The Early Years
Texas' first labor unions organized just few years after the arrival of the Anglo pioneers.
When the Texas Typographical Association was founded in April, 1838, it invited all printers in the Republic of Texas to join. The union staged Texas' first strike that autumn and won a 25 per cent wage increase. But there was little evidence of unionism for another generation - until Galveston's printers and carpenters formed locals on the eve of the Civil War. Galveston Carpenters Local 7, established in 1860, is the oldest local union in the United States which has never undergone reorganization.
Texas' early unions were formed among highly skilled or strategically located workers who had some leverage with employers because of a general shortage of skilled workers in Texas in the mid-19th century. Yet gains in wages, benefits and hours were sporadic and localized, and the only legislative advances were the passage of mechanics' lien laws in 1839, 1844, and 1875. Most workers continued to think that they would become farmers or merchants some day. Most also tended to belong to ethnic workingmen's associations which were not true unions. But the identification of many workingmen's associations with the German community, which was largely anti-slavery, caused many Texans to regard unions as dreaded Yankee innovations.
Many Texans also regarded labor as just a commodity, ranking no higher than property or supplies. When a tallow tank in a Houston beef packing plant exploded, three men were scalded, at least one fatally. The blast also damaged a great deal of machinery. But a
Galveston News writer noted, September 9, 1870, that the "sympathies of the whole people of Houston are with the enterprising proprietors."
During the 1870s, Texas underwent rapid urbanization and industrialization. Texas workers had 10 and 11 hour working days, six and seven days weeks, subsistence wages, no benefits, and abysmal working conditions. It is not surprising that in Texas, as in the nation, the late 19th century was marked by labor-management unrest.
The labor movement in many states and localities has its own distinctive features, and some aspects of Texas unionism seem almost unique in the nation's labor annals. Black and white workers in Galveston usually competed for jobs until they jointly persuaded most city employers to pay $2.00 a day in 1877. They joined together again in an 1885 dock strike to force shippers to agree to an equitable division of labor for both races.
The Cowboy Strike
Labor problems even extended to the cattle country of the Panhandle, the site of one of the few cowboy strikes in American history. Corporate ranches paid their cowboys as little as $30 a month for 12 to 18 hour days and fed them only common rations. More than 300 Texas cowboys went out on strike, April 1, 1883, just before spring roundup, when they presumably had a great bargaining advantage. They wanted higher wages and demanded that good cooks should be paid the same wages as cowboys. The work stoppage apparently lasted a month. Then it collapsed. The effort failed because the strike leader died (of natural causes), and workers used the strike fund for drinking and gambling in Tascosa. After the strike, the workers returned to their old jobs or straggled out of the Panhandle.
It is ironic that the cowboy, the primary American image of super-individualism, is revealed as an oppressed worker. The strikers of 1883 were not part of organized labor. But with the rise of the Knights of Labor in the mid 1880s, scores of cowboys organized into many local assemblies on the West Texas plains. The cowboys, like the miners, farmers, railroad workers and others, occasionally rebelled against the westward march of the corporation.
Knights of Labor
The Knights of Labor, the first powerful national labor organization, was largely a product of the depression of the 1870s. The Knights took in all kinds of workers, including skilled, unskilled, farmers, blacks, and most bizarre of all for the time, women. But the Knights excluded doctors, lawyers, bankers, and liquor dealers. The union demanded the eight hour day, industrial safety laws, child labor laws, equal pay for equal work for women, establishment of postal savings banks and abolition of the Southern practice of leasing convict labor. They also wanted government ownership of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. Equally important, they wanted to put an end to yellow dog contracts, whereby a worker had to swear he would never join in a union in order to get a job.
Texas was important to the Knights. Within three years after formation of the first local assembly in Texas in 1882, the Knights may have organized as many as half the non-farm workers of Texas (as well as many farmers). This was a higher percentage of the workforce than unions have ever recruited since .
The Great Southwest Strike
Railroads were the primary industry in the nation, and a third of the lines in Texas were controlled by the notorious Wall Street tycoon, Jay Gould.
In the winter of 1884-1885, Gould cut wages 10 percent on most of his railroads, though the average wage of less than $2 a day was already at the poverty level and the work week was seven days. Southwestern and Midwestern workers went out on strike. Most were not union members, but they accepted the leadership of the Knights of Labor and joined the union by the thousands. Caught off guard by the unity of the workers, Gould finally
negotiated with the Knights. He agreed to restore the wage cuts and not to discriminate against employees just because they belonged to the union.
