Towards a People’s History of Texas

Texas Labor History, ed. Bruse A. Glasrud and James C. Maroney. Texas A & M University Press, 2013.  448 pp.

Review by Snehal Shingavi

Each time an activist movement breaks out in Texas—think for example of the War on Texas Women protests in 2013 or the large protests around the Black Lives Matter movement—the commonsense attitude is one of surprise and wonder.  This was never supposed to have happened in Texas.  It certainly has never happened before.  And each time we are led to marvel at the idea that there is a groundswell of progressive social justice sentiment in the state, that it is spontaneous, sudden, and completely without precedent. 

The primary reason for this is that each generation of Texas activist has been systematically disconnected from the one before it, so instead of there being a coherent family tree that would explain how and why activism continues in the state, we are left with a series of orphans fending for themselves.  The problem is that the memory of activism exists not only with the leadership of social movements but in the cellular ways that they are able to transform larger groups of people, imbuing them with the skills and training that would make them the organic leadership of a popular movement.  That organic memory of struggle—the skills, the lessons, the ambition, the hope—continues to linger throughout Texas, but it requires a trained eye to sense its patterns.  On the other hand, the state continues to be littered with the names of the big capitalists—Cullen, Kirby, Koch, McCombs, Moody, Fondren, Bass, Meyerson, Allen, Wyly—so that their omnipresence is almost unconsciously felt.  The living memory of popular struggles, however, is memorialized almost nowhere.

Austin, TX. In 2013, as part of a massive protest wave that swept across the state and lasted weeks, thousands gather before storming the Capitol in protest of anti-choice bills in the state legislature. (Photo: Stand With Texas Women/Facebook)

That is why every activist in Texas needs to read this book.  That’s not a statement made lightly.  For too long, Texas has been branded as exceptional, reactionary, and hidebound and incapable of producing the kinds of social movements that took place in other parts of the south, let alone outside the former confederate states.  Glasrud and Maroney have done us a great service by showing just how rich the tradition of resistance, and more importantly multiracial resistance, has been in Texas.  And that is a lesson that activists in Texas need to learn and to find ways of reproducing.

The book takes on some important ideological arguments about Texas: that a viable labor movement could never have happened in Texas; that multiracial solidarity was always foreclosed; that unions were always weaker with respect to employers here; that unions never won any significant gains here; that labor and the broader left could never work together.  Each of these fallacies is appropriately busted and the resulting picture is one that should give tremendous hope to activists that something important is possible in Texas.

Now, there are good reasons that these ideas persist, and these will be taken up in future posts.  Most important, because this is one fact that the book leaves out, right-to-work as an ideology and as a law began first in Texas.  In 1941, as unions were winning nationally and the New Deal was helping to advance the cause of working people, the Christian American Association, under the leadership of Vance Muse (himself an anti-Semite and white supremacist), launched a drive to destroy unionization in Texas.  Muse was notorious for his racism, but also for his opposition to women’s suffrage and child labor laws.  A clever campaign by Muse and the CAA helped to make Texas the first state to have “open shop” and “right to work” laws on the books.

But the reason that “open shop” and “right to work” laws happened in Texas first is because it was also the state with some of the most impressive labor militancy.  Especially on the Texas waterfront, places like Galveston and Houston, unions in Texas waged some of the most pitched battles against the bosses.  Beginning in the 1850s, white and black workers in Galveston began organizing against attempts at imposing dramatic wage reductions and price gauging (Galveston was run almost like a company town). But by the turn of the century things had changed, and whatever cross-racial unity had been forged were beginning to dwindle.  By that time, the unions in Galveston were divided along racially lines, with local 385 of the ILA representing white workers and local 807 representing African Americans.  While the two locals were able to come together for a brief period to fight the bosses (white workers could not overlook the fact that black workers made up more than 50 percent of the workforce), corporate forces were able to capitalize on racial divisions and Jim Crow attitudes to break the strike in the end.

Even fiercer were the wars in the mines (1880-1910) and in lumber (1880-1940) where the intense competition in the extractive economies demanded backbreaking labor and constantly drove down prices.  In both industries, as in oil later in the 1910s, workers were forced to organize in new and innovative ways.  At the mines, in particular, “the races toiled together, faces so blackened by coal dust at the end of the day, that observers could hardly distinguish the races, and black and white miners earned wages on the same scale.”  The lumber battles were particularly pitched, with management resorting to extraordinary violence and calling in the Texas Rangers to try and break a number of strikes in various lumber mills.  In both instances, there are telling narratives of just how important unions were to the development of a labor movement in Texas and to stopping the capitalists from increasingly brutal tactics of exploitation.

San Antonio, TX. Emma Tenayuca, leading organizer in the Workers Alliance of America, strike leader, theorist and chair of the Texas Communist Party, leads a strike at San Antonio’s Works Progress Administration Headquarters and City Hall. (Photo: Institute of Texan Cultures)

The shining story in the collection, it bears underlining, is the narrative of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike and the really impressive work done by the “Tejana Radical” Emma Tenayuca.  Building on work done in the 1930s in the unemployed councils, knitting together women in garment, cigar rolling, and pecan-shelling industries, and organizing against the discriminatory work relief programs all allowed Tenayuca to build a vast network throughout San Antonio.  So, when wages were cut for pecan shellers in 1937 and the government aid for workers dried up, workers were forced to strike in 1938, and Tenayuca was poised to help lead the fight.  Unlike other labor leaders, however, Tenayuca insisted on the centrality of the questions of race and gender.  The radical nature of the strike is one indication of the vicious response: “Men, women, and children were run down and clubbed by hostile police, and many officers were armed three-foot-long axe handles, in keeping with the notorious Texas style of justice for dealing with ‘bad’ Mexicans.”  The strike was ultimately defeated, but not without leaving an enormous mark on San Antonio and a tradition of Mexican-American activism in Texas.

This book is important, but unfortunately out of print.  We hope the publishers bring out a new edition.  In the meantime, Section 44 will happily help to get resources to people who would like to conduct study groups around the materials included in it (many of which can be found in other places) and highly recommends that all activists around the state read and discuss the important lessons contained here.  If there is going to be a future for activism in Texas, it is important that we all learn the history of the struggles of Texan laborers, a history that we forget at our own peril.

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