The Pecan Shellers Strike

Unintended Consequences:
The San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike of 1938

by Patricia E. Gower

On January 31, 1938, a large number of pecan shellers in San Antonio walked off the job to protest low wages and poor working conditions. This action set off a bitter confrontation pitting poor Latino workers against most of the political, economic and religious institutions of the city. By the end of the conflict, after the establishment of a federally mandated minimum wage, mechanization led to the elimination of most shelling jobs and a fundamental change in the industry. However, support of the city government for the owners and its repressive actions against the strikers also contributed to a weakening of the traditional political elements’ hold on city government and the votes of Mexican American citizens of San Antonio.

San Antonio’s city government had long been in the hands of a powerful political machine. This machine dealt with the various populations of the city in significantly different ways but often relied on the minority vote because much of the affluent Anglo population lived in outlying suburbs. The population of the oldest city in Texas had always been heavily Hispanic with a much smaller African American population. The upheavals of the Mexican Revolution swelled the Hispanic population even further. By 1930, San Antonio’s population was 40 percent Mexican American and Mexican national and only 8 per cent black. Despite their numerical disadvantage, peculiarities in the local political scene gave African Americans a strong political voice. For many years, the black vote was organized and delivered by Charles Bellinger who negotiated for delivery of services and, improvements as well as a blind eye to corruption in return for the east side vote. In contrast, the Mexican American population lacked effective organization and political clout. While many Hispanic citizens voted, their votes were often purchased on an individual basis by the payment of their poll tax and an occasional piece of political patronage.

The results of these voting patterns were easy to see. The east side of San Antonio where most African Americans lived featured paved streets, sewage, a library, city parks and an auditorium. The west side of town, where most Mexican Americans lived, featured one of the worst slums in the United States with unpaved roads crowded with tiny ramshackle homes.. Many of the houses rented for as little as fifty cents a week, had dirt floors and were without electricity, running water or plumbing. Disease rates in these areas were alarmingly high, particularly rates of tuberculosis, and infant diarrhea.

The pecan shelling industry had been an important part of San Antonio’s economy since the 1880s. San Antonio was located near many of the pecan groves in Texas and always possessed plentiful, cheap labor making it a natural center for an industry that featured strong emphasis on handwork. Beginning in 1882, G.A. Duerler shipped the excess nuts from his candy making enterprise to eastern markets. By the 1920s, the Duerler Co. began to mechanize its operation and achieved the peak of its output in 1928.

In 1926, a new competitor appeared in San Antonio. Southern Pecan Shelling Company was owned by Julius Seligmann and Joe Freeman. Recognizing the opportunity presented by the city’s labor market, the company reversed the moves toward mechanization and began to employ large numbers of low skilled workers in the place of machines. The Depression and rising unemployment swelled the number of workers available to the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. Soon, it enjoyed a huge competitive advantage and was processing at least 25-30% of the pecan crop.

Southern also relied heavily on contractors as a way to limit the need for a large cracking operation. These contractors bought their pecans from Southern and then sold the cracked and cleaned nuts back to the company. Contractors worked through small cracking plants scattered throughout the West Side of the city. They also utilized women, children and entire families who worked shelling in their own homes. Wages in the 1930s ranged from three cents a pound for pieces and five cents a pound for halves to five cents to pieces and six cents for halves. Some contractors paid even less in order to make a small profit when selling the nuts back to Southern. Some paid as little as one cent a pound for pieces and 1.5 cents for halves. Shellers working for these contractors might earn as little one dollar a week for up to 50 hours of labor. Shellers working for Southern or some of the other shelling operations usually earned less than two dollars a week.

The miserable working conditions and low pay in the pecan industry attracted the attention of the National Recovery Administration in 1933. The National Pecan Shellers Association, which included 90% of the shelling operations in the United States, worked with the NRA to arrive at a code that proposed a wage scale that ranged from $7.00 a week for women to $11.00 a week for men. Julius Seligmann quickly protested this wage scale and withdrew from the national organization. He founded the Southwestern Pecan Shellers Association and was soon joined by most of the other shellers in San Antonio. This group proposed its own code that set a minimum wage of four to five cents an hour for the South. Despite Seligmann’s defiance of the national code, the government never made an effort to enforce it for the seven months it was in existence.

