Heritage of Texas Labor

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 all wages 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 earn living 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 of union 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 skilled granite 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 of capitol. 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 Pinto and 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 was only 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 ThurberBy was over.

The New Century

Laying the Foundation, 1900 to 1929

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

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.

Legislative Reform

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.

Encouraged by New Deal legislation and the pleas of workers, many companies tried to spread out their work, employing their work force as part-timers to avoid layoffs. In Dallas, Southwestern Bell Telephone operators, for instance, worked only three or four days a week for over two years, and in later times company officials liked to brag about how much they had done for the workers during the depression.

Nelle Wooding, who held various offices in the Communications Workers of America, set the record in better perspective one day by forcing a management official to admit that it did not cost the company any more to spread the work out than to layoff part of the workers.

"Of course it (the cost) was the same. The employees helped each other. It didn't cost the company a penny and you had the advantage of keeping a trained work force at your fingertips. And when the business picked up and you needed those people, you didn't have to employ or train anyone. You just let them work more days. Now I don't want you to ever tell me again you helped us during the Depression. You didn't. We helped each other," she said.

The state Federation leadership of Bill Moran and others was not vigorous enough to survive the Depression. Their power over organized labor was broken with the election of Dallas Typographer Wallace Reilly as executive secretary of the Federation in 1934. Reilly, however, was unable to do much of anything about the TSFL's precarious financial condition.

Lack of funds prohibited placing paid organizers into the field, a move used earlier by the Federation with great success. Even after the Federation's treasury was enlarged in 1937 with the election of Harry Acreman as secretary, the TSFL still declined to use full-time organizers. This left the organization of new unions to paid national AFL organizers and local volunteers.

Nevertheless, in the middle and late 1930s, union membership grew.

Union Growth

New Deal programs began to stimulate economic activity after the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The Public Works Administration alone sponsored 1,750 projects in Texas between 1933 and 1939. Building trades unions, along with thousands of individual workers, reaped the benefits of such programs. The building trades were strong enough to form a state council in 1939.

Other unions also grew. Hard times gave workers the impetus to join unions to better their lives. Individuals sometimes sought out the union and offered to help organize.

The International Longshoremen's Association brought the Sabine District ports of Port Arthur, Beaumont, Orange and Lake Charles under contract.

The International Ladies Garment Workers carried on several vigorous and successful organizing drives.

Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers revived their organization and formed 53 unions in Texas during 1934.

Firefighters and county and municipal employee locals sprang up all over the state.

Houston reported the successful formation of locals among the icemen, milkmen, chemical workers, Hughes Tool Company employees, packing-house workers, textile workers, radio technicians, furniture laborers, bakers, glass blowers, and railroad workers.

In San Antonio, a new union of boot and shoe workers was created and negotiated contracts with most shoe repair shops in the city.

Fort Worth barbers increased their membership by 50 per cent, and the Meat Cutters union by 40 per cent.

The unionists of Sherman reorganized their central labor council after many years of inactivity.
Gypsum Mill Workers organized unions at several large mills on the Texas Plains. In Lubbock, the butchers, cooks, and waiters banded together.

Farm Workers

There were stirrings in agricultural unionism too. The Association of Journaleros, formed in 1933, was an independent union of Mexican-American workers of many occupations. It made its reputation in 1935 by assuming control of a strike of some 1,200 onion workers in Webb County. The strike was a spontaneous protest against wages of six to seven and one-half cents an hour. But the strike was lost because of the workers' inexperience and mass arrests by the Texas Rangers. The Journaleros eventually became the nucleus of the Texas Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee established in 1937 to organize new agricultural unions throughout South Texas. In Corpus Christi, the Committee organized a tenant farmers local, re­ceiving some financial help from union carpen­ters, plumbers, and oil workers in the area. Packing shed workers and sheep shearers also organized about the same time, separate from the TA WOC. But all three efforts were wrecked by intimidation by local authorities, lack of sus­tained support by the State Federation and the influx of illegal workers from Mexico.

Legislative Victories

During the governorship of Jimmie Allred, 1935-1939, the State Federation joined with the independent railway unions to reconstruct the Joint Labor Legislative Board, which gave labor a stronger, more united voice in Austin. This device had proven successful in the early history of the TSFL, but had been discontinued in the twenties. Wallace Reilly used the Legislative Board to form a successful labor coalition for legislative action that made the eight-hour law effective, plus a law preventing the sale of prison-made goods that were not clearly marked.

