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|Title: ||Police Brutality Makes Headlines: Retelling the story of the 1938 Pecan Shellers' Strike|
|Authors: ||Dixon, Laura Cannon|
|Issue Date: ||22-Sep-2010 |
|Abstract: ||The 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers’ strike was a unique labor event. It involved conflicts
between a dominant white power elite and workers who were culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and
religiously different. The power elite separated and suppressed Tejano workers, who were seen as
inferior. The five-week strike was an attempt to shake off that suppression. As newspaper reports from
the period showed, the power elite responded to picketers with brutal police tactics, but nightsticks, ax
handles and tear gas failed to curb worker resistance. The strike was important, therefore, because
unlike other Southern labor actions, workers in San Antonio succeeded, with the help of external
actors, in getting pecan plant operators to agree to some demands. National union bosses learned that
augmenting local leadership, intentionally refuting red-baiting tactics by local officials, enlisting
support from sympathetic state and federal officials, and nimbly responding to local actions could lead
to success. Those lessons served the Congress of Industrial Organizations well in later Texas strikes.
The narrative of the five-week strike is long and complicated. Doug McAdam’s political
process model provides a helpful means of interpreting the significance of events. His theory explains
insurgency in terms of how internal and external factors work together. San Antonio’s Latino pecan
shellers, an excluded group, mobilized sufficient political leverage to advance their collective interests
through noninstitutionalized means.
In 1938 San Antonio, expanding political opportunities and indigenous organizing, as detailed
by Matthew Keyworth, were important, but striking pecan shellers would not have achieved their
objectives without help from external actors. Intervention by outside agents – especially national labor
leaders such as Donald Henderson and J. Austin Beasley, state officials such as Texas Governor James
V. Allred, and federal officials such as U.S. Representative F. Maury Maverick – made the San Antonio walkout one of the only CIO strike success stories in the South. Local union leaders quickly
realized that they did not have the resources necessary to overcome San Antonio’s white power elite.
Shellers’ early connection with Emma Tenayuca Brooks, a well-known communist, had weakened
their position. San Antonio Police Chief Owen W. Kilday had capitalized on the communist
connections. He had used them to justify harsh police tactics against picketing strikers. Kilday had
contended he was dealing with a communist revolution, not a strike. The CIO countered those local
tactics by sending Henderson, international president of the cannery union, to San Antonio to run the
strike. He initially gave the local union added credibility. When the local power elite successfully made
an issue of Henderson’s suspected ties to communism, the union brought in another leader, Beasley.
Kilday’s efforts to paint Beasley as a communist eventually failed. That deprived the local elite of its
primary anti-union tactic: red baiting. Once the communist connections were overcome, strike leaders
could pressure pecan producers to negotiate. Shellers won collective-bargaining recognition for their
union, a closed shop, improved working conditions and a slight wage increase.
The union’s success in San Antonio was short-lived. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed just
two month after the walkout ended, eventually cost most San Antonio pecan shellers their jobs. But
that was not the intended consequence. The act was meant to establish a fair wage for CIO members
and all other workers. Instead, it led in San Antonio to the mechanization of the pecan shelling industry
and the disappearance of shelling jobs. Pecan shellers were the only major labor group displaced as a
direct result of the minimum wage law. Nevertheless, the 1938 labor action showed that minority
agricultural workers could prevail in a strike despite stiff opposition from the local power elite. The key
factor was the aid of outside agents.|
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