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Texas Labor History

Texas Labor History

by Bruce A. Glasrud (Editor), James C. Maroney (Editor)

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A helpful new source for scholars and teachers who wish to fill in some of the missing pieces.
Tackling a number of such presumptions—that a viable labor movement never existed in the Lone Star State; that black, brown, and white laborers, both male and female, were unable to achieve even short-term solidarity; that labor unions in Texas were ineffective


A helpful new source for scholars and teachers who wish to fill in some of the missing pieces.
Tackling a number of such presumptions—that a viable labor movement never existed in the Lone Star State; that black, brown, and white laborers, both male and female, were unable to achieve even short-term solidarity; that labor unions in Texas were ineffective because of laborers’ inability to confront employers—the editors and contributors to this volume lay the foundation for establishing the importance of labor to a fuller understanding of Texas history.

Editorial Reviews


" . . . a well edited anthology of authoritative original historical essays by a wide variety of remarkable national scholars . . . . The collection's greatest strength is that the authors recognize the importance of the multiracial southern labor dynamic in a crucial Sunbelt state that, to a significant degree, holds the key to the nation's future. . . This innovative assortment of investigations points the way for new directions of scholarly inquiry and will benefit historians and students for years to come."--Choice
Southwestern Historical Quarterly - David Cullen

"This collection demonstrates the changing focus of Texas historians who realize that Texas has a more complex and interesting history as the majority of Texans were not oil tycoons or cattle barons, but the working poor, who through class identity and sense of community sought to maintain what Texans so often boast of - economic independence. This collection should act as a catalyst for a new generation of historians to continue the pioneering efforts demonstrated by these scholarly essays."--Southwestern Historical Quarterly
From the Publisher

“These essays move us toward a more accurate picture by including the poor majority. It is high time Texas had a concentrated dose of labor history showing how very much like the rest of the country life here has been for the working class.”—Kyle G. Wilkison, author, Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists

Kyle G. Wilkison

"Texas history has an acute need for this significant contribution on the lives of working people. These essays move us toward a more accurate picture by including the poor majority. It is high time Texas had a concentrated dose of labor history showing how very much like the rest of the country life here has been for the working class. Teachers who assign this collection on the actual Texas majority will be doing their students a great service."--Kyle G. Wilkison, author, Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870-1914

Alwyn Barr

"I am not aware of any comparable volume of essays on Texas labor history; thus this volume would be unique."--Alwyn Barr, Professor Emeritus of History, Texas Tech University

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
Centennial Series of the Association of Former Students, Texas A&M University
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Texas Labor History

By Bruce A. Glasrud, James C. Maroney

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-978-6


The Early History of Labor Organizations in Texas, 1838–1876


Until the development of effective railway transport in the 1870s, there was little in the Texas economy or society conducive to the development of labor organizations. Outside the port towns of Galveston and Houston, which developed relatively diversified economies even before the Civil War, the economy of Texas remained one of self-sufficient agriculture until the railroad broke the frontier pattern of isolated communities seeking to supply most of their own basic needs. The growth of labor organizations in Texas, like the development of the state's economy, lagged far behind the nation. Unionization accelerated in the 1870s, climaxing in the widespread and violent strikes of 1877, which apprised Texans, for the first time, of the confusing problems and conflicts wrought by industrialization.

In that year Texas experienced not only extensive railway strikes and major work stoppages among the dockworkers of Galveston and the building trades in several cities, but also scores of minor labor troubles. These strikes came as Texas started on the road to a modern, if still primarily agricultural, economy and marked the arrival of militant, if still weak, unionism.

Although the history of modern organized labor in Texas really began with the strikes of 1877, antecedents existed. Where and when the most rudimentary conditions for labor organizations existed and where the number of wage earners and the amount of economic specialization were sufficient, Texas workers, like their eastern counterparts, organized.