The TSFL also helped pass bills for boiler inspection, creation of the Unemployment Compensation Commission, expanded employment services to all parts of the state, a teacher retirement act and a minimum wage of $150 per month for firemen. The state organization was also instrumental in defeating three hostile bills: a sales tax, a measure that required prison labor to do all printing for the state government and a bill that outlawed the sit-down strike.

CIO Comes To Texas

The Congress of Industrial Organizations, a division of the AFL, split with the AFL in 1937 and set up massive organizing programs all across the nation.

The only CIO union in Texas at the time was the Oil Workers. The next year, however, thousands of pecan shellers organized under the auspices of the CIO. Their union efforts provided the backdrop for one of Texas' most dramatic labor-management confrontations.

Pecan-factory owner Julis Seligmann of San Antonio outstripped his competitors in the pecan industry by reversing the usual trend toward mechanization. Instead, he hired thousands of low-wage workers. Ventilation, illumination, and sanitation were minimal as some 12,000 Mexican-Americans labored 60 or more hours a week for an average of $2.50 per week! A 20 per cent wage cut on February 1, 1938, triggered a spontaneous, desperate strike.

In the absence of any well defined leadership, the strike was Jed for a time by the fiery orator Emma Tenayucca Brooks. Her political views were so controversial that the CIO's Cannery and Agricultural Workers soon took control of the strike and replaced her.

Because the Anglo political establishment of the city perpetuated itself in office by controlling the poverty-stricken, Mexican-American West Side of the city, it certainly did not want any organization arising that might challenge the machine. The Pecan-shellers strike was beginning to do just that. The San Antonio police began to club, tear gas and arrest peaceful picketers.

They invaded homes, tearing CIO signs from windows and threatening to jail people if they did not return to work. Those arrested were crammed into cells under highly unsanitary conditions. But after 37 days of strife, both sides allowed an arbitration board to decide the issues. Small pay raises and union recognitionfollowed. But in October, 1938, the federal minimum wage Jaw took effect. Most sheller plants slashed their work force and mechanized, rather than pay the required 25 cents an hour to a large work force. Wages for the skilled hands who kept their jobs doubled and even tripled, but some 5,000 shellers were terminated immediately and another 5,000 lost their jobs in the next few years. In the entire United States the only major labor force displaced by the passage of the minimum wage law were the pecan shellers.

Another spectacular labor-management confrontation occurred in Dallas. The workers at the Ford assembly plant in Dallas did not attempt to unionize in the late 1930s, even though they were victimized by the speed-up on the assembly line, lack of seniority, absence of benefits, eight hours pay for occasional 12 to 15 hour days and company spies throughout the plant.

One reason for the dearth of unionism was the activities of Ford's "outside squad," which specialized in maiming suspected union sympathizers on the streets of Dallas in broad daylight. Two dozen or so people were slugged in 1937. Also, the city of Dallas was the most notorious anti-union bastion in the nation, ruled by an elite group of businessmen who saw to it that the police did not interfere with the outside squad.

The city's newspapers and local courts consistently played down the violence and
rarely identified it with the Ford Company. Nor did they extend much coverage to the NLRB hearings in 1940, which exposed Ford's heinous record. The board ordered Ford to cease its acts of violence against its workers and to engage in collective bargaining with the United Auto Workers. The Dallas Ford local finally organized in 1941.

World War II

Anti-Union Agitation, 1940 to 1950

Public sentiment and public officials -turned against labor in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as Texas politics were taken over by a loosely-knit alliance of oilmen, bankers and lawyers. During their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s these leaders were dedi­cated to a regressive tax structure, oppression of minorities, avoidance of state services and the use of organized labor as a whipping post.

The first of the establishment governors, W. Lee O'Daniel, on March 13, 1941, dramatically and unexpectedly asked a joint session of the legislature to pass an anti-violence bill to prevent "labor leader racketeers" from crippling Britain's struggle against the Nazis -although not a single man-hour of labor had been lost on any Texas defense job because of strikes or the threat of force to prevent anyone from working. O'Daniel's bill created a felony offense if a picketer used violence to prevent a strikebreaker from entering a plant. But if a strikebreaker slugged a picketer, it was still a misdemeanor.

O'Daniel's bill was ironic because unions made few demands during World War II. The nation was united in the War effort, and for the first time since the 1920s, jobs were plentiful. Union organizing activity intensified, if any­thing, because of the thousands of workers who began working in defense and related indus­tries.

