In honor of Labor Day, this is a story many San Antonians might have never heard of: the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike.
University of Texas History Professor Gabriela Gonzalez said the 400 pecan shelling plants on the West Side was a dark chapter in the city’s history — a history, she said, that sometimes had three generations of women from the same family working in the same shop.
“They had to all sit together at this long table under very crowded conditions,” she said. “There was a lot of brown dust in the air from the pecan shelling that would get into the lungs. Some of these folks would end up with asthma, tuberculosis. They didn’t get enough breaks. They didn’t have flush toilets.”
Gonzalez said the San Antonio shops shelled nearly half of the nation’s pecans and could do it cheaper than machinery available at the time. But while they were tough jobs, they were easy to fill — and employers knew that, she said.
Gonzalez said the Great Depression had already resulted in high unemployment in the city, plus thousands of broke farmers and immigrants fleeing the Mexican revolution flooded San Antonio.
Gonzalez said the Southern Pecan Shelling Company, owned by Julius Seligmann, and other pecan shelling companies cut the pay of workers, which sparked a three-month strike beginning in January of 1938.
The Texas State Historical Association reports most of the workers earned $2 to $3 a week. But under the pay cut, state historians said they would be paid one to or cents less per pound for shelling, and up to 10 cents less per 100 pounds for cracking.
Gonzalez said the shelling companies had the support of most San Antonio city leaders and the police, who staged mass arrests, often times using force against the peaceful strikers.
“They used teargas,” she said. “They used their clubs on the people and a lot of these individuals were women, so they didn’t take those factors into consideration and it created a scandal.”
Gonzales said even some San Antonio news reporters believed city leaders and police when they told journalists the strikers were communists.
“There was some red-baiting going on at the time because one of the leaders Emma Tenayuca had an affiliation with the communist party, so they took advantage of that to portray the entire strike as communist inspired, which was not necessarily the case,” Gonzalez said. “For the average worker, they wanted a fair wage and better treatment.”
The Texas State Historical Association reports the strike ended after a federal arbitration agreement between workers and the shelling company bosses set a seven or eight cents per pound rate for processed pecans. It was soon replaced by a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour under the Fair Labor Standards of 1938, which was approved by Congress.
Gonzalez said the victory was short-lived after the owner of the city’s biggest pecan shelling company, Southern Pecan, decided to replace workers because of the new minimum wage required by law.
The workers sought an exemption from the new minimum wage law to save their jobs, but the Department of Labor denied the exemption, according to the state historical association.
“The owner Julias Seligmann decided it was better for him to go back to mechanization because the inexpensive labor would no longer be available to him,” she said.
Gonzalez said the 1938 pecan shellers strike may be forgotten by many over time, but there’s a lesson for modern day workers.
“I think the message would be that no matter how challenging your work situation might be — if you are being exploited; if your human rights, civil rights are being violated — it is important to unite with other people who are experiencing the same circumstances, organize and demand better treatment,” she said.
Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at email@example.com