These early labor organizations, some dating from the era of the Texas Republic, did not all take the classic form of unions, nor did many of them endure more than a few months or years. Yet they were important as early examples of the Texan worker's attempts to meet through collective action the particular problems of an isolated agrarian society. Such action might take a variety of forms, usually spontaneous. Workers, both craftsmen and common laborers, who were temporarily engaged to erect desperately needed buildings on Thomas Affleck's East Texas plantation, threatened to walk off the job if a certain unpopular foreman were not fired. In this, as in most like incidents, the threat failed, because no matter how great the need, the owner refused "to be dictated to by a group of common laborers." Yet, on occasion, such outbursts might prove successful. Late in the era of the Republic, Galveston seamen took advantage of a shortage of qualified seamen and a Republic of Texas law requiring that three-quarters of the crew of ships flying "Texian Colors" be citizens of Texas to wrest increased wages from its owner on threat of leaving the craft unmanned. In these and similar cases, no organization existed before, during, or after the action took place. Indeed, most of the group activity on the part of workers in the antebellum days was hardly more than immediate action designed to meet a specific problem or take advantage of a promising situation, characterized by little prior organization or planning and with no attempt to maintain the group when the situation passed. In the kind of economic institution most common in Texas—small enterprises with no stable labor force—unions, as such, could not exist. The most common way to gain recourse from a grievance was a threat to quit—a threat the worker would have to be prepared to make good because he usually would be fired for such insubordination.

Not all spontaneous group action by workers was motivated by on-the-job grievances. At a time when the public meeting to protest this or that was almost a reflex action, it was only natural that workers would adopt this method to comment on issues that affected them. When a mechanics' lien law was before the Congress of the Republic of Texas in January 1839, "a meeting of the master-workmen and mechanics generally of Houston" was called "to discuss some matters relating to the LIEN LAW." It is not known what action the meeting took, or if it had any effect on the final passage of the law, one of the first such laws in North America, but apparently there had developed a group of five or six "workingmen" fond of calling the "Mechanics and Workingmen" of Houston together to make a group statement on various issues. Prior to the election of county officials in 1845, they called a meeting of workingmen, who passed a resolution noting that one section of the county was controlling county government to the detriment of the other sections, and placed before the voters the names of three men as candidates for the county court. When the new county court met, all three held seats, indicating that the "workingmen," if not powerful, were prudent in choosing sides. When annexation was the question of the day, the same group of men dominated a meeting of "Harris County Mechanics" that endorsed annexation and called for the election of at least a few mechanics to the convention to write a new state constitution. To attain this end they named Alexander D. McGowan, a tinsmith, as "the nominee of the Mechanics' and Working Men's ticket." McGowan, who later served as mayor of Houston for three terms and held several county offices, received 340 votes, and thus was one of the representatives from Harris County to the Convention of 1845. There is no indication that this workingmen's group had any permanent structure, and like so many such groups of the Jacksonian era, it included more successful tradesmen and shopkeepers than wage earners.

Another favorite means of exhibiting "public opinion" in this era was the petition, which workingmen occasionally used to make known their desires. For example, in 1841 a group of twenty-eight blacksmiths in Nacogdoches County petitioned the Congress of the Republic of Texas for an extension to the mechanics' lien law allowing them to take liens on property, as they claimed to be losing money by their inability to force payment of bills. Likewise, just prior to the Civil War, thirty-two mechanics from Marshall petitioned against "being put in competition With Negro Mechanicks who are to rival us in the obtaining of contracts [for buildings] ... or any other of the Mechanical Branches that are taken by contract." The petition called for a law to keep "Negroes in their places (Vez [sic]: in Corn and Cotton Fields)." While such actions as mass meetings and petitions can hardly be considered "organizations" (except in the sense that they represent the attempts of individual workmen to gain a more responsive ear for their desires through collective actions), this type of action precedes more permanent organizations.

