The Economy Furniture Company strike by Local 456 of the Upholsters International Union started on November 27, 1968, in Austin, six months after company officials refused to recognize the 252–83 vote by the workers for union representation by the UIU in May 1968. Mexican Americans, almost a quarter female, comprised 90 percent of the 400 workers. At the time Economy was the largest company in the furniture-making business in the three-state area of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Milton T. Smith, the owner and operator of Economy, had been locally admired as a humanitarian for three decades. Yet many workers at his company earned only $1.75 an hour, even after more than fifteen years of service.
The striking workers sought concessions for better pay and improved working conditions that the company had promised ten years earlier. When workers first attempted to unionize in 1959, Victor Ruiz, an employee who had the respect of his fellow workers, spoke against forming a union because Smith had promised Ruiz that he would raise pay and improve working conditions. Smith later denied making such claims, and Ruiz determined that he would not back down if the opportunity to unionize occurred again.
Following the vote to unionize in 1968, Smith refused to bargain with Local 456, and union officials asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene. The NLRB ruled that Economy Furniture must negotiate with the union, but Smith rejected the board's order. Local 456 therefore called a strike against Economy Furniture. Smith appealed the NLRB decision to the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. In his court brief the Economy owner castigated the strikers as misinformed and referred to them as "thugs."
The strike was jointly coordinated by Local 456 and the UIU national office. It lasted twenty-eight months, during which workers set up daily pickets outside the company headquarters and garnered the support of United Farm Workers Union president César Chávez, who led more than 5,000 people in a march and rally at the state Capitol on February 6, 1971. Supporters carried out boycotts against Economy Furniture products sold by local and area shops such as Lack’s Furniture Store in Victoria, Texas, and Montgomery Ward, which was the largest chain store that carried a considerable amount of the company's furniture.
The Economy Furniture Company had the support of the local government and pushed for the city council to deny the marchers and supporters with permits to march. City officials called in the Texas Rangers who loaded picketers on a bus and drove them ten miles outside of Austin and left them to walk home.
The Mexican-American huelguistas (strikers) had the support of the Catholic Church, an ally that was new to the labor movement. The Catholic Church had previously been hesitant to support labor movements, but with Vatican II emphasizing support for the oppressed, underprivileged, and the discriminated people, the church was ready to join in the labor struggles. The priests volunteered their churches as meeting places for the union organizers and became vocal and ardent supporters of the strike. The strikers continued to picket with the support of the community and church.
In January 1971 the appeals court handed down a ruling upholding the NLRB's certification of Local 456 as a legitimate union. It further ordered that the NLRB's judgment requiring Economy Furniture to enter into collective bargaining with Local 456 be enforced. In March of that year workers responded to the court's decision favorably by voting to end the strike. The following June two months of collective bargaining began on a new contract for workers. Six members of the union's negotiating team were Mexican American. The group agreed to a three-year contract, which was approved by a majority of Local 456 members in September 1971. It provided for wage increases each year, seniority, overtime, additional vacation, and other benefits. In addition to the above concessions, Economy Furniture agreed to provide back pay of up to $13,500 per worker.
The Economy Furniture Company strike became known as the “Austin Chicano Huelga” once University of Texas student activists became involved. The student activists helped the strikers secure a victory and influenced the political climate of Austin by introducing political figures such as Richard Moya, who became county commissioner in 1970, and Gus Garcia, who later won a seat on the school board and later became mayor of the city.
In the end, the Economy Furniture Company strike was important because it symbolized the ways in which Mexican American workers were becoming more willing to fight for their rights. It was also significant because of the ways in which it drew the workers, the Catholic Church, and the University of Texas students together in solidarity to protect workers. Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies in partnership with Paradigm Shift Multimedia LLC. produced the documentary The Economy Furniture Strike in 2010.