Labor's internal affairs, however, began to play a role in organizing activities during the War. The division between the AFL and CIO created bitterness and raids upon each other's membership. But it also stimulated organizing activity. William Green and George Meany journeyed to Dallas in 1940 to launch an AFL Southwestern organizing drive before some 1,700 delegates from Texas and neighboring states.

Despite some opposition within various craft unions, several AFL affiliates accepted the idea of organizing on an industrial basis. The Operating Engineers in particular enjoyed considerable success in the oil refineries, gasoline plants and carbon black plants of the Texas Panhandle and elsewhere.

After The War

During World War II, wages rose about 15 ::::lJ per cent, prices about 45 per cent and profits, some 250 per cent. After the war ended, workers tried desperately to keep up with the rising cost of living, and to make up for what they had lost during the War.

All over the state and nation, workers walked off their jobs in 1945 and 1946. For the first time in its history, Houston and other cities witnessed massive walkouts of telephone workers and public employees.

Hundreds of workers successfully struck the Waco plant of General Tire and Rubber. General Tire hired a consultant to break the strike, and his first anti-union newspaper advertisement asked why highly paid CIO workers were striking for more money. The advertisement backfired, because unorganized workers who made 50 cents an hour or less discovered that union workers made more money! They flocked to join unions. Employees of three textile plants, a clothing plant, a chemical plant and a cottonseed oil mill came into the CIO within three months.

The CIO generated much opposition among Texas politicians, since it disturbed hundreds of employers, signed up black workers, and agitated for the abolition of the poll tax.

Anti-union sentiment crested in 1947 when the Texas Manufacturers' Association, regional Chambers of Commerce and right-wing extremist groups successfully lobbied for a spate of regulatory laws. The Texas Legislature obliged with a right-to-work law, an anti-checkoff act, an anti-secondary boycott law, a law sub­jecting unions to antitrust statutes and an anti-mass-picketing act (defining mass picket­ing as more than two pickets either within 50 feet of the plant entrance or 50 feet of any other picket). The legislative move reached absurdity when a pro-labor member of the house offered an amendment which would have abolished unions, confiscated union members property, sent their families to concentration camps and lined up all union members against a wall and had them shot. The house voted it down sixty ­three to eight.

The anti-boycott and anti-picketing laws were whittled down in successful legal challenges by the Mullinax-Wells law firm of Dallas. The most expensive case grew out of a charge by the Brown and Root Construction Company in 1950 against the Federation and scores of other unions and affiliates connected with the Building Trades. Herman Brown charged that illegal picketing, secondary boycotting and efforts to force him to hire only union workers were costing him business and were in violation of Texas laws.

The company succeeded in obtaining injunctions from a district court, which restrained the unions from picketing and boycotting. But after four years of hearings, the Texas courts modified the injunction to permit peaceful picketing in connection with any bona fide dispute.

Post War Texas

Controversy and Consolidation, 1950 to 1970

One of the hottest electing in Texas history revolved around the role of organized labor - the 1954 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

By 1954, Governor Allen Shivers' administration had been embarrassed by insurance company scandals and the governor's dubious real estate transactions in the Rio Grande Valley, but the governor nevertheless declared for an unprecedented third term.

The liberal challenger, Ralph Yarborough, solidly backed by labor, waged a spirited campaign but soon found himself connected with a communistic labor menace, conjured up by Shivers. A CIO retail workers strike in Port Arthur had evidently been helped by a couple of Communists or ex-Communists whom the CIO had quickly replaced. But the tainted connection enabled Shivers to escalate an ordinary strike situation (ordinary outside Texas and the South) into a so-called Communist conspiracy that threatened to take hold of the state. The governor could then assert that, "While I know my opponent is not a Communist, I feel that he is a captive of certain people who do not approve of being tough on Communists."

The governor also exploited segregationist attitudes, stirred by the Brown decision of the Supreme Court which was handed down in the midst of the Texas primary. Yarborough forced Shivers into a runoff, which no previous incumbent governor had won.

With less than two weeks to go in the runoff, the governor's closest advisor informed him
that he still needed a burning issue for the finish. As for segregation, he said, "I don't believe that old dog will hunt again," and the "outside labor bosses" hadn't caught on either. The aide suggested "using the Port Arthur story as a threat to businessmen everywhere," and using "the farm-labor unionization threat, especially in West Texas." This meant switching from opposition to the union because it was "red-controlled," to opposition to "the union, period." The farm-labor gambit was risky because of the governor's personal involvement with ranches that used cheap wetback labor, but "it's the only thing we have that can be made to appeal to the West Texas (especially South) Plains) farmers, who are pretty solidly against you…”

This strategy was followed in the runoff. Teams of Port Arthur businessmen appeared on radio and television around the state, describing their city as a ghost town because of the Union picketing. Mass meetings of merchants were told that their towns would be next, unless Shivers was reelected.

