Labor Organizations

By: Ruth A. Allen, George N. Green, and James V. Reese

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 15, 2021

Short-lived labor unions were established by printers and carpenters in Houston during the Republic of Texas, and "Workingman's" or "Mechanic's" associations, more along the lines of benevolent societies, were constituted in Houston, Galveston, Austin, and New Braunfels before 1860. A local of the National Typographical Union was active in Galveston in antebellum Texas. It sent Joel Miner as a delegate to the meeting of the International held at New Orleans in 1857. Galveston was the earliest center of union activity in the state; the Carpenter's Local No. 7, organized there in 1860, has a nationally recognized claim to a longer history uninterrupted by reorganization than any other local in the United States. Locals of the Typographical Union were organized at Houston in 1865, at Austin in 1870, and in San Antonio about the same time. Most of the building trades in Galveston and Houston organized in the early 1870s, and railway unions developed there and in Austin and Fort Worth. Several of these participated in the great wave of labor unrest in 1877. In 1866 an organization of longshoremen was chartered as the Screwmen's Benevolent Association, and in 1870 a Negro Longshoremen's Association was chartered. Members of these organizations cooperated with the longshoremen in Mobile, Alabama, to form a Southern Association. During the Civil War and Reconstruction many other craft-union locals were formed, but the attempts of the unions of the northeastern United States to form a national organization left Texas untouched.

In the turbulent decade of the 1880s labor organization in the state and nation was dominated by the Knights of Labor. Five district assemblies of the order operated in Texas. The state District Assembly No. 78, with headquarters at Fort Worth, reported 1,901 locals and 8,900 individual members. District Assembly No. 145, which covered the lumbering area and maintained headquarters at Texarkana, had 550 members. District Assembly No. 101, made up of employees of Jay Gould's southwest system of railways, most of which were in Texas, had 3,300 members. District Assembly No. 211 was chartered for the city of Galveston; District Assembly No. 135, organized for mineworkers with headquarters at Columbus, Ohio, had large locals in Texas at Strawn, Thurber, Bridgeport, Lyra, Gordon, and other places. A report in the Dallas Morning News in 1885 estimated the total membership of the Knights in Texas as 30,000. The unsuccessful strike of District Assembly No. 191 against the management of the Gould system, from March to May 1886, seriously affected the area from St. Louis south to Waco and west to El Paso. Although the strength of the Knights was broken by failure of this strike, its repercussions led to the first official investigation of industrial relationships by a congressional committee, which held hearings in Fort Worth, Marshall, Palestine, and other towns. The Knights also assisted the International Granite Cutter's Union in their successful boycott (see CAPITOL BOYCOTT and STRIKES) against the contractors who were building the Capitol in Austin with convict-quarried stone. The resulting trial and fining of the contractors for importing Scottish granite cutters was the first and most important prosecution by the federal government for violation of the Alien Contract Labor Law.

With the passing of the Knights, unions became more focused in the larger towns, where the AFL (American Federation of Labor) craft unions and streetcar workers predominated, and among railway workers. But exceptions did exist, as illustrated by the almost totally unionized mining town of Thurber and considerable organizing activities among Hispanic workers along the Rio Grande. As the Knights disintegrated, the craft unions attempted to form a state organization in 1891, but were at first unsuccessful. The Texas State Labor Union, organized in 1895, was not craft but agricultural-industrial in base and lasted for four years only. In 1900 six city-central trade councils-at Austin, Sherman, Corsicana, Dallas, Gainesville, and Hillsboro-were given charters by the AFL. In the same year at a state meeting held at Cleburne, seven cities, with a membership of 8,475, were represented. Since 1903 the Texas State Federation of Labor has held annual meetings and published proceedings. In the early years, the largest voting strength of the state federation was in the Carpenters Union and the United Mine Workers. Membership grew steadily to a peak of 512 locals in 1918. Declining membership through the 1920s brought a low of 135 locals in 1931. There was steady yearly growth for half a century, although membership in the TSFL does not include all members of the American Federation of Labor. In 1943 Texas had about 1,400 locals, with a membership of 225,000, affiliated with the national body.