Attempts to unionize this poor, unrepresented work force began in 1933. The Pecan Workers Alliance emerged, led by Magdaleno Rodriguez. By 1934, he stated that between 10,000 and 12,000 shellers belonged to his union. Paying membership, however, never rose above half that number. Rodriguez worked closely with the Southern Pecan Shelling Company and joined with Seligmann in protesting the NRA code. In return, the union received financial support from the company. Rodriguez’ opposition to the NRA code cost the union support among the workers and the union gradually weakened. El Nogal, a small, independent union, appeared about the same time as the Pecan Workers Alliance. It, too, had trouble attracting dues-paying members and by 1937, the remnants of these early unions formed the Texas Pecan Shelling Workers Union led by Albert Gonsen. This struggling union received a boost in late 1937 when the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America Union (UCAPAWA) sent a representative to San Antonio to encourage workers to join the CIO. The Texas Pecan Shelling Workers Union was granted a temporary charter as part of the CIO’s efforts to begin unionization of the San Antonio pecan shellers. Another group, named the Texas Workers Alliance, led by labor activists and communists Emma Tenayuca and Manuela Solis Sager, formed in 1934 to foster communism in San Antonio. In 1938, the young Latinas and their followers began working with the Pecan Shelling Workers Union to encourage San Antonio shellers to protest poor working conditions and low pay.

The San Antonio pecan shellers had previously carried out two strikes in 1934 and 1935. The strike in 1934 was one element in the government’s decision to propose the NRA code that year. The code was never enforced and the shellers staged a brief strike the next year to protest working conditions and wages. Despite their earlier failures, the workers remained committed to resisting lower wages. On January 31, 1938, thousands of pecan shellers walked off the job to protest efforts by the Delicious Pecan Company to lower wages from six cents a pound for pieces and seven cents a pound for halves to five cents for pieces and six cents for halves. Emma Tenayuca quickly assumed temporary leadership of the strike. She became known as “La Pasionaria” for her fiery speeches and attracted a loyal following although many San Antonio workers disliked her outspoken communism. On February 1, the Texas Pecan Shellers Unions officially declared the strike and pledged its support to the strikers.

The city’s reaction to the strike was immediate. The police chief, Owen Kilday, claimed publicly that only a few of the 12,000 workers employed in the pecan industry were actually participating. Quickly, the city government, through the local newspapers, tried to both downplay the severity of the strike and accuse the strikers of communism. Kilday also mobilized officers for riot squad duty, arming them with tear gas and riot guns. He announced that the police would arrest anyone caught picketing who was not a worker and quickly arrested two officials of the Pecan Shellers Unions #172 who were supervising the strikers. Emma Tenayuca was also arrested and this, coupled with her passionate speeches for the strikers, helped attract national attention to the strike.

Tenayuca’s presence also became a focus of criticism for those opposed to the strike. Moderate voices in both the Hispanic and Anglo communities of San Antonio spoke out against the strike and communist influences. Juan Lopez of the National Catholic Welfare council offered to mediate the strike but also stated that settlement would be impossible as long as the CIO allowed the presence of communists, such as Tenayuca and Sager. He feared the actions of the communists, “boring from within,” could lead to the corruption of the morals of the Catholic workers. Other voices also spoke out against the strike. The Mexican Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce, LULAC and Archbishop Drossaerts of the Catholic Church in San Antonio announced their rejection of radical activism and urged the strikers to return to work. Other labor organizations also condemned the communist influence and urged strikers to purge the movement of communists so that settlement could be reached. The mayor, C. K. Quin, warned that Tenayuca’s activities as well as the arrival of CIO officials to organize the strike would cost the strikers all public sympathy.

Kilday used the presence of outspoken communists such as Tenayuca and Sager to justify the use of force. He proclaimed that while no strike existed, a revolution threatened San Antonio. He proclaimed, “It is my duty to interfere with revolution, and communism is revolution.”

Therefore, his job was to protect the larger community from this revolution. He sent police to break up the picket lines using tear gas and clubs. Hundreds of strikers were arrested and jailed. The city government also denied the union a permit to collect food and other contributions to support the strikers. In addition, it revived a long dead ordinance that prohibited the display of advertising signs without the approval of the City Marshal despite the fact that the office of City Marshal had been abolished years before. With this ordinance, Kilday moved against any striker carrying a picket sign.