A televised "Port Arthur Story" showed deserted streets in the coastal town. Yarborough claimed, and a Shivers staff man later admitted, that the film was taken at 5:00 a.m. Assisted also by enormous donations from corporate interest groups and by the editorial support of ninety-five of the state's one hundred daily papers, Shivers beat Yarborough 775,088 to 683,132.

East Texas

Some of the other struggles of the 1950s also occurred in the piney woods of East Texas, a part of the rural, small town South where unions were traditionally regarded as radical threats to God, home, and country. Workers in the two big poultry processing plants in Center, in Shelby County, were paid the minimum wage of 75 cents an hour in 1953. Many worked in unsanitary conditions, 10 or 11 hours a day on their feet with no overtime pay. Many had painful, swollen hands, but no one was allowed to switch to a different plant job in order to rest his hands. The plants had no grievance procedure, seniority plans or paid holidays.

The workers asked the Amalgamated Meat Cutters to organize them and voted heavily for the union in the 1953 representation elections. The companies refused to bargain in good faith, prompting the union to launch a boycott of their products. Anticipating problems in marketing their merchandise, the companies speeded up the production line in order to get as far ahead as possible should the boycott become completely effective. Some of the womenpassed out on the line.

Suddenly, on April 5, 1954, the workers bolted out in a wildcat action that was soon sanctioned by the Meat Cutters union. Police threats, particularly against black picketers, and a couple of mysterious bombings failed to deter the strikers.

Then the union took note of the numerous oderiferous chickens with growths and pus that the Center plants processed and began anationwide campaign for compulsory federal poultry inspection. They got the active support of public health officials, conservationists and church groups.

Congressional hearings revealed that a third of all listed cases of food poisoning were traced to poultry, as were several diseases that workers contracted. Three died in a psittacosis outbreak in 1956. Meanwhile, one of Center's poultry plants went out of business and the other yielded to the union, agreeing to a pay raise as well as Center poultry workers' first overtime pay, holidays, vacations and grievanceprocedure.

In 1957, the clean-up crusade ended when the poultry products inspection act became law. It established compulsory federal inspection of all poultry shipped in interstate commerce and required the maintenance of sanitary facilities, practices and correct labeling. The Meat Cutters had scored quite a success for the American consumer.

Lone Star Steel

Even East Texas workers who were much (() better off economically than the chicken processors had to grapple with the region’s traditional employer paternalism.

In the 1950s, E. B. Germany, president of the Lone Star Steel Company near Daingerfield, hired a company minister to call on sick workers to see if they were really ill. Germany said he was tired of losing arbitration cases and announced in 1957 that the company would no longer abide by arbitrators' rulings. He got away with it for a time. The union was not able to reassert itself until the late 1960s.


Texas labor did enjoy two spectacular successes in 1957. The Washington, D.C. announcement of an agreement between the Building and Construction Trades Department and the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO smoothed the way for an overwhelming approval of the merger in Texas. The founding convention of the Texas State AFL-CIO was July 30, 1957.

That same year Ralph Yarborough, with strong labor backing, was sent to the U.S. Senate in a special election. In his tenure of over 13 years, Yarborough not only compiled a staunch labor voting record, but also became a creative innovator of bills that benefited workers and consumers.

Although the AFL-CIO merger in Texas increased the strength of unions, relations with governors and legislatures remained tenuous - especially during the administration of John Connally, 1963-1969.

Hank Brown and Roy Evans, who had been elected to guide the state AFL-CIO in the rough and tumble Galveston convention in 1961, were unable to arouse Connally's concern that Texas was the last of the 10 largest states without a minimum wage law or that Texas ranked last in compensation for injured workers. In general Connally's relations with workers (and minorities) were symbolized by a confrontation on August 31, 1966.

Mexican-American farm hands were marching from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin to dramatize their pleas for a $1.25 an hour state minimum wage law. Suddenly, just outside New Braunfels, Connally materialized at the head of a cavalcade of Lincoln Continentals. The governor informed the workers that none of the top state officials would greet them in Austin on Labor Day, since all would be out of town, and added that he would not have met with them even if he were in town.

