Emma Tenayuca - A Hero for the Future (Part II): Cigars, Communists, Pecans
By Kevin Lentz
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a three part series on the life and times of Emma Tenayuca. Part I can be found here. Part III can be found here.
In 1933, the false peace between the exploited Mexican and Mexican-American community living and working in the West Side slums of San Antonio and their high-rolling employers was broken.
400 women lead by Mrs. W.H. Ernst walked out of their jobs and started a strike at the Finck Cigar Company factory. They were protesting abysmal working conditions and starvation wages. Formally, the cigar workers were paid twenty cents an hour—hardly enough to live on—but a bizarrely punitive system of labor relations in the factory typically drove earnings well below the twenty cent line.
Workers were fined one penny for being late every hour, fined three good cigars for every bad one rolled—with a necessary quota of 500 a day!—forced to pay back any materials left over in the case of not making the daily quota, allotted only five minutes in the bathroom per shift, and restricted from leaving the factory should they finish early. It appears in hindsight that it was the heat of the Great Depression which finally set off this powder keg, as the workers walked out after Finck refused to abide by President F.D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) recommended standard wage rate for cigar work at thirty cents an hour.
It is here that Emma Tenayuca first appears, at the ripe old age of 16, in the roster of those striking women protesting the inhuman conditions they were expected to work in.
The strike lasted a month before the Mayor of San Antonio at the time—C.K. Quinn, heir of the political machine that dominated San Antonio—forced the two sides into arbitration. Finck agreed to a slew of labor improvements while stridently refusing to sign anything legally binding. And what was the result? When the dust from the strike settled, the women of the factory found themselves facing the same labor regime accompanied with a cut in wages the following year, in addition to many of the strikers being barred from re-entry into the workforce. And so they struck again.
Unemployed Councils, the Worker’s Alliance, and the Texas Communist Party
Meanwhile, galvanized and undeterred by being arrested for her labor organizing, the 17-year-old Emma Tenayuca began working to organize Unemployed Councils in San Antonio, which sought to secure food and jobs for the workers laid off by the Depression. Simultaneously, she engaged in the strike waves that shook the Dorothy Frock Garment company, which was also located in the West Side slums. These strikes lead to a string of victories for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union—the only string of victories that appears in this period of organizing amongst the predominantly female and Mexican workforce of South Texas.
In 1935, as the secretary of the West Side Unemployed Councils—a program which was sponsored by the communist-led Trade Union Unity League—Tenayuca oversaw the chartering of the San Antonio Worker’s Alliance. The Worker’s Alliance operated as something of a trade union for workers in Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs. Under her apt leadership, the organization in San Antonio quickly grew to encompass fifteen chapters—ten of which she was elected the general secretary of—and a membership of 3,000.
By 1937 Tenayuca found herself elected to the National Executive Committee of the organization, serving alongside Black Harlem activist Frances Duty. In the same year she married Homer Brooks, the New York-born secretary of the Texas Communist Party, and joined the Communist Party of America herself. It is worth mentioning here that Tenayuca was not a dyed-in-the-wool communist, and her relationship to the Communist Party of America, and by proxy the Communist International, was accordingly a qualified one. As Zaragosa Vargas puts it:
…Tenayuca never proclaimed her membership nor did she recruit Mexicans to join the party. Marxist ideology motivated the Tejana less than did her strong attachment to her working-class community. According to Tenayuca, she joined the party because no one else but the communists expressed any interest in helping San Antonio’s dispossessed Mexicans. A former strike leader who worked closely with her confirmed this assessment: “I never got the feeling that [Tenayuca] was in the least interested in Russia or the International except in a mild academic way…her interests were with the people.”
At any rate, in 1937 our young communist found herself at the helm of the San Antonio Worker’s Alliance right at a time when San Antonio’s political elites—charged with distributing FDR’s New Deal relief jobs and funds—decided to cut municipal relief spending. Hundreds of the most marginalized and desperate workers promptly lost their only means of subsistence.
As a result, Tenayuca and a “complaint committee” from the San Antonio Worker’s Alliance of about 100 men and women staged a protest and occupation at the city’s WPA office, where New Deal coordination and execution was supposed to occur.
The response was as swift as it was cruel. Upon returning from lunch, the local WPA officer found the crowd in his office and called the cops, who escorted the protesters out with their oversized nightsticks, to the chorus of Mayor Quinn’s denouncement of the protest and approval of the cops’ violent response.
What followed this already punitive response is in many ways beyond comprehension to our contemporary American sensibilities, if perhaps only for now. John Weber’s summary on the scene in From South Texas to the Nation is well worth quoting at length:
A few hours later a squad of police appeared at the Workers Alliance headquarters on the West Side. Armed with axes and clubs, they forced everyone out of the building, clubbing “everyone within reach.” After everyone had been forced out, the police then proceeded to systematically demolish everything in the office. A reporter for the San Antonio Light wrote, “Banners, flags, pictures charters were ripped from the walls, torn into shreds and stomped on…Benches and chairs were hammered to pieces. One officer of the law placed a typewriter on the floor and tromped on it…A duplicating machine was demolished. The stove was kicked over and broken. A drawerful of dishes was found and officers broke them piece by piece.” The San Antonio News reported that “officers pounded out a tune on the piano, then turned it over and broke it.” Meanwhile, on the street outside police randomly attacked passersby…
Tenayuca was arrested and jailed yet again. When her lawyer filed to secure her release, the judge bellowed back, “‘She belongs in jail. Let her stay there!’ Since she was a ‘damned Communist,’ the judge declared that he did not care what the police did to her.”