A substantial portion of the wage earners in Texas were of foreign birth, with the result that ethnic organizations drew workers into their orbit. These groups provided social, benevolent, and educational services to those of a common national origin. In Texas towns ethnic groups were strong and numerous, and as each national group gained relative importance, an ethnic society developed. In Houston, in addition to the several "singing societies," there were the German Union (established in 1841), the Scandinavian Club (begun shortly after the Civil War), and the Irish Texan Society (founded in 1871). In Galveston, where the German clubs were quite active before the war, the Irish Benevolent Association (organized in 1871) and the Spanish Benevolent Association (started about 1874) provided social services to the underprivileged and unfortunate. Club Reciproco, established in Corpus Christi in 1873, was the first of numerous benevolent societies for Latin Americans established particularly in South Texas during the late nineteenth century. All these groups were quite active, and while not barring foreign-born workers from union activity, their vitality surely retarded the development of similar societies for workers alone by providing the foreign-born wage earner with services he might have otherwise sought in workingmen's associations. There was also a secondary consideration. Occupational benevolent societies had a tendency to evolve into something like true labor unions; ethnic groups did not.

The 1850s saw the beginnings of such benevolent societies. If not truly unions, at least they had some permanence and structure. These emerged mainly under the influence of the Germans, who had brought to their new home a strong belief in group action and associations for self-betterment. In addition to the singing clubs, immigrant aid societies and other "uplift groups" were active in the establishment of workingmen's associations in several towns. These associations were a first step toward bona fide labor unions.

An unsigned letter to the editor of the Texas State Gazette proposing the establishment of a "Mechanic's Association" perhaps best describes the reasoning behind the organization of such groups. Suggesting that the prosperity and comfort of any community depended upon "industrious, intelligent mechanics," the writer asked, "Do they occupy among their fellow men, in a social point of view, that position to which their intrinsic merit should entitle them?" They do not, he went on to explain, because "no one, however exalted in intellectual endowment, can expect to rise to eminence among his fellowmen, who does not apply himself to study and store his mind with useful knowledge." The mechanics had the time to do this, he asserted, "as is apparent every day and night in our streets or houses of amusement and dissipation." What was needed was group action, and the writer called for a meeting "to form a Mechanic's Association, and to project measures for the general welfare and benefit of the brotherhood." The proposal bore fruit, for on November 16, 1850, in the state capitol, a Mechanics' Association was organized, with agreement to meet every Saturday thereafter in the Sons of Temperance Hall. That the new association attained its high goals is doubtful; evidence that it lived more than a short time is lacking.

Similar organizations were established in New Braunfels, which was almost exclusively German in population. In 1854 two clubs for workingmen were begun: the Tradesmen's Club and the Workingmen's Club. The former hoped to encourage the development of the several trades by further reading and study in agricultural and technical journals, while the Workingmen's Club had broader aims, including instruction in English, arithmetic, essay writing, and other skills in addition to the maintenance of a sick fund and providing for social gatherings.

Workingmen's associations were begun in Galveston and Houston in June 1857. A joint meeting of mechanics from the two cities, held in Houston, took up "matters pertaining to their mutual aid" and decided on the creation of mechanics' reading rooms and mechanics' clubs "for mutual aid and protection." As a result, the Houston Mechanics' Association was born. Several meetings were held in late June, and the mechanics took part in the Fourth of July parade. The Galveston association, on the other hand, seems not to have passed the organizational stage at this time. Nor does it appear that these kinds of groups were organized in other towns prior to the Civil War. The San Antonio Laborers' Association, the first such labor group in that city, for example, was not established until 1865.