After warning the farm workers that marches could get out of hand, Connally told them that he certainly would not call a special session of the legislature to pass a minimum wage law.

Then Connally and his entourage drove off. The confrontation, however, only spurred union members to greater political involvement.

The incident symbolized the sometimes rocky road that existed between labor unions and elected political leadership in Texas during the 1960's. Still, the Texas economy was thriving, and workers unionized. By the 1960's, real wages were about 70 percent above pre-World War II levels and fringe benefits often included such unprecedented gains as escalator clauses, life, sickness, and accident insurance, and survivor, pens10n, and supplementary unemployment payments. Further advances were made in paid holidays, vacations, and standard work weeks.

As these and other benefits came to the atten­tion of public employees, many of whom were paid at levels that qualified them for welfare supplements, they came to the realization that society helps those who help themselves. A breakthrough came for federal employees in 1961 when President Kennedy issued executive order 10988 encouraging them to form unions to cope with working conditions and grievances. Depart­ment of Labor wage and hour inspectors, cen­tered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, were both­ered by violations of the standard 40-hour work week and by the whimsical transfers of promoted employees. Management opposed unionization, of course, and utilized the weapons of the mod­ern bureaucracy: months of unanswered letters, harassment through performance evaluations, case reports returned for clerical errors, creation of more paperwork, removal of all union materi­als from bulletin boards, promotions on the basis of friendship and refusal to publicize open posi­tions. Trough dogged perseverance, American Federation of Government Employees Lodge 2139 was chartered in August 1962.

After the rancorous years with Connally, the political climate improved during the 1970's. Brown, president of the Texas AFL-CIO from 1961 to 1971, Evans (president, 1971-1973), and Harry Hubbard (president, 1973-1989) managed to forge better relations with the two succeeding governors, Preston Smith (1969-1973) and Dolph Briscoe (1973-1979). Labor representatives appear­ed m far greater numbers as delegates to national Democratic conventions, as members of the State Democratic Executive Committee, and as ap­pointees to the state's industrial accident board, employment commission, and insurance board.

The Texas economy continued to thrive and grow, particularly as a result of the OPEC oil price increases during the early and mid-1970's, which spurred oil production and refining in the state. The movement of business and industry to southern states, including Texas, further boosted the economy. The good times helped unions prosper too. From 1969 until 1979, membership in the Texas AFL-CIO increased from 153,000 members to 266,000 members.

In 1979, Texas placed in office the first Republi­can governor since Reconstruction, Bill Clements. As would be expected, labor unions did not enjoy the kind of relationship with a Republican admini­stration that it had under the Democrats. Still, the state economy was booming, and union member­ship grew. TexasAFL-CIO membership peaked in 1982 at 300,000 members. The 1980's fared worse for labor unions in Texas as well as labor unions across the nation. With Republican President Ronald Reagan in the White House, the 1980's proved to become a decade devoted to national deregulation of industries, a "free for all" in the Wall Street financial sector, the dismantling of many impor­tant industries through mergers and buyouts and other "get-rich quick" schemes, lower taxes for the wealthy, and decreased attention to social concerns like education, health care, and housing. At the same time, corporations in critical manufacturing industries began to move operations overseas and across the Mexican border, draining the Texas economy of untold manufacturing jobs, many of them union jobs.

Also, in the early 1980's a debilitating oil bust hit Texas as the result of major shifts in global oil markets. Union jobs related to the oil indus­try disappeared by the thousands.

Between the national economic and labor policies of President Reagan, and the oil bust in Texas, membership in the state labor organiza­tion fell off to 253,000 in 1985, and to 215,000 by the end of 1989.

Though improved relations between labor and state governinent occurred during the administration of Governor Mark White (1983- 1987), White was replaced in 1987 when Bill Cle­ments once again became governor. TI1e policies of Governor Clements hurt workers in Texas in areas like worker safety. For instance, Clements oversaw the dilution of the state workers compensation system while in office.

In 1989, Harry Hubbard left office and Joe D. Gunn became president of the Texas AFL-CIO. Gunn, who had served as secretary-treasurer of the state body since 1979, vowed to bring policies and initiatives of the Texas AFL-CIO into line with the changing structure of the national and state economies. More and more union members were coming from newly developing sectors of the economy, such as service industries, a trend that would affect the union movement in Texas for the remainder of the 20th Century.

Editor's Note: This article, except for some additions regarding developments since the 1960's, is taken from the copyright work of Dr. George Green.)

