The Texas State Federation of Labor was founded in 1898 - on the eve of the new century.
It was composed of trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which had been founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886. The AFL became the dominant force among unionists, as the Knights of Labor faded away.
The State Federation quickly assumed a role in the Texas progressive reform movement, which included farmers, workers and middle-class business and professional people who were interested in everything from improving municipal government to reforming the education system and regulation of the professions.
Union members frequently spoke out on community issues and social questions. And by and large, they chose to operate within the framework of the existing economic, political and social system.
Texas State Federation of Labor President Max Andrew's reports in 1904 and 1905 indicate not only an acceptance of the capitalistic system, but also a belief that organized labor and industry must work together for the benefit of both. Andrew, who was editor of a Houston labor newspaper, believed that business and labor needed each other and that the existence of organized labor promoted stable working conditions and uniform wages.
Like Samuel Gompers, Andrew advocated a conservative approach to all union policies because he believed the only way for labor to be successful was to win the public's confidence. His cautious and moderate approach attracted followers - both among workers and business and professional people. The McLennan County physicians even tried to form a union to affiliate with the AFL. But the Federation policy did not open membership to professions or employers of labor.
By the turn of the century, reports from Texas AFL-based organizers revealed steady growth in union membership. Unions existed not only in cities like Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, but also in smaller communities like Cleburne, Weatherford, Hillsboro, Corsicana, Midland, Palestine, Temple, Taylor, Denison and Greenville.
Individual locals repeatedly won concessions by the use of short strikes, sometimes accompanied by boycotts. Their demands usually included wage adjustments, shorter hours without reduction in pay and earlier closing hours for retail clerks.
Local strikes generated little opposition from the general public. In fact, union demahds sometimes won support from local businesses, politicians and civic groups. In several communities, local businessmen's leagues even solicited labor support for various community projects.
Continued success led to the formation and promotion of central trade councils and federal labor unions. Many of the craft and trade unions participated in local trade councils and the State Federation of Labor.
The Federations - on both state and local levels - encourage<;i members to vote and take part in politics. Leaders instituted "buy union label" programs and advocated repeal of the poll tax because its cost prevented working people from voting.
NAM Offensive Against Unions
Labor movement success in Texas and elsewhere around the turn of the century led employers to conduct a "mass offensive against unions." Led by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), businesses vowed to get rid of the closed shop, advocated by unions.
In 1903, the NAM began a concerted campaign to attack the closed shop as "un-American." The NAM got prominent ministers and educators, such as Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, to endorse the open shop. Citizens' Alliances designed to promote the open shop appeared in hundreds of communities. They sought to portray unions as radical and dangerous. These kinds of efforts severely affected the AFL's national membership, which dropped from 1.6 million to 1.45 million from 1904 to 1906.
Organized labor fought back, however. Samuel Gompers' editorials in the American Federationist pointed out that employers' associations often used one set of principles in their attack on labor, but applied quite a different set of principles to their own behavior. Gompers pointed out that employers used private detective agencies to infiltrate unions to spy and provoke trouble. Then, employers branded all strikes or any other action they disliked as "radical." Many times, their own agents had provoked the action they deplored publicly as "radical and dangerous."
The objectives and tactics of the Citizens' Alliance-open shop movement also received considerable attention from the Texas State Federation of Labor.
"In a majority of cases, the larger strikes have been forced upon union labor by the trust combinations, and so wide spread have been the troubles that they appear like a premeditated concert of attack by monopolistic capital against union labor," TSFL President Andrew said in 1904.
The open shop crusade in Texas focused C::::!./ in 1903 on the streetcar industry, owned by out-of-state corporations. Encouraged by the success elsewhere of the "employers' mass offensive against unionism," Citizens' Alliances sprang up across the state. Following a similar strategy in a number of Texas cities, employers provoked transit strikes by arbitrarily dismissing workers, refusing arbitration and, indeed, by denying all union demands. These tactics brought about streetcar worker strikes in Beaumont, Waco, El Paso, San Antonio and Houston. The San Antonio and Houston transit companies imported professional strikebreakers from out of state, hired in advance of the strikes. Despite open shop propaganda disseminated by the Citizens' Alliance front, workers had community support in the beginning, particularly from the daily press and many business and civic leaders. But the long duration and inconvenience of the strikes in Houston and San Antonio, coupled with sporadic violence, alienated middle-class citizens. And, true to form, the Citizens' Alliance called the strikers radicals and anarchists. Nonetheless, the San Antonio and Houston locals still retained considerable community support.
In spite of the open shop offensive in dealing with the streetcar workers, organizers for the American Federation of Labor from all parts of Texas during the period 1904 to 1907 continued to report organizing successes. By 1905, there seemed to be indications of a weakening of the Citizens' Alliances, as some businessmen began to openly support the use of arbitration in labor disputes.
