The most famous strikes in Texas history

by | Sep 6, 2021 | Labor, News

There’s nothing like a good work stoppage. Whether that’s taking a sick day and going to a ballgame to stick it to your boss, or organizing with tens of thousands of others to exact demands from the government.

That’s why to celebrate this Labor Day, we’ve gathered some of the best and most unique strikes in Texas history, starting with the largest of them all.

Great Southwest Strike of 1886

One of America’s largest strikes owes its beginnings to railroad workers in Marshall, Texas, a small town 150 miles east of Dallas. 

When a railroad worker and prominent member of the Knights of Labor was fired for attending a union meeting, fellow workers walked off the job. 

Knights of Labor leadership, already itching for another successful strike against New York railroad magnate Jay Gould, once again called on railroaders in the region to walk out and demand better wages and working conditions. 

Within a week, the strike spread to four other states — Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois — and saw the participation of more than 200,000 rail workers. 

This time, Gould refused to surrender and employed strikebreakers as well as the notorious Pinkerton National Detective Agency to crush the work stoppage. 

“I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half,” Gould famously bragged of strategy.

After two months of failed negotiations and several incidents of violence (including a shootout in Fort Worth between police and strikers that led to the death of one deputy-sheriff) state militias, U.S. Marshalls, and even the Texas Rangers were eventually brought in to finally put an end to the strike.  

Pecan-Shellers’ Strike

In 1938, nearly 12,000 San Antonio pecan shellers walked off the job to protest a recent pay cut.  

The pecan shellers, largely Latino women, were led by Emma B. Tenayuca, a San Antonio-born Tejana local activist and labor organizer.

That strike quickly made noise; half the commercial pecans grown in Texas were produced in the area, according to the Texas State Historical Association. 

Pecan shellers worked for less than three dollars a week in miserable conditions, including poor ventilation that allowed brown dust from pecans to pollute the air where they worked. 

City officials and the press accused the strikers of being communist, and police were sent to tear gas, club, and arrest strikers at picket lines. 

Sadly, because of her membership to the Communist Party of Texas (which she would later chair), Tenayuca was be ousted as the public face of the strike but continued to work on behalf of the shellers.

After three months, the striking shellers successfully negotiated a pay increase. 

Cowboy Strike of 1883

Not many know that the most famous cultural product of Texas, the cowboy, also participated in a bit of work stoppage.  

In 1883, between 200 and 300 cowboys working on ranches in the Texas Panhandle went on strike for better pay.

The peacefully striking cowboys were smeared in the press and accused of burning fences, killing cattle, and attacking ranchers. 

Any striking cowboys were quickly fired and the work stoppage eventually fizzled out after a few months. 

Historians don’t seem certain what to make of the legacy of the cowboy strike, but hey, it certainly would make a good movie.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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