The Present

Strength and Solidarity, 1970 to Present

About half a million Texans belong to unions in 1990. Unions affiliated with the AFL­CIO Federation account for about 90 percent of the Texas unionists, with independent unions ac­counting for the remaining 10 percent.

Union membership, of course, is a function of the demand for workers. Geographically, that means union membership in Texas is most con­centrated along the heavily industrialized Gulf Coast. The numbers of union members dimin­ishes as you move westward, just as the popula­tion does, because manufacturing and industry drops off, replaced by rural agricultural activity.

Also, the highest percentage of worker organi­zation generally occurs where a pattern of indus­try-wide bargaining is found-oil and petro­-chemical manufacturing, for instance, as well as railroads, automobile manufacturing, and tele­phone communications. These industries tend to be unionized no matter where they are located geographically.

But union members can be found throughout Texas across a broad spectrum of the economy, in many different kinds of occupations. One easy way to divide the categories is to refer to them as the service sector, the construction industry, heavy industry, the auto and aerospace indus­tries, oil and petrochemical manufacturing, other manufacturing, and agricultural farm workers.

An increasing number of union members are employed in the service industries, such as communications, transportation, and govern­ment. Throughout Texas, you will find union telephone workers, letter carriers, postal workers, bus drivers, railroaders, and airline employees.

For example, almost all non-supervisory employees of the Bell Telephone companies are union members-almost 33,000 of them in Texas.

A good example of unionism in the transporta­tion industry is the maritime trades along the port cities of the Texas Gulf Coast. The maritime trades, including seafarers, inland boatmen, and longshoremen, are heavily organized, with about 12,000 in Texas.

Government (public sector) employees make up a very large number of union members in the state, and the number is growing. Federal em­ployees at military bases, for the IRS, and for other federal agencies account for 22,000 or so members.

State, county, and city government employees also belong to unions. Although not permitted by state law to sign binding collective bargaining contracts, they still have "working ageements" with governmental bodies. Many such members are employed in sanitation work, hospitals, school maintenance, street repair, and so on. Additionally, many union craftsmen such as electricians are employed either directly or indirectly through contractors by state and local governments. All together, more than 25,000 public workers belong to unions, not counting fire fighters, bus drivers, and teachers.

Among fire fighters in Texas towns and cities, more than 8,500 of them are union members, and the number is increasing. Also, several thousand police officers in Texas cities, including Houston, are organized. All major city bus systems have union drivers, and most of the terminal and maintenance personnel are organized.

Teachers in Texas are "organized" in various ways. Most do not belong to a union; many of them belong to "associations." Still, about 70,00,000 teachers and educational workers belong to the Texas Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

The service sector occupations include union members in some areas that would surprise people. For instance, there are about 1,200 stage and theatre workers in the state, and similar numbers of insurance clerks, office workers, journalists, television and radio artists and broadcasters, and musicians.

Retail clerks and meat cutters who work for major national chain stores also make up a sig­nificant number of union workers in Texas. About 32,000 such workers are covered by union contracts.

In the construction industry, about half of large commercial construction is done under union contracts. Large manufacturing facilities and power generating plants are built by union workers, as well as most schools, universities, and public buildings.

The largest unions in the construction industry are the carpenters, electricians, operating engi­neers, plumbers and pipefitters, laborers, boiler­makers, painters, bricklayers, plasterers, sheet metal workers, roofers, asbestos workers, and lathers and elevator constructors. Together, they account for about 50,000 members.

In heavy industry, both oil refining and steel production are heavily organized, with more than 20,000 members in oil refining and about 7,500 in steel work.

In the auto and aerospace industries, most concentrated in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, about 33,000 workers belong to unions. The workers include members of the machinists, auto workers, and transport workers unions.

The chemical industry, another Texas giant, is about 50 percent organized, while the rubber industry is unionized more completely, from production workers to test-drivers.

A number of other manufacturing and service industries have substantial numbers of union workers, though the percentage of workers organized is less than half. Included in this group are the forest products industry, paper products, food processing, asbestos, plastics, brick, glass, stone, cement, containers, electrical equipment, machinery, and printing.

Another important category of unionism in Texas is agricultural farm workers. Union growth in this category, especially in the South Texas region, has been difficult despite many attempts by farm workers over the years. Farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley have not yet succeeded in negotiating union contracts, largely because they are not covered by laws providing for union elections, as other workers are.

As for the future of unionism in Texas, as indus­try rebounds and as service workers and public sector employees become increasingly aware of the many benefits of unionism, a steady growth in the numbers of union members is expected.