The attacks on strikers and the arrest of peaceful picketers attracted criticism from several sources. Governor Allred sent a telegram protesting the denial of the right to picket peacefully, In addition, the Mexican Consul protested the arrest and incarceration of 63 Mexican nationals. Despite this, Kilday continued to maintain that he was not interfering with a legal strike but instead putting down a “disturbance out of Washington, D.C.” He ignored protests surrounding the treatment of men and women held in overcrowded jails where they were treated worse than those accused of serious crimes. In one instance, 250 people were packed into an area built to hold 60. When disturbances broke out, Kilday put them down with fire hoses.

The shellers attempted to gain a judgment against Kilday and the city over the refusal to allow peaceful picketing. A case was filed in the 45th District Court requesting an injunction before Judge S. C. Tayloe. The judge listened to the oral arguments of both sides and quickly announced his decision. He stated he had made up his mind the night before but wanted to listen to the arguments in case something changed his mind. He rendered a judgment that many found baffling. He ruled against the injunction while conceding that:

"There can be no doubt about the right of the strikers to cease work and also to attempt peaceably to persuade other workers to cease their work and to also attempt to dissuade other persons from entering into the employ of their former employers."

He then continued that while he recognized the right of the pecan shellers to picket:

"The assembling in one place of a large number of pickets incensed by a spirit of resentment to grievances, whether real or imaginary, tends to produce disorder and become a menace to the public peace, as well as an interference with orderly traffic and use of the streets by others[.].... To grant an injunction of the nature sought would put every city peace officer in peril of contempt proceeding for violation of the injunction and would require such officer to so determine difficult and doubtful questions as to his authority in many cases."

Therefore, while strikers had a right to picket, he would not recognize the right of the pecan shellers to do so.

In addition to the arrests and attacks on strikers, the city closed all soup kitchens opened to serve the strikers on the grounds that these facilities violated city health ordinances. When Cassie Jane Winfree, the state chairman of the Women’s National League for Freedom and Peace, along with four companions, came to town to collect money to help the strikers, they ran up against the city’s Vigilance Committee. This committee, originally formed under a 1929 city ordinance, was expanded in 1936 and included several prominent citizens of San Antonio. The purpose of the committee was to investigate applications from anyone who tried to solicit for charitable contributions. The women met with the head of the committee and the Vigilance Committee denied their application.

The intense pressure exerted by the city produced results. Emma Tenayuca, despite her popularity, was forced to step out of a public role in the strike. In her place, the CIO sent Donald Henderson, president of UCAPAWA, to assume leadership. J. Austin Beasley, another CIO official, arrived to help organize relief efforts. Some shellers sought to avoid identification with communism by leaving the union and publicly denouncing communism. Despite efforts to distance themselves from charges of communism, the city continued its assault on the strikers and the CIO organizers. The mayor claimed that he had proposed wages based on market prices that would give the owners a fair profit and that the CIO’s rejection proved their purpose was not a fair wage but labor violence. The San Antonio Express editorialized that wherever the CIO appeared, labor problems always followed and that the best hope of the strikers was to do without the CIO and deal directly with the owners.

Finally thirty-seven days after the strike’s inception, the striking shellers agreed to submit their case to arbitration. Governor Allred also convinced the Southern Pecan Shelling Co. to abide by the decisions of a three-man arbitration board. On March 8, the workers returned to work for the reduced wages that originally set off the strike while waiting for the board’s decision. The arbitration board, made up of Jack Horheimer, owner of Alamo Pecan Co., Reverend Marcus Hogue of Austin, who represented the union, and Tom Miller, mayor of Austin as neutral member, rendered its decision on April 13, 1938. The judgment resulted in a compromise wage that favored employers over the shellers and set a wage scale from five cents a pound for pieces and six cents for halves. This wage would last until May 31, 1938 when the wage would rise ½ cent. In return the local #172 of UCAPAWA gained recognition as the only legal agent for the shellers.

