Poverty, solidarity, and opportunity: the 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers' strike



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In 1938, San Antonio?s pecan shellers waged a five-week strike against their employers. The shellers had few resources at their disposal, and, moreover, most of them were Mexican women. During the work stoppage, the picketers endured widespread opposition and police brutality. Nonetheless, the shellers forced their employers to arbitrate. Previous scholars have characterized the strike as spontaneous, but closer examination reveals the events and circumstances that spurred the shellers to action. Specifically, this work will address why the strike occurred at the beginning of 1938, and how the shellers achieved a successful outcome. Political and economic factors in the early twentieth century resulted in a massive wave of migration from Mexico into the U.S. Newly arrived Mexican workers faced discrimination in the workplace and in their personal lives. That discrimination resulted in low wages for Mexican workers. Low wages forced Mexicans in San Antonio to live in the city?s west side neighborhood, which lacked adequate housing and infrastructure. Such conditions gave pecan workers considerable reason to resent their employers and seek change. Grievances alone might explain why the shellers struck, but they do not explain the strike?s success. Pecan workers relied on solidarity formed over many years to sustain their work stoppage until their employers surrendered. Solidarity was formed in a variety of venues on the west side, in both formal and informal organizations. Leisure activities also fostered unity, often along cultural lines. The shellers also built a sense of togetherness through labor organizations and mutual aid societies. The political climate in San Antonio during the late 1930s provided the final piece to the puzzle of the strike?s success. Election results at the federal, state, and local levels signaled that voters sought the leadership of individuals who advocated increased rights for workers and minorities. The shellers seized on the political climate, waging their strike at a time when it stood a better than average chance to succeed. Without the combination of poverty, solidarity, and opportunity that existed for Mexicans on the west side in January 1938, the strike?s occurrence and outcome would have been in considerable doubt.