The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of increasing organization and militancy. Nationally, the ranks of the Communist Party swelled. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was at the forefront of the battles to unionize the South, where conservative and corrupt AFL craft unions played into the racism and anticommunism of the capitalists. The struggles were often bitter and violent. In 1935, the Longshoremen struck on the Gulf Coast ports for 62 days. In 1936–37, sailors in Texas coastal cities joined the Communists in strikes against shipping companies and the ISU, the backwards AFL shippers’ union.
The ISU’s business agent, Wilbur Dickey, shot and killed a striker, Johnny Kane, and an ISU tanker seaman was beaten to death by strikers. On Christmas Eve, 50 Houston police attacked 150 strikers on the Houston docks. In Dallas, efforts at organizing the Ford plant were beat back using “squads”—anti-union gangs—which were organized by a cooperative effort of Ford, the police and the Chamber of Commerce.
In 1937, the “outside squad” (outside of the factory) attacked at least 18 people, killing one and tarring and feathering another. One AFL organizer lost an eye, but most of the victims weren’t unionists. Between May and November, 1937, the Southwestern Telephone Workers Union increased its membership from 80 to 10,000. In El Paso, smelters suffered terrible exploitation and repression by Asarco and the government. The county sheriff deported unionists and red-baited CIO organizers.
The CIO set up the Texas State Industrial Union Council, or TSIUC, to build new locals and push for political representation of labor in the government. Communists led the way, although they were in the minority. The TSIUC organized the United Sugar Refinery Workers in Sugar Land, helped the National Maritime Union sign up 1,000 fishermen and boatmen, and helped to unionize steel plants and oil refineries. By 1943, Texas had about 1,400 union locals, with a membership of 225,000. Almost half of the state’s union members were in the Houston area and about a third were in Dallas/Fort Worth.
In 1943, the United Auto Workers (UAW) organized the North American Aviation plant in Grand Prairie. Their contract included seniority, equal pay for women, and paid vacations. Then, on V-J Day 1945, the company closed the plant and fired all 25,000 workers. But when Temco and Chance Vought moved into the facility, the UAW organized them, too.
The struggle to unionize Texas workers continued strong in the postwar period. More working days were lost to strikes in Texas in the 18-month period just after the war than in all previous strikes combined. A new plateau of labor militancy had been reached—strike participation remained around twice the prewar high for decades. Repression also remained severe. When the Hughes Steelworkers in Houston struck in 1944, the Army took over. And when in 1945 Oil Workers on the coast struck for better wages, the Navy occupied and ran the refineries.
In 1947 the Texas Manufacturers Association, the Chamber of Commerce and extreme right-wing groups successfully lobbied for a whole set of anti-union laws such as the “right-to-work”; criminalized dues checkoff, secondary boycotts, and mass pickets; and limited the combination of unions. Laws were also passed making it illegal to run for election as a Communist, and requiring every state employee to swear they were not Communist Party members.
Despite this, unions like the Communications Workers of America (CWA) organized militant, successful strikes that improved conditions. In 1946, thousands of CIO workers struck for better wages and conditions. By June the CIO had organized the biggest factories in the state.
Unions continued to grow steadily until about 1960, peaking at over 400,000 members. Only after the AFL and CIO united did Texas Democrats begin seeking their support in elections, recognizing their decisive social power.
The example of the Dangerfield Lone Star Steel Strike of 1957 is one of the more dramatic in Texas labor history. Steelworkers organized in Local 4134 had won a good contract by striking in 1956, but the company never held up its end of the deal and, frustrated with an inadequate compromise proposed by the leadership, the rank and file called a wildcat strike in 1957. The company mass-fired all 2,800 workers and a court injunction was declared against the pickets. State police and Texas Rangers occupied Morris County, harassing and arresting strikers on false charges. The workers went down in defeat, but struck again in 1968 amid a worldwide working class offensive. One died amid dozens of shootings. And in the summer of 1966, the Rio Grande Valley was hit by a strike of melon pickers demanding a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. Police and Rangers mass arrested all of the picketers and they were defeated in a few weeks.
A pattern of mechanization combined with successful capitalist efforts in outsourcing, legal repression, speedups and redivision of labor meant that from 1965–80 an average of less than 0.1% of the total workforce participated in strikes while union membership began to fall.
The supposed first-ever environmental strike in the U.S. was launched by 1,800 Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers employed by Shell. After four months they successfully pressured the company into sharing some vital safety information with the workers. This set a precedent, and struggles connecting workplace fights with environmental ones spread.
The history of labor struggles and socialism in Texas is far from over, as the recent strike at Lockheed Martin shows. The workers of Texas and throughout the South could surprise us all and leapfrog to the forefront of the U.S. class struggle in the coming period.