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Pecan shellers strike in San Antonio

January
31
1938

On this day in 1938, 12,000 San Antonio pecan shellers, mostly Hispanic women, walked off their jobs to protest a wage cut, beginning a three-month strike. The pecan-shelling industry was one of the lowest-paid in the United States, with a typical wage ranging between two and three dollars a week. In the 1930s Texas pecans accounted for approximately 50 percent of the nation's production, with nearly 400 shelling factories in San Antonio alone. Working conditions were abysmal, and San Antonio's high tuberculosis rate--148 deaths for each 100,000 persons, compared to the national average of 54--was blamed at least partially on the fine brown dust that permeated the air. The original strike leader was Emma Tenayuca Brooks, a well-known figure in San Antonio politics. In March 1938 both sides agreed to arbitration and reached an initial agreement on hourly wages of seven and eight cents, but shortly thereafter Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage of twenty-five cents an hour. Concerned that the new law would encourage mechanization and displace thousands of shellers, the Congress of Industrial Organizations sought an exemption for pecan workers. The Department of Labor, however, denied the exemption, and over the next three years cracking machines replaced more than 10,000 shellers in San Antonio shops.

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