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Fronteras Extra: Texas Labor Actions Lead To Reform

Filmmaker Anne Lewis creates films that focus on social action, human rights, and environmental justice. Her new documentary, “A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas),” covers two monumental worker uprisings in the Lone Star State: the 1938 Pecan Shellers strike, and a 1987 march by Stephen F. Austin University employees in Nacogdoches.

In 1938, pecan shellers in San Antonio went on strike. The shellers, who were mainly women, children, the elderly and often undocumented, worked in enclosed rooms with little ventilation and no sanitary facilities. Local labor and civil rights leader Emma Tenayuca took up their cause.

WATCH | Trailer for 'A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas)'

https://vimeo.com/233255834">A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas) from https://vimeo.com/user1702407">Anne Lewis on Vimeo.

Credit Todd Wolfson
Anne Lewis

San Antonio and local police officials never recognized the action as a strike. Instead, because of Tenayuca’s ties to communism, officials viewed this as more of apolitical uprising, Lewis said.

“She was a very committed communist, which if you look at what that meant particularly at that time — we’re talking later 30’s— that was not a shameful thing to be,” Lewis said. “An awful lot of leftists were in San Antonio for that strike, not just (the) communist party but also socialist, left unionist, also anarchist.”

But even though the strikers eventually won their cause, new labor laws defeated their efforts, Lewis said. That’s because, in June of 1938, the minimum wage law went through, setting wages at 25 cents an hour. 

Anne Lewis talks about the wage struggles faced by the pecan shellers.
A black and white photo of Emma Tenayuca.
Credit San Antonio Light UTSA Libraries Special Collections
Emma Tenayuca

The Southern Pecan Shelling Company was paying its workers pennies per pound of nuts shelled.

“So if you look at the difference between 8 cents and 25 cents ... there was a reaction on a part of the companies which was to go ahead and mechanize,” Lewis said. “So basically they mechanized the industry and that was kind of it for the pecan shellers, so they lost their jobs.”

Lewis’ film also focuses on the 1987 “Jobs With Justice” march in the east Texas town of Nacogdoches.

Anne Lewis talks about her perception of change over time regarding workers' conflicts.
Credit Texas State Employees Union (TSEU-CWA 6186)
1987 Jobs With Justice march, Nacogdoches, TX

Custodial worker Annie Mae Carpenter filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Stephen F. Austin State University in 1977. Ten years later, 3,000 labor unionists, civil rights and women’s activists marched on Nacogdoches. Efforts by organizers led to unionization and $800,000 in back pay for some workers. While changes in labor laws and civil rights may seem slow in coming, Lewis said, “I don’t think change is a slow slope up. I think you hit these things like the pecan shellers’ strike, where things are radically different in just a month or two … and then all of a sudden you’ll get another moment like this jobs with justice march where 3,000 unionists lead by African-American women hit Nacogdoches and marched through the middle of it,” Lewis said. “So it’s not like a slow grueling effort at change but there are these moments in history where you can really feel the future.”

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1