However, the return to peaceful relations did not last long. On October 24, 1938, The Fair Labor Relations Act went into effect and mandated a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour. The Southern Pecan Shelling Company and other San Antonio shelling operations immediately closed their doors in protest. The workers were all laid off but the companies had large inventories set aside so that they could weather the shutdown. Southern Pecan Shelling and the local union petitioned for an exemption to this minimum wage. During the shutdown, the union began negotiating new contracts upon the expiration of the old contracts during the shutdown. These contracts required a closed shop, grievance procedures and rates of seven cents a pound for pieces and eight cents a pound for halves if the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor agreed to the exemption from the minimum wage. When this exemption was denied, the company began to mechanize and petitioned for a temporary exemption in order to train the workers on the new machines at 15 cents an hour. The union jointly applied with Southern in the request for this exemption, probably out of fear that Seligmann and others would simply refuse to reopen if their request was denied.

On January 19, 1939, the Wage and Hour Division denied the request for a temporary exemption. By March 1939, with mechanization once again controlling the San Antonio pecan industry, Southern Pecan Shelling Co. employed 1800 shellers at the 25 cents an hour wage. Three months later, the number dropped to around 800. By 1941 the number hovered around 600. While many of the skilled workers remaining earned double and sometimes triple what they had earned before, somewhere around 10,000 unskilled shellers lost their jobs forever. By 1948, the Pecan Workers Union #172 disappeared as the jobs slipped away.

The strike also influenced the political scene in San Antonio. In 1938, Maury Maverick, a member of an old and politically active San Antonio family, lost his bid for reelection to the House of Representatives to Paul Kilday, the brother of the police chief. However, in this election, Maverick campaigned extensively among Mexican American voters on the West Side. These voters showed their appreciation for his concern by abandoning in large numbers the political machine that had long counted on their support. They supported Maverick in his losing effort despite the campaign of the Catholic Church against him and his perceived New Deal liberalism which some linked to communism.

Immediately after his loss at the polls, Maverick announced his candidacy for mayor under a “Fusion Ticket” that represented liberal, reform elements in San Antonio. Throughout the campaign, Mayor Quin accused Maverick of simply pretending to support Mexican American causes in order to pander to voters. However, he also began to use prominent Mexican American citizens in his rallies. Maverick exploited the resentment of poorer Latinos for the city government’s reaction to the pecan strike to draw many voters to his side. The Pecan Shellers Union #172 actively supported Maverick and passed out fliers for him. He also accused the health department of complicity with the Quin administration in ignoring health problems on the West Side. For the first time, the long-neglected voters of the West Side saw candidates for municipal office actively working for their votes. Maverick won the election, ending at least temporarily, the reign of the political ring that had controlled San Antonio for so long.

As mayor, Maverick worked to include Mexican Americans more fully into San Antonio society and politics. He pushed for changing the classification of Mexican-Americans on all records in San Antonio to white in 1940. He also undertook the restoration of La Villita in central San Antonio. La Villita is a restored remnant of the original Spanish villa from 1718 and its preservation acknowledged the Spanish and Mexican influences in shaping the unique culture of San Antonio. No longer would San Antonio focus exclusively on the Anglo defenders of the Alamo as symbols of its long history. The Mexican government responded by inviting Maverick to attend the inauguration of its new president. He also delivered on his promise to reorganize the Health Department and worked with the local medical society to begin a merit system for hiring new employees.

However, Maverick’s support for liberal causes also had unintended consequences. In 1939, Tenayuca asked the city for a permit to hold a Communist rally at the American Legion Municipal Auditorium. Maverick granted the permit and defended it as an exercise of free speech. Despite ferocious opposition from Legionnaires, he refused to rescind the permit. When the rally took place only about 150 participants attended but an angry mob broke into the auditorium and caused substantial damage. Tenayuca and the other speakers escaped to safety but the incident labeled Maverick as a communist or at least a sympathizer.

As a result, Maverick was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1940 by C. K. Quin who reclaimed the mayor’s office. In spite of his defeat, many view Maverick’s administration as the dawn of a new era in political and social relations in San Antonio. Prominent citizens from all areas of the city began to recognize that the neglect of health problems, persistent discrimination and political manipulation had wide ranging implications for all San Antonio. Business, religious and political forces acted together to form a fact-finding commission to study San Antonio’s population and problems. The commission concluded that there were many problems that needed addressing. It added that discrimination against Latinos hurt the whole city and that political recognition of that segment of the population was essential. It also found that there was a growing consciousness of the importance of improving the living conditions for all citizens. While improvement occurred slowly and fitfully, the end of the 1930s saw changing attitudes in San Antonio towards the poorest citizens of the city.