And yet, the tenacious spirit of our hero remained unbroken. The following year would see even larger scale struggle, and bring with it what is perhaps best known as Tenayuca’s legacy: the insurrectionary Pecan Sheller’s strike of 1938.
Despite advances in the technology of pecan shelling in the twentieth century, one such “Southern Pecan Shelling Company,” under the leadership of dark ages advocate Julius Seligmann, found it massively more profitable to employ tens of thousands of precarious employees at dirt wages to shell pecans in shanty wooden shacks on San Antonio’s West Side by hand.
By employing contractors who would hire and discipline the labor force on behalf of Southern Pecan without Southern Pecan having to dirty their hands with the responsibility of their actions, they were able to both secure rock-bottom labor costs (poverty wages, in other words) and a formally clean record—the same thing fast food franchises do to this day, as it happens.
Working conditions were, unsurprisingly, abysmal. Overcrowded shacks were filled with up to sixty desperate, hungry pecan shellers, the vast majority of whom were women, earning roughly two dollars a week inhaling pecan dust, cutting their infected fingers, and enduring a complete lack of sanitation.
Meanwhile, Seligmann feasted on massive profits, and quickly secured a practical monopoly on the industry in Texas. Again, Roosevelt’s NRA intervened at the height of the depression to try and regulate the depthless wages that tormented the country’s workers. As with Finck Cigar, Seligmann and Southern Pecan simply refused the idea of raising weekly wages to the code committee suggestions of $11 per week for men and $7 per week for women, and ignored the WPA altogether.
One can imagine that such dire circumstances continued to get worse, similar to how they did at Finck Cigar earlier in the decade, until the backs of the West Side workers could bend no further. The breaking point came in the form of a wage cut in 1938, when shelled pecans went from six cents per pound for pieces and seven cents for halves down to five and six cents respectively.
6,000 to 10,000 Mexican and Mexican-American pecan shellers promptly walked out of their jobs and brought production to a near standstill. The strike was on.
From the outset, the tone and scale of the pecan sheller’s strike was markedly different from the previous labor activities of the decade. The cause of the pecan shellers rallied massive numbers of Mexican residents of the West Side barrio who didn’t necessarily make a living from pecan shelling—such as WPA job workers and migrant agricultural laborers. Without standing union links, the strike quickly blossomed into what one union organizer characterized as a mass uprising of Mexicans on the West Side.
Indeed, the form and scope of the dispute appeared in the eyes of those that opposed it as revolutionary. As the incorrigible police chief Owen Kilday testified during the event: “It is my duty to interfere with revolution, and communism is revolution.” One Archbishop, Arthur Drossaerts, put the matter more symbolically: “Our police force has had a hard task of it these past three weeks. They fought, not the downtrodden sufferers of an egotistical capitalistic system, but the dangerous leadership trying to make hay while the communistic sun was apparently appearing above our San Antonio horizon.”
Here the formal and informal networks that Tenayuca had played a major role in consolidating in her tireless work with the San Antonio Unemployed Councils and then the Worker’s Alliance—alongside other such Latinx activists as the implacable Manuela Solis Sager—proved a pivotal point in the spontaneous unification of the West Side Mexicans against the combined interests of city hall and the infamous ‘Pecan Czar.’  Indeed, Tenayuca was at the outset elected honorary strike leader by the insurgent pecan shellers and their allies.
The initial insurrectionary tone, however, and the home grown radicalism that lent the movement its prescient character, changed about a month or so in as Official Labor got wind of what was happening. The strike garnered the attention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and their affiliate the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) who swept in, replaced Tenayuca (recently let out from jail) with Donald Henderson as strike leader, and substituted the broader social demands of the movement with bread-and-butter business union demands such as recognition, collective bargaining, and so on. Oddly enough, though Don Henderson was a member of the Communist Party alongside Homer Brooks, the two sought to remove Tenayuca from strike leadership due to the massive public focus on her open ties to the Communist Party. Tenayuca’s response was understandably one of disdain:
“I organized the strike, led it, and then Don Henderson came in, a left winger. I was never consulted. I was given a paper to sign removing myself from the leadership of the strike so workers could get support of the people here.”
As the strike dragged on over the next few months, the combined pressure of constant police harassment and the weight of negative public opinion orchestrated by city hall and their middle class allies in the Catholic Church and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) brought the strike to arbitration, and a modest victory was won for the union.
Shortly after, seeing that labor costs had outweighed the costs of mechanizing, Southern Pecan mechanized and dramatically reduced employment to but a ghost of its former numbers. Thousands of pecan shellers were thrown out of the jobs they had struck to make livable.
What began, then, as perhaps the movement that could correct the deep social inequalities and animosities which made South Texas a particularly hellish place for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the early twentieth century was quickly channeled into a mild and ultimately self-defeating labor concession almost as soon as it emerged.
Dismissed, faced with the possible evaporation of over a decade of struggle, and demonized by the entirety of the established political and social class, not only did Tenayuca not give up, she went on in the next year to continue her work with even more vision and ambition.