Recently, the workers of the Chino open-pit copper mine east of Bayard in Grant County, New Mexico, voted to decertify United Steelworkers Local 9424-3, successor to International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 890. During the period 1950-1952 workers of an Empire Zinc underground mine north of Bayard struck due to unsafe working conditions and oppressive and discriminatory practices by the company. Management practices had created the greatest hardship for the Hispanic workers and their families, and it was the Hispanic workers who led the strike. When the men were removed from the picket line as a result of a court order, the women took over. Not only did the striking workers endure economic hardship to win justice, there was physical danger involved. Collective action won from Empire Zinc improved pay and working conditions, which never could have been won by a single worker opposing Big Business. The strike was immortalized by the film “Salt of the Earth,” which was made in 1954 by filmmakers who had been blacklisted during the Joseph McCarthy era.
The Empire Zinc mine workers of Local 890 lived at Santa Rita, which no longer exists. Santa Rita has long since been removed for expansion of the Chino open-pit mine.
I initially over-reacted to the news of decertification in thinking that individual and institutional memory must have been lacking regarding what had been won, and at what cost. It may have been that United Steelworkers Local 9424-3 had insufficient institutional memory of the sacrifices and risks endured by their predecessors in Local 890. It may have been that the present workers are too young to have personal memory, and that there were an insufficient number of persons who themselves remembered. (Insufficiency could obtain in two forms – insufficiency of numbers or insufficiency of current passion – most likely a combination of the two. Perhaps also the present workers inferred, because “the company” paid bonuses to workers in non-union mines, that they too would receive bonuses if they decertified the union. Perhaps very few involved in the decision had ever seen the film “Salt of the Earth.” Also involved in my initial reaction was a jumping to a conclusion that decertification had been inadequately resisted. I do not know that to be so, and on further thought, I believe it cannot be so. I can mentally place myself in the back of the union hall and hear in my mind some really impassioned speeches in favor of sustaining certification.
Some time ago, I was moved by a poem, “Hallaig,” written in Scots Gaelic by Sorley MacLean, regarding the demise of his home village on Raasay, an island in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, due to the Clearances in the 19th Century. (I do not read Gaelic, but the poem is quite moving in translation. In fact, I was so moved that I myself visited the Hallaig site, as a sort of pilgrimage.) The Clearances occurred because the landowners decided the residents were an obstacle to more profitable uses of the land. Highlanders and Islanders, historically, fought for their clans, fought when called forth by charismatic leaders, fought for Empire, fought as mercenaries on the Continent, but did not resist injustice, exploitation, and oppression with a unified voice. And there was no system of regulation or oversight that protected ordinary people.
Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” is misused by neoliberals (essentially proponents of unfettered capitalism) as an excuse for elimination of oversight and regulation and allowing corporation and owners to have their way. Smith was, above all, a moral philosopher. His “unseen hand” required certain conditions to be present and to operate. To be an economic transaction, the event had to be an arms-length transaction between equals. A significant power disparity, whatever the trappings of the event, rendered the event null and void as an economic transaction. Instead of a contract or an agreement, the event with a significant power disparity resulted in what I would term an “imposition” (a result imposed upon those without adequate voice or power). I would consider the powerful party contriving to limit knowledge of important factors available to the weaker party, to be a compounding of the power disparity. (I have also made sort of a pilgrimage to the grave of Adam Smith in a churchyard on the High Street in Edinburgh.)
It remains to be said, though, that a lesson of history is that gains that are not guarded, are lost. One often hears, “The unions were a good thing in their time They did some good, but they are no longer necessary. They just complicate the doing of business, cause trouble, and create an unnecessary financial drain on the system.” The neoliberal program seems to include the removal of official safeguards. That leaves the present workers and the present unions with most of the responsibility for protecting their roles in safeguarding their ability to bargain with one voice, as arms-length equals in legitimate transactions, with corporations, ownership, and management.
To demonstrate the neoliberal trend, note the egregious removals of regulation and oversight, and the tax reductions of the Reagan administration. Note the continuation of these trends ever since. Note such economic catastrophes as the Savings and Loan Collapse of the 80’s. Note the Housing Bubble Collapse of 2008, which has not only economic consequences, but physical consequences in almost every community in the United States. Note the BP Oil Spill of 2011, which has not only economic consequences, but physical and environmental consequences for the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and perhaps the entirety of Planet Earth.
I’ve seen the film, and I shall never forget it. If the present workers had seen the film, I don’t see how they could forget it. I was young during the “Red Scare” McCarthy hearings. Having been of newspaper reading age did not give me the background at the time to attach sufficient significance to the proceedings of the time, but the significance of what I had read was inscribed in my memory by what I learned later.
I would like to say also that communities where people belong have importance in themselves. Communities to which people are born, where they have friends and family, where they have institutional relationships, are irreplaceable for those concerned. When people are displaced, their children or grandchildren may come to belong somewhere, but they themselves will never belong anywhere again. In our more mobile society belonging may not mean much to a lot of people, but it means something to those who had it and lose it. The crofters of Hallaig and other communities to the Scottish Highlands and Islands had essentially no voice and no choice. The miners whose home was Santa Rita may have been well-compensated in money for their displacement, but I guarantee that those who belonged in Santa Rita never belonged anywhere else in the same way again.
People, learn history. Pay attention to what happens in your own time. Know that you cannot rely on benign management and ownership, even when many managers and owners are individually decent people. Know that ordinary workers must act together, in order to enter into arms-length transactions with power equal to large economic entities. The closer entities are to being equal in power, the higher the quality of the agreement, because they will take each other seriously. And the better the chances that there will be a true agreement instead of an imposed decision. Don’t ever forget homes and communities lost at Hallaig and Santa Rita. Don’t forget injustices such as the McCarthy hearings. Don’t forget involuntary removals. Read “Hallaig.” See “Salt of the Earth.” Don’t forget anything, lest ground gained at great expense be lost.
Weeden Nichols is a retired Army Warrant Officer and a Vietnam Vet. He is a member of DSA.
Filed under: Economy, Labor History, LaborFilm, The enemy Tagged: | Administration of federal assistance in the United States, Associated Press, Beaver County, Christmas, El Chino Mine, Freeport-McMoRan, HVAC, National Labor Relations Board, Pennsylvania, Salt of the Earth, United Steelworkers