History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, today’s topic is the San Antonio pecan shellers strike.
In the 1930s, pecans grown in Texas accounted for half of all of the nation’s production. San Antonio was the center of the industry in Texas, as half the state’s commercial crop grew within 250 miles of the city. The dominant company was the Southern Pecan Shelling Co., which produced as much as one-third of the nation’s entire crop, depending on the year.
Working people in the industry faced low wages (averaging between $2 to $3 a week) and terrible working conditions. Shelling factories suffered from inadequate ventilation, poor illumination and a lack of indoor running water or toilets. The pecans produced a fine brown dust that contributed to diseases like tuberculosis. San Antonio had one of the highest rates of TB in the country as a result.
Owners had little or no regard for workers. One owner said: “The Mexicans don’t want much money. Compared to those shanties they live in, the pecan shelleries are fine. They are glad to have a warm place to sit in the winter. They can be warm while they’re shelling pecans, they can talk to their friends while they’re working…. If they get hungry they can eat pecans.”
Pecan shellers soon joined the International Pecan Shellers Union No. 172, a chapter of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, which belonged to the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). On Jan. 31, 1938, the workforce of shellers, mostly Hispanic women, walked off the job. The 12,000 workers engaged in a three-month strike. The strike began after the Southern Pecan demanded pay cuts for the workers. Shellers, who had previously earned 6 or 7 cents a pound, saw their wages cut to 5 or 6 cents a pound. Crackers went from 50 cents per 100 pounds to 40 cents.
The strike was originally led by Emma Tenayuca, who was active in various efforts to combat discrimination against Mexican Americans. She joined the women’s auxiliary of the League of United Latin American Citizens in high school and was first arrested for protesting when she was 16. After high school, she worked several jobs, but her true calling was organizing. She began to organize with the Workers Alliance before later helping the pecan shellers.
Local officials were not happy about the strike. Police Chief Owen Kilday believed that the strike was part of a Communist plot to gain control of the west side of San Antonio. Tenayuca was arrested as soon as the strike started. Kilday said of her: “The Tenayuca woman is a paid agitator sent here to stir up trouble among the ignorant Mexican workers.” She was neither, her family had deep roots in San Antonio and her strike efforts were unpaid.
Other leaders feared that Mexican American laborers would become aware of their own power and would become more active. Protesters picketed over 400 local factories, but Kilday cracked down, eventually making more than 700 arrests. Gov. James Allred urged the Texas Industrial Commission to investigate the strike and the industry’s reaction and found that police interference with lawful assembly was unjustified.
In the end, both sides agreed to arbitration and the initial settlement was for a 7- to 8-cent wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed soon after that would establish a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour. The CIO was afraid that the big jump in wages would lead to massive layoffs, and they joined with employers to lobby Congress to give the pecan industry an exemption.The exemption was denied, however, and over the next three years, 10,000 shellers were replaced by machines. While the pecan strikers ultimately failed to sustain the industry, their efforts were pivotal in expanding both labor rights and justice for Hispanic working people, in Texas and beyond.
This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on October 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.