Several factors retarded the growth of organized labor in the prewar period. Most assuredly the small number of workers, the absence of industrial development, and the corollary absence of concentrations of labor were of major importance. Isolation likewise played a key role. Texas workers seemingly had little contact with or knowledge of labor organizations in other areas, even those as near as New Orleans. Texas newspapers rarely carried items about labor activities in other states, except those of the most spectacular nature. The extent of outside contact was limited to the individual worker who moved to Texas with some prior contact with organized labor. No outside union, national or local, gave any aid to organizational efforts in Texas before about 1870. Texas workers did know of other labor unions, but distance and poor transportation and communication placed them almost in another world, beyond the influence, exuberance, or stimulation of a common cause. The frontier nature of Texas society, with its stress on individual action, surely played an important role. Group discontents found little outlet on a frontier, and class identification, weak enough elsewhere in nineteenth-century America, was especially weak on the frontier.

Still another factor working against the growth of labor organizations was the growing sectional crisis. The 1850s were a time of rebirth of unionism in the East. New Labor organizations, espousing "pure and simple" unionism, were making rapid strides, and although in southern cities such as New Orleans and Baltimore several labor unions were established, on the whole the number and size of these groups were smaller than might have been expected. As one scholar has observed, to most southerners "labor organizations and strikes were 'Yankee innovations' and 'abominations.'" At a time when all social reformers in the South were looked upon as possible abolitionists, anyone with "radical" ideas about labor relations and workingmen's rights would be suspect. In Texas the strong unionist and antislavery sentiments of the Germans, who were so closely identified with labor organizations, undoubtedly hurt the chances for the growth of unionism. Especially important in this connection was the Texas State Convention of Germans held in San Antonio in 1854, where a platform of proposed reforms was drawn up, including a strong statement condemning slavery and demanding its removal by state action. The continual agitation for abolition by the San Antonio Zeitung under its radical editor Adolf Douai was another disturbing element. Meetings and resolutions by numerous German groups condemning the views of Douai and the Zeitung failed to quiet fears about the antislavery leanings of the Germans, and the specter of "radical Germans" remained in the forefront of Texan thinking throughout the 1850s.

Yet very few organizations that might pass as labor unions were begun prior to the Civil War. The two earliest known labor unions in the state were in fact established as early as the time of the Texas Republic. In April 1838 journeymen printers of Houston organized the Texas Typographical Association, "to promote the interests of the Craft throughout the Republic." At its initial meeting the group proposed a uniform wage scale, elected officers, adopted a constitution and bylaws, and invited all printers in the Republic to become members of the association. The Typographical Association, which had no direct ties with the Printers Union in the United States, was very active during its first year. Meetings were held each month, and seemingly several new members were "elected" and "qualified." In September or October 1838, in the first organized strike in Texas, the association in Houston struck and received a 25 percent wage increase. Nothing in the few mentions of the association gives any idea of the size of its membership, although it must have been rather small. Nor is there any indication how long the Texas Typographical Association continued in existence past the last mention of it by a British observer in late 1839, though it would seem that if it had continued long in existence some notice would have appeared in the newspapers. Undoubtedly it died in the 1840s.


Excerpted from Texas Labor History by Bruce A. Glasrud, James C. Maroney. Copyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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What People are Saying About This

Alwyn Barr
I am not aware of any comparable volume of essays on Texas labor history; thus this volume would be unique."—Alwyn Barr, Professor Emeritus of History at Texas Tech University
Kyle G. Wilkison
Texas history has an acute need for this significant contribution on the lives of working people. These essays move us toward a more accurate picture by including the poor majority. It is high time Texas had a concentrated dose of labor history showing how very much like the rest of the country life here has been for the working class. Teachers who assign this collection on the actual Texas majority will be doing their students a great service."—Kyle G. Wilkison, author of Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists

Meet the Author

BRUCE A. GLASRUD is the retired dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Sul Ross State University and a professor emeritus of history at California State University, Hayward. His most recent title for Texas A&M University Press is African Americans in South Texas History (2011).
JAMES C. MARONEY taught for more than forty years at Lee College in Baytown. He served as writer, editor, and coordinator for articles on labor history for Texas State Historical Association’s New Handbook of Texas.

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