• Police Brutality Makes Headlines: Retelling the story of the 1938 Pecan Shellers' Strike

      Dixon, Laura Cannon (2010-09-22)
      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.