By the end of the initial decade of the century, organized labor in Texas seemed to be prospering.
Railroad Conflict -Again
Texas railroad shop employees joined workers from Mississippi and Kentucky to the West coast in the massive struggle to organize the Harriman and Illinois Central railway systems from 1911 to 1915.
When mighty railroad monopolies emerged from the cutthroat wars of the late nineteenth century, the railroad brotherhoods already existed. They were composed of the highly-skilled and relatively scarce workers who made up independent unions of firemen, engineers, trainmen and conductors. They did not affiliate with the AFL.
However, most railroad shop craftsmen were not as skilled as members of the brotherhoods - nor were they as essential to the smooth operation of the railroads. These workers did affiliate with the AFL, and included such crafts as machinists, sheet-metal workers, tinners,coppersmiths, painters, steamfitters, boilermakers, blacksmiths, electricians and clerks.
When the railroad monopolies began to impose wage reductions and require piecework in the shops, workers discovered that their individual unions were too weak to oppose the powerful railroad combinations. In self defense, the shopmen adopted the industrial union concept and formed system federations -coalitions of all shopmen of each railroad system, regardless of their craft. The AFL even created a Railway Employee's Department in 1908 to coordinate activities of the various system federations, but it remained largely ineffective.
Shopmen of the Harriman and Illinois Central railway combines formed separate system federations in June, 1911, and demanded recognition of their associations. They wanted to negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions. Frightened by the specter of industrial unions capable of stopping all railroad traffic in one massive general strike, railroad officials insisted that recognition of the system federations would subject all United States industries to union control.
Management said it would meet with the separate unions of shopmen, but refused to counsel with the federation. As a result, the shopmen voted overwhelmingly to walk out in September, 1911. The nation's daily press strongly endorsed the railroad monopolies' cause and refused to publicize the shopmen's side of the dispute. As the AFL's Railway Employment Department President A. O. Wharton explained before the United States Commission of Industrial Relations in Dallas in 1915, the system federations could not "purchase the publicity that the employer is able to secure by paying for the information to be circulated through the daily press. Our means of communication are practically nil so far as the public is concerned."
Although the strike initially involved more than 30,000 employees nationally, the railroads had no trouble finding replacements for the strikers -or guards to protect the strikebreakers. Confrontations were inevitable between union pickets and strikebreakers, the latter often aided by police and troops. Violence erupted quickly. Questions were asked later.
Management refused to compromise and the striking workers decided to consolidate their efforts. The machinists took the lead and in April, 1912, formed a Federation of Federations over the various system federations. The AFL Railway Department facilitated a merger at its next convention when it endorsed the new organization's constitution. While the strike officially lasted until the summer of 1915, management determination and superior resources, along with a plentiful scab labor force, combined to defeat the workers' cause. The episode provided an important lesson to all American workingmen willing to learn from the experience. Management federations were too tough for individual unions. Organized labor could hope to complete only by fashioning comparable organizations.
Craft Union Prosperity
In spite of the railroad conflict, organized Q_,!/' iabor continued to grow. President William L. Hoefgen of the Texas State Federation of Labor reported significant membership gains to the delegates attending the 1912 convention. Many members of organized labor joined together for community work -as well as job improvements. They condemned loan sharks and warned working-class mothers about the "freakish fashions which display shamelessly the physical rather than the innocent charms of young girls."
The period from 1911 to 1918, when progressivism reached its heights, was a time in which skilled Texas craftsmen shared in the fruits of prosperity. Members of trade unions frequently became prominent citizens and their unions won public and corporate acceptance. In some Texas cities, central labor bodies waged campaigns against "blue laws" which prohibited Sunday operation of motion picture houses and vaudeville shows. They pointed out that Sunday was the only day off for most workers to enjoy such amusements with their families. It also became commonplace for central labor unions to provide relief funds for disaster victims and needy workers.
If members of craft unions in the cities enjoyed comparative prosperity and general community acceptance, women and children employed in Texas cotton mills and other factories did not. Texas had from 12 to 16 cotton mills around 1910. They were located in cities such as Houston and Dallas, as well as in the more rural settings of Denison, Bonham and Itasca. The mills generally employed between 80 and 90 workers.
Eva Goldsmith of Houston, president of the state organization of the United Garment Workers' union, appeared before a committee of the state legislature in January, 1913 to testify on behalf of the Lane-Wortham bill to limit the work of women to fifty-four hours per week, with a maximum of 10 hours per day. Her moving account of working mothers who toiled 12 hours or more per day was followed by testimony of mill owners who presented petitions from some of their cotton mill workers who opposed the legislation because they could not afford to work fewer hours for lower pay.
