result from violating the court order, yet not wanting to give up their strike, mine workers needed to change their tactic. Female activists in Mine-Mill Ladies Auxiliary 209, came up with the idea that they would continue the strike in place of what was an all-male striking labor force. Since they were not legally striking workers the members of the Ladies Auxiliary, the wives of strikers, as well as women and children in the community, would take over the picket line. For the next seven months, the women held the line in the face of violence from strikebreakers, mass arrests by the sheriff, and opposition from many of their own husbands, who were suddenly faced with the responsibilities of caring for children, washing clothes, and doing the dishes.
The women’s picket was carefully organized, militant, and successful. Not only did wives of Empire strikers, such as Henrietta Williams and Virginia Chacón, walk the line; many women from other towns in Grant County also participated. When County Sheriff Leslie Goforth ordered 53 women arrested on June 16, another 300 women took their places! The women and their children were jailed, their protests behind bars drew national attention, and they were soon released. While Judge Marshall did issue a subsequent ruling that the women were also covered by the injunction, months went by before the sheriff tried again to enforce the order. While the union was politically isolated from the CIO leadership and many AFL unions, the strike had broad support among Mexican Americans in New Mexico. This helped stay the hand of Governor Mechem who refrained, for several months, from using state police to reopen the mine.(Silver City Sun News)
The effect of including women was vital to the success of the movement as a whole. It brought media attention to the struggle because it was unusual for women to be involved in a mining protest. The presence of women evoked empathy from law enforcement, and also garnered support from Mexican American women in nearby towns.
This tactic is clever for several reasons:
It broadened participation- with the inclusion of women and children, now essentially the whole mining community became involved in the movement. This increases the participatory size of the movement (ie the amount of people visibly striking) and involves a group of people who were equally affected by injustice at the larger objective level to contribute to a cause that also would benefit them.
It circumvented a repressive law- while one option would have been for the mine workers to continue picketing and consciously break the law and receive the consequences, devising a tactic that circumvented this law was a move that felt right to movement leaders. It is important to remember that all participants involved in a movement must be willing to break a law collectively for it to be impactful and if that is not the case, another strategy must be employed to the collective satisfaction of participants. This showed solidarity within the movement, as well as flexibility. It also had the unintended effect of temporarily switching the traditional gender roles for participants. While women continued the strike, men assumed household duties and were not the center of the movement anymore.
In January 1952, the strikers returned to work with a new contract improving wages and benefits. Several weeks later, Empire Zinc also installed hot water plumbing in Mexican American workers’ houses–a major issue pushed by the women of these households.
For more information:
Check out the film, Salt of the Earth, a “based on a true story” film about the strike.
A Crime to Fit the Punishment-an article that addresses the strike and the film.