The International Oil Workers Union, which has at some periods had a significant membership in the state, was one of the original groups that formed the Committee for Industrial Organization, later the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). The growth of the CIO in the state has been steady in the cities and the industrial areas that developed rapidly after 1940. In 1944 union membership was found in 115 local bodies: thirty in the Oil Workers International; twelve in the United Steel Workers of America; eight in the United Automobile Workers; five in the American Newspaper Guild; four each in the United Cannery, Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers, the National Maritime Union, the American Communications Association, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers; and three in the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; twenty-three miscellaneous unions; and eighteen local industrial unions. There were five county organizations. All of these groups composed the Texas State Industrial Union Council (later the Texas State CIO Council), which served as a coordinating agency on legislation and organization. A fair judgment of the membership of all labor organizations in the state in 1944 would probably represent about 10 to 12 percent of the total labor force.

Rapid industrialization of Texas in the years during and immediately after World War II increased the number of nonagricultural workers and thereby the potential union membership. Organizational drives by several national unions proved quite successful in the immediate postwar period. By 1946 about 350,000 Texans were union members, of whom about 225,000 were in unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and 60,000 were in the Congress of Industrial Organizations affiliated unions; the remainder were in such unaffiliated unions as the railroad brotherhoods and the Southwestern Telephone Workers (the two largest independent groups), or in such company unions as that of the Humble Oil Company's employees (see EXXON COMPANY, U.S.A.). During the decade following the war, union membership grew faster in Texas than in the nation as a whole. Yet the increase was primarily a result of rapid economic and population growth, for the percentage of nonagricultural workers unionized remained relatively stable at a little below 20 percent, compared to a national average of about 30 percent. Total union membership in the state reached about 375,000 by the mid-1950s, or approximately 17 percent of the nonagricultural labor force. The vigor of CIO organizational efforts was demonstrated by an increase in membership in affiliated unions to something over 100,000, while membership in the AFL unions had remained stable and the membership in unaffiliated unions had actually declined to about 40,000. Much of the union growth was in the larger industrial establishments. More than 60 percent of those manufacturing plants employing more than 250 workers were organized in 1955, but less than 10 percent of those with fewer than 250 workers had unions. In addition, most labor union strength was in new industries: more than 75 percent of the workers in transportation, communication, and the manufacture of transportation equipment were union members; two-thirds of employees of paper, primary metals, and chemical manufacturers were unionized; and more than half of those working in the petroleum industry were organized. The older industries-lumber, textiles, food, and agricultural processing-remained less than 25 percent unionized. Union membership was therefore both numerically and proportionately strongest in those geographic areas where new industry flourished. Almost half of the state's union members were in the Houston-Beaumont area and about one-third in Dallas-Fort Worth. Yet the character and size of the industrial establishment seemed more critical than the location. Wherever large heavy industry was found, unions appeared. There were, for example, large locals of steelworkers in Daingerfield, auto workers in Greenville, rubber workers in Bryan, and oil workers in Tyler, Borger, and Dumas, all towns where few other union members lived. On the other hand, most small industries in Houston, Dallas, and especially San Antonio were not organized.

In July 1957 the twenty-one-year split between the AFL and the CIO in Texas was bridged when, after eighteen months of negotiations, the Texas State Federation of Labor and the Texas State CIO Council merged into the Texas State AFL-CIO. The merger agreement was delayed primarily by differences over representation in and leadership of the new body; jurisdictional disputes between former AFL and CIO unions; and disagreement over the role, scope, and power of the state organization, which was more philosophical than a reflection of the craft-industrial union conflict. Disagreement over policy between the chief officers of the state AFL-CIO, one of which represented the old AFL group and the other the old CIO unions, flared into a floor fight between their supporters for control of the 1961 state convention. That dissension, which threatened to split Texas labor again, involved personalities as well as the craft-industrial union conflict. With the magnanimity of the winners and the grace of the losers, however, a split was avoided, although the ill will between craft and industrial unions that has divided American labor throughout its history remained strong in Texas labor in the 1960s. The dissension helps to explain the continued decline of affiliation of local unions with the state organization. By 1966 only a few more than half the members of AFL-CIO unions were affiliated with the Texas State AFL-CIO, compared to about 60 percent affiliated at the time of the merger. Equally if not more responsible for disaffiliation was the dissatisfaction over the growing assessments by the state AFL-CIO on local unions to finance increasing social and political activities.

