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STARR COUNTY STRIKE

STARR COUNTY STRIKE. The Starr County Strike, a bitter dispute between farmworkers and owners of melon farms, took place in the lower Rio Grande valley in 1966 and 1967. The conflict began in May 1966, when Eugene Nelson, author, organizer, and worker for the National Farm Workers' Association (later the United Farm Workers), arrived in the Rio Grande valley. He organized local farmworkers into the Independent Workers' Association, based in Rio Grande City, Starr County. He then led them in a strike of the melon fields on June 1, 1966. The workers demanded a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour and "recognition as a bargaining force" in the Valley. Soon after June 1 a conflict developed, in which Nelson and his predominantly Mexican-American union would picket, and then Rangers and local police would arrest the protestors. The union, and later the courts, alleged that the arrests were uncalled for and that the bonds set were excessively high. Law enforcement officials, however, claimed that their only purpose was to enforce the law. Later several of the laws that these officers enforced were declared unconstitutional. Even so, with multiple arrests, subsequent injunctions, and the end of the growing season, the picketing was rendered ineffectual and ended by late June.

The union therefore decided to take its case to the state capital and began a march to Austin on July 4, 1966. Press coverage increased as the marchers made their way north in the hot Texas sun, for in the atmosphere of the mid-sixties the public was sensitive to civil-rights issues. Texans became aware of "La Causa," the fight of Texas farmworkers for a living wage. In August the marchers met with Governor John Connally, Speaker of the House Ben Barnes, and Attorney General Waggoner Carr in New Braunfels. On Labor Day the march culminated with a rally in Austin. But the action still did not bring higher wages for farmworkers. During the next several months the union continued its activity in the Valley. The old pattern persisted, with the same deputies jailing the same strikers, with repeated accusations of brutality and alleged violations of civil rights. As the melon harvest approached again in late May of 1967, the unrest increased. Furthermore, such groups as the Texas Council of Churches (see TEXAS CONFERENCE OF CHURCHES), the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor began to focus state and national attention on the Rio Grande valley. Against this background, on June 1, 1967, occurred the most violent event of the strike, the beating of two union members. After the harvest the picketing ended and the Rangers left. But the real end of the struggle came with the arrival of Hurricane Beulah on September 20, 1967 (see HURRICANES). After the storm, even though the union remained to help rebuild the devastated Valley economy, further strikes had become superfluous. The farmworkers, however, did struggle afterward to organize, but with several changes. They moved their office out of Rio Grande City to San Juan, Texas, changed leadership, and, perhaps most significantly, changed tactics by avoiding strikes and working more on services to their members.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Richard R. Bailey, "The Starr County Strike," Red River Valley Historical Review 4 (Winter 1979). Frank A. Kostyu, Shadows in the Valley: The Story of One Man's Struggle for Justice (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970). Ben H. Procter, "The Modern Texas Ranger: A Law-Enforcement Dilemma in the Rio Grande Valley," in Reflections of Western Historians, ed. John A. Carroll (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969). Julian Samora et al., Gunpowder Justice: A Reassessment of the Texas Rangers (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979).

Richard Bailey

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Richard Bailey, "STARR COUNTY STRIKE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/oes03), accessed September 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.