Maria del Refugio Martinez Ernst
Leader of the Cigar Makers Strikes
When more than 300 workers for the Finck Cigar Company went on strike in August 1933, San Antonio journalists interviewed their leader, who was described only as “Mrs. W.H. Ernst.” In the previous months, Mrs. Ernst had led the strike of cigar workers, formed a union and served as spokesperson in negotiations with regional and national labor boards. The Finck Cigar strike was one of the most significant efforts of Mexican American women to rally for better wages and working conditions during the Great Depression, and would influence future labor movements. During this time, Mrs. Ernst is quoted frequently in local newspapers, but not much else has been documented about her life on the Westside. This profile is an effort to uncover more of Mrs. Ernst’s story.
Maria del Refugio Martinez was born around 1900 in Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States in 1913. In 1921 she married Henry Ernst, a son of German immigrants. In 1927 she purchased a home at 244 Oriental Avenue. She and her husband would be listed in several city directories at the same address during the next decade. By looking at the 1930 census, we know that they are also living with her two younger brothers: Arcenio Lenar, Abdiaz and his wife Emilia, and her nephew Jesus. Her husband was listed as a sheet metal engineer at an ice factory, but he was unemployed at the time. Maria was listed as a cigar maker. Another interesting thing to note from the 1930 census is that Maria and her siblings’ race is initially listed as white (with a “W”), but the census enumerator (presumably) crossed this out for “MEX” for “Mexican”. This was the one decade that the federal government racialized Mexican identity, noting that anyone born in Mexico or with parents born in Mexico, “who are not definitely white, Negro, Indian, Chinese or Japanese” should be designated as a separate racial category.
In 1933 Maria was still working as a cigar maker. At the time, the cigar industry was transitioning from small single-owner plants with cigars made by hand by skilled workers to become larger, more mechanized, and relying more on “unskilled” labor. The overall number of cigar plants was decreasing, as factories were hiring fewer workers and union membership was declining. Maria worked for the Finck Cigar Factory, named for its founder, Henry William Finck, who had started the company in 1893. In the early years of the company, he had lived in a rented house just south of Fort Sam Houston, and made and sold the cigars himself. By the 1930s the Finck Cigar Company had grown to employ more than 500 workers, most of them women of Mexican descent. The Finck factory paid some of the lowest wages of any industry in the city; working conditions were poor, with badly lit and poorly ventilated packing rooms where most women had to stand while they worked. Washing rooms had no hot water or towels. Most of the women working there were under the age of 25 and unmarried, so at 33 years old, Maria was probably one of the more experienced workers at the factory. The company was located at 602 Buena Vista Street. In January of 1933 Henry William Finck died, and his son Ed took over management of the company. By the summer of that year, his workers were making major complaints. By the end of the summer, they were organizing to challenge the low pay and poor working conditions of the factory.
The first reports in the local news of labor unrest at the Finck Company came on August 4, 1933, when the San Antonio Light reported “GIRLS AT CIGAR FACTORY GO ON STRIKE”. The article noted that approximately 400 women, mostly of Mexican descent, went on strike. When the factory doors opened at 6 am they refused to enter, and instead congregated across the street. The leader of the strike was noted as Mrs. W.H. Ernst, who demanded to meet with Ed Finck, in order to present the workers’ demands. Later testimony indicates what triggered the walkout; a man representing the women workers at a regional labor board meeting said; “I am told that on August 3 about noontime that some lady who was passing through change of life was ill. Mrs. Ernst was rendering first aid to this lady. I am told that she was ordered out regardless of her ill condition. I am told this lady left the restroom partly dressed. This, I believe, is the primary reason for the ladies not going back to work the following morning.” Maria and her fellow strikers were protesting not only the poor working conditions, but the inhumane treatment by management.
Maria also sent a letter to Ed Finck outlining the women’s demands. She said “we refuse to go to lunch in our work clothes; we do not want to be on the job when there is no work to be done; we refuse to sweep up the place–somebody else should be hired to do it; and we want another supervisor–someone who will treat us with respect and consideration that employees deserve; we don’t want to be treated like slaves.” La Prensa also covered the strike, noting that the women wanted justice, improvement of their work situation, and appreciation for their work. Maria and other leaders of the strike described one of their major complaints, linked to the piece work system that they had to follow. The factory had begun penalizing workers three good cigars for each “unsatisfactory” cigar rolled. Previously the penalty had been two good cigars for a single bad one. Maria said that they were only permitted to leave four minutes at a time.
Maria also noted that workers were paid about $2 to $7 per week, because Finck controlled production to keep wages low– once they finished rolling 500 cigars, they weren’t allowed to make more. She was essentially charging Finck with undercutting the NRA codes. Comparatively, white women cigar makers had a median weekly wage of $16.65 and bunchmakers $17.25. Finck was paying wages below the national average and below NRA code stipulations.
To sustain the strike, Maria and three other leaders: Modesta Herrera, Adela Hernandez and Mrs. E. J. Padilla, organized the striking women into crews of four. Wearing badges and holding signs describing conditions at Finck’s, they picketed the plant daily. They also raised funds to hold a carnival at a local school; Maria and a committee of five presented a demand to city officials that the Finck plant be inspected for health violations as well. They used all the tactics they could to call greater attention to their grievances.
About two weeks later it looked as if the company and the striking workers might reach an accord. On August 20, the San Antonio Light reported that the women had formed a union. San Antonio Mayor C. K. Quin tried to mediate, meeting with both groups at different times. Maria Ernst was the spokesperson for the strikers, requesting permission to continue picketing without interference from police. He granted permission to continue picketing, on the condition that the strike remained nonviolent and didn’t block traffic. Maria wanted the company to recognize the union. The next day, picketing temporarily ceased, as the company signed a certificate of compliance with an NRA code. On August 25, 1933 the local press reported that the strike was over. Workers had achieved a raise in their wages to a minimum wage of $9 a week (for rollers). The company claimed that they had improved sanitary conditions as well. For the most part, however, the company refused to recognize the strikers’ grievances. They did not re-employ many of the striking workers, and they had secured special dispensation to allow them to maintain some workers’ salaries below industry codes.
Less than a week after this announcement, more troubles were reported in the Light. The mayor decided he would no longer attempt to be involved. Maria Ernst appeared at city hall to complain of continuing problems– a shortage of brooms for cleaning the shop, causing the women to work overtime. In early September Maria was arrested along with Margarita Martinez by police, after a confrontation with Finck. They had been charged with “disturbing the peace” and making threats. From her jail cell, Maria said that Finck had shoved her off the sidewalk.
In February of 1934 Ed Finck was called to testify at the Regional Labor Board meeting. Maria and other workers said that they had been discharged because they belonged to the union, and that their daily work quotas were increased. At the time, Maria was the president of the union, though she noted that she was never allowed to return to work after the strike. Finck said that this was because she was not an American citizen, and he wished to give American citizens the preference. Maria said that she was born in Mexico, but had resided in the United States nearly all her life, and that her husband was an American citizen. The Regional Labor board found that the workers were subject to “gross discrimination” and “doubly in need of protection.”, noting that 100 workers should be reinstated; they also provided a plan which would include collective bargaining with a committee of employees, but Finck noted that he would appeal the board’s decision.
“We refuse to go to lunch in our work clothes; we do not want to be on the job when there is no work to be done; we refuse to sweep up the place–somebody else should be hired to do it; and we want another supervisor–someone who will treat us with respect and consideration that employees deserve."
--Maria Ernst, in her list of demands to the Finck Cigar Company
San Antonio Light Collection, Courtesy of the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections