Organizing for Justice
On the eve of the New Deal, Texas was a virulently anti-union state. The state’s leading entrepreneurs, organized under The Texas Open Shop Association founded in 1919, crushed trade unions and boycotted businesses that were not hostile to organized labor. San Antonio had also long been a non-industrial city, with the economy based on tourism and the military, so the city’s unionized labor force was always small. The labor movement that did exist in San Antonio was predominantly white, and leaders often discriminated against nonwhite members.
Mexicanas on the Westside faced occupational discrimination along racial and gender lines, and paid lower wages than both Mexicanos and white women. In spite of these challenges, Mexicanas in the city’s Westside were active, innovative participants in the labor movements that developed during the 1930s. Cigar makers, pecan shellers, and dressmakers went on strike for higher wages and improved working conditions; Mexicanas also played a significant part in the 1959 Tex-Son strike. They faced the challenges of the anti-Mexican prejudices of the Anglo American public, the white male leadership of labor unions, along with hostile owners and city officials.
The labor movement in the United States strengthened in the 1930s, partly because of the dire economic conditions of the Great Depression, but also the encouragement from national government that came from the passage of the Wagner Act. The creation of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) made it possible to unionize workers that were previously considered “unorganizable.” One group of workers that had been difficult to organize were San Antonio’s 12,000-15,000 pecan shellers. Most of the workers in this industry were single women, but during the Depression whole families had been forced into the industry, and faced extremely low wages and poor working conditions. Workers often sat on backless benches, surrounded by the dust from broken shells, cracking the nuts by hand. The average weekly wage was $2.25. Pecan shellers had pressured companies to rescind proposed pay cuts in both 1934 and 1935, but otherwise conditions persisted until January 31, 1938, when thousands of pecan shellers walked out in protest of yet another wage reduction of nearly 20%. The striking workers named Emma Tenayuca as their leader. She had earned their respect because of her work for the Workers’ Alliance, an organization that served the unemployed. The strike quickly grew to more than 10,000 workers, and lasted for three months. Striking workers faced continual harassment and arrest by local police, so much so that the Mexican consul and a U.S. Congressman protested the worker’s treatment. Police also tear-gassed pickets, jailed workers for days without charging them, and took them outside city limits and forced them to walk miles back to town. City hall denounced the strikers as outsiders and Communists. The San Antonio English-language press also ignored and discredited the protests, and disparaged Tenayuca for her connection to the Communist party. On the other hand, La Prensa, the city’s most widely-circulated Spanish-language paper, expressed some support for the strikes, noting that labor leaders were peaceful and orderly. They offered stories from the Mexican unionists’ perspective, and workers’ defense of Tenayuca as their leader. San Antonio’s Anglo labor leadership largely ignored the plight of pecan shellers, offering only token concern over “that class of citizenship that are located on our West side.” But the pecan shellers persisted. Amelia De La Rosa, Natalia Camareno, and Velia Quiñones served on a committee that restored wages to pre-strike levels. The Texas Industrial Commission agreed to investigate the strikers’ grievances, and producers agreed to pay the minimum wage established by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. However, company owners responded by mechanizing their factory, effectively eliminating 10,000 shelling jobs over the next two years. Emma Tenayuca was forced to leave the city. She had received death threats, and so much negative press that she could not get a job, and moved to Houston and then California.
The garment industry was another important source of employment for Mexicanas, and dressmakers staged three other strikes during the 1930s, and these continued in the post WWII period as well. Although many Mexicanas in San Antonio were able to obtain positions in the defense industry during WWII, they had far fewer options after the war.
In the late 1950s there was another powerful resurgence of labor activism in San Antonio. One of the most well known strikes of the 1950s was the Tex-Son strike in the winter of 1959. Tex-Son, owned by brothers Harold and Emanual Franzel, employed both Anglo and Mexican American women, but had begun actively sending work out to Black women in Mississippi. Approximately 185 Mexicanas and Anglo women, organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), went on strike to protest this policy of out-sourcing, and calling for better wages and benefits. Gregoria Montalbo, an organizer from Chicago and president of the Local 180, helped galvanize support for the strike. She also recruited support from some San Antonio clergy, including Father Sherrill Smith. The Tex-Son strike was also the first to use an ILGWU Chicana lead organizer, Sophie Gonzalez. She learned about organizing from her brother, who was a union organizer for the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butchers of America Union. She became the face of the strike, garnering positive attention for the worker’s cause.
For two years they picketed, and experienced two violent confrontations with non-strikers and participated in a regional boycott. The union tried to galvanize support by emphasizing women workers as wives and mothers struggling to feed their families. Emphasizing family togetherness was an effort to ward off any associations with communism and social chaos. The labor press ran stories of strikers’ children, and praised women activists like Dolores Herrera for her cooking skills rather than her identity as a worker. On the other side, Tex-Son company owner Franzel portrayed the women workers as degenerate and untrustworthy, and un-American. Unfortunately, ILGWU support dwindled and strikers were forced to concede in 1962. Nonetheless, the Tex-Son strike was an important milestone in organizing a multicultural coalition of workers in San Antonio.