1 Audrey Granneberg, “Maury Maverick’s San Antonio,” Survey Graphic: Magazine of Social Interpretation, vol. 28 # 7: 421. Heywood T. Sanders, “Building a New Urban Infrastructure: The Creation of Postwar San Antonio” Urban Politics: Politics and Development, ed. Char Miller and Heywood T. Sanders (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990): 156. Under the control of this political machine, the office of mayor was twice the subject of deathbed bequests, bestowing the office on a chosen successor. One of these bequests gave the office to C. K. Quin who was mayor at the time of the strike.

2 Selden C. Menefee and Orin C. Cassmore, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio: The Problem of Underpaid and Unemployed Mexican Labor” (Washington, D. C.: Works Progress Administration, 1940) xviii, 43-44; “Maury Maverick’s San Antonio,” 421.

3 Menefee and Cassmore, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 7-8; Kenneth P. Walker, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 69 (1966): 45-56.

4 Robert Garland Landolt, The Mexican American Workers of San Antonio, Texas (New York: Arno Press, 1976) 226; Harold A. Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio, Texas” The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly XXXII (1952): 229-230.

5 Richard A. Garcia, Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class: San Antonio, 1929-1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991), 55; Shapiro “The Pecan Shellers Of San Antonio,” 230-231; Julia Kirk Blackwelder, Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984), 104-105.

6 Menefee and Cassmore, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 15; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 48.

7 “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 49; Women and the Depression, 141; The Mexican American Workers of San Antonio, 231-232.

8 Women and the Depression, 141; Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 62-63; “La Pasionaria de Texas,” Time, February 28, 1938: 17.

9 Daily Worker, February 4, 1938, 3; San Antonio Light, January 31, 1938, 1; San Antonio Express, February 4, 1938, 1; “La Pasionaria de Texas,” Time, 17; Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 234-235

10 San Antonio Express, February 2, 1938; February 3, 18; February 5, 1; Gilberto M. Hinojosa, “Mexican-American Faith Communities in Texas and the Southwest,” Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church, 1900-1965, ed. Jay P. Dolan and Gilberto M. Hinojosa (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 81; Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 63;Rodolfo Rosales, The Illusion of Inclusion: The Untold Political Story of San Antonio (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 7-8.

11 Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 235

12 San Antonio Express, February 8, 15; February 10, 3; February 12, 1; Women of the Depression, 143, 147; Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 237.

13 Daily Worker, March 9, 1938, 3; “La Pasionaria,” Time, 17; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 51-52; Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 236.

14 Manuel Martinez et al v. Owen W. Kilday, et al (1938) files of the District Court, San Antonio, Texas; Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 238; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 50-51.

15 San Antonio Express, February 5, 1; February 10, 3; February 12, 1; City of San Antonio Minutes, Book N, 506, 513; City of San Antonio Ordinances, Book G, 575-576; Book H, 575; Women of the Depression, 143.

16 San Antonio Express, February 3, 18; February 7, 14; February 11, 6; “La Pasionaria de Texas”, 17; Women of the Depression, 148-149; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 52.

17 Menefee and Cassmore, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 18; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 53-54.

18 Menefee and Cassmore, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 19; Shapiro, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio,” 239-240, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 54-55.

19 Findings and Determination of the Presiding Officer, January 19, 1939, United States Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Washington D. C.; Menefee and Cassmore, “Pecan Shellers of San Antono,” 19-22; “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio and Mechanization,” 55-57.

20 Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 211-212; “Maury Maverick’s San Antonio,” 421.

21 Char Miller and Heywood T. Sanders, “Olmos Park and the Creation of a Suburban Bastion, 1927-1939,” Urban Texas, 124-125; “Maury Maverick’s San Antonio,” 142; George Lambert, “Maverick Defies the Mob,” The Nation, September 16, 1939, 288.

22 Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 215; “Olmos Park,” 125, “Maury Maverick’s San Antonio,” 421.

23 Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 215; Women of the Depression, 149-150.

24 Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, 216-217.