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San Antonio pecan shellers’ strike begins, 1938
San Antonio was the site of a major uprising by laborers in 1938.
The 37-day pecan shellers strike involved as many as 6,000 workers, largely Hispanic, and is regarded as the first labor victory for Tejanos and Mexicans in U.S. history.
One of the strike’s organizers was a petite but feisty activist, Emma Tenayuca, an avowed communist who “helped Mexicans achieve a sense of unparalleled confidence and group pride as racial minorities” even though the economic gains from the walkout were short-lived, Zaragosa Vargas wrote in his 2005 book “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America.”
Commercial pecan shelling originated in San Antonio and was its single biggest industry in 1938. The city’s 125 plants annually produced 30 million pounds of shelled pecans — “approximately 700 carloads,” the San Antonio Light reported during the strike.
Yet the industry’s 12,000 shellers didn’t share in the industry’s prosperity. Workers earned low wages and toiled in miserable conditions — some factories lacked water and toilets. The large supply of unskilled labor allowed the industry’s biggest company — Southern Pecan Shelling Co. — to reverse “the moves toward mechanization,” University of Incarnate Word associate professor Patricia E. Gower noted in an article on the strike for the Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio.
At the start of 1938, shellers earned 6 cents a pound for pieces and 7 cents a pound for halves, or about $2 a week. On Jan. 31, 1938, however, Southern — whose owner Julius Seligmann was known as the “Pecan King” — dropped wages by 1-cent a pound.
“A spontaneous walkout followed,” Selden Menefee and Orin Cassmore wrote in the 1940 Works Projects Administration tome, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio: The Problem of Underpaid and Unemployed Mexican Labor.”
“It is a pivotal moment in CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing during the Great Depression,” Vargas said in an interview. He is a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Police Chief Owen W. Kilday’s response to the strike was swift and severe. He maintained that the strike was a “revolution” led by communists “who had never shelled a pecan in their lives,” the Light reported. He sent raiding squads to disperse picketers and smash banners. Tenayuca was jailed for a short time.
About a week into the strike, Tenayuca was forced out of her leadership role because of her open communist ties, which some believed were hurting the workers’ cause. Donald Henderson, international president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers union (part of the CIO), took charge — despite his own communist membership, Vargas wrote. The change infuriated Tenayuca.
“I organized that strike, led it, and then Don Henderson came in, a left- winger,” Tenayuca told Vargas in a 1990 interview for his book. “I was given a paper to sign removing myself from the leadership of the strike so workers could get support of the people here.” She remained involved, however, by holding daily meetings, producing and distributing circulars and sending strikers to the picket lines, Vargas wrote.
Henderson accused Kilday of aiding pecan plant operators in “driving and intimidating workers into plants,” the Light reported on the strike’s ninth day. A few days later, the paper reported police tear gas bombs “routed 300 angry pecan shellers” who had gathered to protest the closing of a soup kitchen set up for strikers. Other picketers were arrested for blocking sidewalks.
The clashes and incidents led Gov. James V. Allred to order a state investigation into possible violations of workers’ rights by San Antonio police, an “intervention (that) was unprecedented in the South,” according to Laura Cannon, who wrote about the strike for her master’s thesis. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech University. The investigation found police had not been justified in interfering with the strike, while also concluding that wages paid shellers were abnormally low and living conditions “insupportable,” the Light reported.
In an editorial, the Light described the standards of living among many Mexican residents as “deplorable.” But the paper said it was Kilday’s “SACRED DUTY” to “maintain order and prevent possible rioting and bloodshed.” Kilday had claimed he was fighting communism and he had estimated the number of strikers at 500 to 600. Two court rulings, one affirmed by the 4th Court of Appeals, ruled police had the right to arrest picketers.
On the strike’s 20th day, calls to remove Henderson as the strike’s leader were finally heeded because of concerns over his communist connections. J. Austin Beasley, an international organizer for the union, took over. Beasley blasted San Antonio citizenry for “protecting one man in his exploitation of the pecan industry.” He didn’t name the individual but he was clearly referencing Seligmann, “pecan czar of America,” the Light reported.
Mayor C.K. Quin, who had supported Kilday’s handling of strikers, moved to bring the 29-day-old strike to an end by meeting with Beasley on Feb. 28. But then picketers were once again tear-gassed on March 2.
On March 5, Allred appealed to Seligmann and Beasley to arbitrate the strike. “I think a settlement can be worked out if both sides will keep out of the newspapers with statements of their grievances,” Allred was quoted in the Light. He also said shellers should be paid better wages “if they can be.”
The two sides agreed to arbitrate and the “embattled shellers began trooping back” to factories on March 8, thus ending their strike, according to the Light. A three-man arbitration panel was selected.
On April 14, the panel reached a compromise that called for workers to continue to receive wages of 5 to 6 cents a pound until June 1, when a ½-cent per pound increase would take effect. Union leaders had demanded 7 to 8 cents a pound. The agreement expired Nov. 1.
About a week before the agreement was set to expire, the Fair Labor Standards Act took effect, setting the nation’s minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. Southern and the union jointly applied for a temporary exemption from the provisions of the act, Menefee and Cassmore wrote in their book. The request was denied, however.
Rather than pay the new hourly wage, shelling companies laid off workers, installed machinery or closed their doors, Mark Reisler wrote in “By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900-1940.” Soon, fewer than 3,000 laborers worked in the industry. The balance were faced with starvation. “Scores of workers trudged several miles daily to the Salvation Army’s breadline to obtain a loaf or two for their families,” Reisler wrote.
Nevertheless, Cannon, whose doctoral dissertation also is on the strike, deemed the walkout a success.
“The San Antonio pecan shellers were able to force the industry leaders to come to the table and arbitrate this issue,” Cannon said. The workers were “able to succeed in Texas in this anti-union environment. But then the federal government, trying to help workers, kind of steamrolls the pecan shellers unintentionally” with the new minimum wage.