A Strike and An Uprising (in Texas): Texas Working Women’s History on Film
By Meg Hardick
Anne Lewis has spent her career documenting the monumental lives of labor, racial equality, and environmental leaders in this country. Her works Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, Mabel Parker Hardison Smith, and Evelyn Williams are invaluable narratives of resistance, solidarity, and the commonly held belief among them that poor Black and brown women are the key to the liberation of all peoples. In A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas), the newest work by Lewis and Associate Producer Laura Varela, she ruminates on two major, yet poorly covered moments in Texas labor history: the Pecan Shellers Strike of 1937 led by young communist Emma Tenayuca, and the Jobs With Justice campaign that coalesced around anti-Black racism at Stephen F. Austin University.
Most white Texans associate San Antonio with the Alamo and the first strongholds of Texas colonialism, as well as diverse Latinx and Chicanx culture. They are rarely aware that San Antonio has a history of labor struggle, and one that specifically addresses the intersecting oppressions faced by poor Latina women. It may be said that the state’s propping up of heroes and myths of colonialism and capitalist exploitation have been critical in the obfuscation of these histories. Texas would rather portray its history as anti-government, centered around white families desperate to forge a new, free life (at the expense of those who already lived there). Emma Tenayuca’s story has been gaining new prominence, with a successful play, Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, running in San Antonio currently, and a general trend toward uncovering histories of marginalized women. Her story breaks the bounds of the Texas myth, proving the power that laborers, especially Black and Latinx people, have on Texas history.
Lewis’ coverage of Emma Tenayuca includes archival footage of the strike, but the most valuable information comes from interviews with the people who her radical view of organizing touched. Tenayuca was resisted by the Catholic church, the police, and eventually even the apparatus of the Communist Party. Men harassed her both inside and outside her party, for being outspoken, for being a pawn of her white husband, and for defying the will of the state. Her organizing was met with brutal police violence. But she was dedicated to connecting with the deeply impoverished and disenfranchised Mexican workers at an interpersonal level, and this is reflected well in interviews with her friends and family members.
Unlike Emma Tenayuca, the other focus of the film, Annie Mae Carpenter, was not a labor leader, but her insistence on dignity at work was the catalyst for a remarkable movement. Carpenter was a Black woman custodian at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches when she was asked to clean the bathroom of the boy’s dormitory. Nacogdoches, in East Texas, has a strong historically Black community, but also a history of racial violence against Black people, specifically through the rape of Black women by white men. It was in this context that Carpenter refused to clean the dormitory, and, with the help of the NAACP, filed a racial and gender discrimination lawsuit against the university that took 10 years to litigate. The lawsuit revealed the discriminatory policy flagging Black job applicants with a circled “N” on their applications, and an array of other hurdles to gainful employment for Black people at the university.
In 1987, the Jobs With Justice campaign coalesced around the de-unionization of 156 food service jobs, and revived interest in Carpenter’s case. Over 3,000 labor unionists, civil rights and women’s activists took to the streets to demand better working conditions for women and Black people at the university, gaining support from non-university residents and eventually marching. They ultimately won a union contract as well as back wages, and demonstrated the enormous amount of power that stands to be taken when labor, racial, and gender interests organize together.
A Strike presents footage of the march taken by the participants themselves and interviews with participants and organizers. However, by far the most significant moments in the coverage of Stephen F. Austin University are in the working life of Black women there today. In order to avoid the further unionization of its workforce, the university now contracts with Aramark for all of its custodial and food service needs. Just as it was in Carpenter’s time, Black women do the majority of these jobs, receive very low wages, and are not eligible for the benefits offered to university employees. Lewis highlights how ultimately, little was won for workers in Nacogdoches: privatization of the university workforce ultimately suppressed wages and weakened the collective power of the workers. On her tour of the university, nothing can be found about the Jobs With Justice movement in the SFA archives.
In A Strike, Lewis does not allow academic talking heads to dominate the storytelling. Instead, her narration of her experience making the film is interwoven with that of friends of Tenayuca and Carpenter, and the Jobs for Justice organizers. She wonders about how to best use these stories to support current labor movements and interweaves images of these historical events with contemporary images of decay under late capitalism. The film ends at the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas at Austin, where a pro-confederate protester argues for the importance of the statue. The scene draws into sharp relief how persistent Texas history’s fixation with the white slaveholder is, and how refusal to withdraw from this myth has buried the stories of women of color like Carpenter and Tenayuca.
A Strike and An Uprising (in Texas) is screening in San Antonio on March 23 at 7:00 pm at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. For more information, visit the Facebook page.