The National Child Labor Investigating Committee reported that Texas mills put adult men on part-time status -or dropped them altogether -in order to hire the women and children at lower pay for longer hours.
These conditions persuaded the legislature to enact the fifty-four hour law. And by 1917, the Houston Labor Journal reported that members of the garment workers' union "are among the best paid female wage earners." Furthermore, the union's efforts had virtually eliminated competition from convict-made goods and had reduced the demand for non-union made garments.
Widespread strikes and testimony before legislative committees in this period brought public attention to the unsafe and unhealthy working conditions endured by men and women all across the nation. People were outraged. And the federal government responded. The United States Congress established the Commission on Industrial Relations to determined the causes and cures for industrial ills which claimed American workers as victims.
World War I
The American labor movement got caught up in the patriotic fervor that surrounded the United States involvement in World War I. They cooperated in industrial production, and President Woodrow Wilson encouraged the government to look with favor on union activities. Wilson's program emphasized harmony between the government, industry and unions.
The harmony was sometimes broken, however. The actions of determined Houston oil producers during a 1917 strike of Texas and Louisiana oil field workers clearly demonstrated that some employers remained adamantly opposed to organized labor -and to the concessions made by Wilson's administration.
Although California oil unions had won the eight-hour and four-dollar day, the oil companies in Texas refused to budge from their 12-hour and three-dollar day .. They used martial law and privately armed guards to break the Texas strike
On the whole however, organized labor expected the overall peacetime harmony to prevail once the War ended. They were wrong. The post-war era brought in anti-labor tactics which included a new open shop movement and a heightened "Red Scare" campaign.
Red Scare and Open Shop Campaigns
By the fall of 1919 employers across Texas JU and the nation reacted to rising prices and sporadic labor militancy by resurrecting the open shop movement which had never entirely dissipated since the drive of 1903-1908. In 1920, open shop employer associations appeared in Beaumont, San Antonio, Dallas, Sherman, and other Texas cities. Texas, in fact, existed in the heartland of open shop activity and in many areas pressure on merchants and businessmen to conform was irresistible, despite the efforts of AFL unions to disassociate themselves from any taint of radicalism.
Unfortunately for organized labor, the open shop became a symbol for the great Red Scare of 1919-1920. During that time much of the business community seemed to equate unionism and collective bargaining with communism.
In a tension-charged atmosphere bred by the Red Scare, the most dramatic confrontation between organized labor and open shop forces came on Galveston's shipping docks in 1920. The conflict resulted in an open shop victory and the passage of an Open Port Law by the Texas Legislature. The Open Port Law made any interference with the loading, unloading or transporting of commerce in the state illegal. Before the law was declared unconstitutional in 1926, it was used on several occasions, most notably during a national strike of railroad shop workers in Houston in 1922.
The open shop era obviously had a great effect on the organized labor movement in Texas. According to one observer, the Texas State Federation of Labor "hardly functioned at all" during the period 1920 to 1930, when it was dominated to a large extent by William J. Moran of El Paso. Largely limited to preserving the status quo, the State Federation during the 1920s made little attempt to challenge the business philosophy of presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge as expressed in Texas by governors Pat Neff and Dan Moody. Federation membership, in excess of 50,000 in 1920, stood at slightly more than 25,000 in 1927.
Reflecting the weakened condition of organized labor in the state, the Federation abandoned its earlier efforts in helping organize the unorganized. Moreover, black delegates at central labor councils and at the annual conventions of the State Federation became even more rare than in former years. Some councils refused the requests of black locals for affiliation. John North, a black longshoreman from Houston, denounced such myopic thinking before the Texas State Federation of Labor and complained about the TSFL's lack of interest in organizing blacks. North also suggested that black workers should not be ignored, because employers would fully utilize blacks in a non-union labor force that could totally destroy black unionism in such well-entrenched pockets as longshoring, where black and white locals had shared work in many Gulf ports harmoniously for many years on a fifty-fifty basis.
Some unions of course, survived the long retreat. Others even prospered. A number of craft locals promoted harmonious community relations, often winning support from the local chambers of commerce. In fact many union members joined the chambers and other civic organizations.
Although much hostility to organized labor remained, skilled craftsmen were able to develop excellent relations in the community. They often won commitments from municipal governments and local businesses to use only union labor. And they jealously guarded their established position by regulating union membership and charging large initiation fees. In return, the craft locals provided reasonably steady work, good wages and even sick pay or other fringe benefits.
This base of operations was much too narrow, however, to survive the economic storm descended on organized labor in 1929.