Strikes on the Gould lines catapulted the Knights into undisputed leadership of the nation's labor movement. From July, 1885, to July, 1886, its membership soared from 100,000 to 700,000, nationally.
Jay Gould was determined to destroy the Knights. He refused to recognize the union or to pay the $1.50 minimum wage for unskilled labor which the union requested. He finally goaded the Knights into action by firing a union leader in Marshall for missing work while attending a union meeting -after the Texas and Pacific had given him permission to do so. The Knights in the Southwest, under the dynamic leadership of Martin Irons, reluctantly accepted the challenge. By March 10, 1886, more than 9,000 employees of all Gould railroads in the Southwest were out on strike -5,000 of them in Texas.
The peaceful beginnings of the walkout later gave way to violence and the destruction of property. Jim Courtright, a "notorious desperado" who was acting city marshall of Fort Worth as well as a gunman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, shot down three or four
picketers while one of his deputies was killed. After the Battle of Buttermilk Switch, Governor John Ireland ordered the state militia to Fort Worth, where they remained until the danger of disturbances ended. The presence of the Texas militia and more than 200 federal deputies who were also company gunmen had a decided effect on the strike. But it was the virtual absence of a strike fund, the availability of cheap scabs, the presence of corporate spies in all the union assemblies, and corporate control of the courts which also helped insure Gould's victory in less than two months.
The Great Southwest strike, even in its failure, was the catalyst for the birth of the mighty Texas Populist movement. This farmer-labor combine swept Texas and most of the country in the 1890s. The reigning Democratic party in the Lone Star state fought off the "Pops," but in the process adopted some of the urging their of goals. Governor In 1892 James the Hogg, legislature, passed under a law declaring that when an employee left the payroll of a railroad, he had to be paid allwages due him within 15 days. The railroad typically did not pay off such men at all, and the men did not have the money to take it to court. railroads, of course, had the money to take The this law to court, and the disposal of the law by judiciary illustrated Populism's failure to change the the political structure of the state. A Texas court held the law unconstitutional, proclaiming, "Unquestionably, so long as men must earnliving for their families and themselves by labor, a there must be ... oppression of the working classes.”
The Texas Capitol - A Non-Union Job
Given the anti-labor atmosphere, it is little wonder that in the last quarter of the 19th century only one major non-union project was even slowed down because ofunion activity - the construction of the State Capitol. Since the stone used to erect the new capitol was quarried by convict labor, courtesy of the state government, the Capitol Syndicate subcontractor could not attract skilledgranite cutters who belonged to the union. stonecutters knew that if they worked with convicts, and taught them the trade as the Capitol Syndicate wanted, the union eventually would be dismissed. Austin granite cutters asked by the $4 the local, the convicts, 65 cents.
Backed by the Austin local, the National Granite Cutters Union warned all its local unions to boycott the Texas Job. The local membership sustained the boycott by a national vote of 500 to 1. The subcontractor, Gus recruited 86 stonecutters in Scotland Wilke, shipped them to the U.S., in violation and of the Alien Contract law. Twenty-four refused work as scabs, after they saw the situation to here.
National labor organizations demanded that Wilke be prosecuted, and they raised funds to aid in the first test case of the law. Wilke found guilty and fined $62,000. On his last day in office, President Benjamin Harrison, perhaps the 19th influenced by the Syndicate, reduced the fine to $8,000. Although the boycott was nationally famous, it merely delayed the building ofcapitol. The Goddess of Liberty was hoisted the to the top, as the final act of construction, in 1888.
100% Union Town
Thurber may be the only town in Texas that has ever been a 100 per cent Texas union shop city.
Palo Pintoand Erath counties were the site of coal mining operations in the 1880s. Thurber, in Palo Pinto County, remained But company-dominated town in spite of Knights a of Labor-led revolts in the 1880s and 1890s. When the United Mine Workers moved into Texas, it recruited workers in Thurber. After a successful UMW uprising in 1903, Texas and Pacific Coal Company recognized the union.
The union victory was so complete that State Federation of Labor Secretary C. W. Woodman was able to set up additional local unions of brickmakers, carpenters, clerks, meat cutters and bartenders. Woodman, armed credentials from Samuel Gompers, with organized all other workers in Thurber even setting up a federal union for the unskilled.by Union leaders claimed that Thurber wasonly 100 per cent union shop city in the the nation.
At the height of union activity and mining, the United Mine Workers represented more than 4,000 members in Texas. But mining operations slowly died out as railroad the engines began to burn oil rather than coal. 1927, the great mining and union era in Thurber was over.