Only after World War II did organized labor emerge as a political and social force in Texas. The CIO, through its Political Action Committee, contributed greatly to the 1944 presidential campaign in Texas and gave support to Homer P. Rainey in the 1946 Democratic gubernatorial primary. The state AFL did not openly enter politics until 1948, when it endorsed Coke Stevenson over Lyndon Baines Johnson in the senatorial primary and supported Roger Evans for governor. Ralph Yarborough's several statewide races received extensive support in the 1950s, and his election as United States senator marked labor's first important political victory. Although in the 1950s there was reason to think that unionized labor's support was more to be avoided than sought in Texas, where anti-union attitudes are strong, by the time of the merger the unions' endorsement was being sought by both local and statewide candidates. In 1958 the state AFL-CIO began to rate members of the legislature and to work actively in legislative races, with little success except in areas of great union strength, where a considerable number of labor-supported candidates were being elected by the mid-1960s. Organized labor also began to play a growing role in other areas. Representatives of organized labor were being regularly placed on local charity committees, social service committees, planning committees, and the like. In 1954 the Texas State Federation of Labor began to grant several college scholarships, and organized labor provided extensive support for the Warm Springs Foundation, which operated a rehabilitation hospital at Gonzales for the physically impaired (see WARM SPRINGS REHABILITATION SYSTEM). A youth conference was sponsored annually by the Texas AFL-CIO, and the state organization entered several court cases relating to insurance rates, the poll tax, and other issues with implications for all Texans, not just union members. Unions in Texas likewise were active in civil-rights demonstrations. Although there was some internal dissatisfaction with this involvement, integration within most unions was accomplished smoothly (see CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT).

Increased activity outside the sphere of wages, hours, and working conditions grew in an era when labor was losing strength in the nation and in Texas. Internal division, along with a variety of other factors, retarded union growth. Exposés of labor racketeers in the mid-1950s had a great impact on public opinion, already hostile in Texas, although none of the malfeasance directly involved Texas unions. Automation, with the accompanying loss of jobs, struck hard at several unions. Unions continued to grow slowly until about 1960, when they peaked at something over 400,000 members, of whom about 375,000 were in AFL-CIO affiliates. By 1964 members had declined to 370,000 total, 320,000 in AFL-CIO unions, 39,000 in national unions outside the AFL-CIO, and the remainder in local unaffiliated, mostly company, unions.

The massive demographic and socioeconomic changes that began in Texas in the 1960s have had a dramatic negative impact on the role of organized labor. The state's population increased by almost 90 percent between 1960 and 1995. Since a good portion of this growth was a result of adult immigration, the labor force grew at a slightly higher rate than the general increase. The movement of women, many of whom were not prime breadwinners, into the labor force, together with the fact that half the population growth in the 1980s was Hispanic, brought a need for different organizational strategies that, even by union admission, have been slow to develop. A successful effort to unionize the new workforce occurred at the four Fojtasck plants in the Dallas area. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers merged with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1995 and successfully organized the workforce, which predominantly consisted of legal immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, at the Fojtasck plants. The eventual results were better minimum wages, better benefits, and better working conditions for the plant employees.

Another cause of the decline of organized labor, equally difficult to evaluate with precision, has been the increasing conservative bent of the state and national social and political climates. Little doubt exists that the influence of unionized labor in Austin has weakened. Though unions no longer have the political clout they once wielded in areas of former strength, such as Beaumont-Port Arthur and Houston, other factors have been at work. The National Labor Relations Board, under Republican administrations and those of Democrats James E. Carter and William J. Clinton, has been a less than vigorous supporter of unionization. In numerous cases where unions won initial representative elections, for example, the NLRB has allowed company-initiated appeals and legal proceedings to drag on for months and even years. In industries with highly mobile employees such as poultry processing and retail trade, the end result has often been decertification after the original pro-union workers have moved on. Perhaps more basic to the decline of union influence have been the fundamental changes that began in the 1970s and greatly accelerated in the early 1980s. During the troubled decade following 1982, employment in those sectors of the economy with few union members (wholesale and retail trade, finance, service, and government) grew by a little over 1.25 million. Workers in those sectors where unions have been traditionally strong (mining and oil, construction, manufacturing, and transportation), on the other hand, declined by about 370,000. By the early 1990s only 21 percent of the labor force worked in highly unionized industries, compared to 47 percent twenty years before.

Organized labor began responding to these changing conditions in the 1970s. The state AFL-CIO and several of the established unions provided logistical and financial support for organizing efforts. Communication workers, for example, supported membership activities by the Texas State Employees Union, which claimed something like 25,000 members by the 1990s, although the laws forbidding collective bargaining by public employees have limited the union's effectiveness. Other white-collar public-sector unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have also made significant gains since the 1970s. The Teamsters helped retail clerks organize both as Teamsters and in the United Food and Commercial Workers. But even though initially successful-about 32,000 retail workers had union contracts in 1990-locals often suffered a fate similar to that of the Kroger workers in San Antonio and the lower Rio Grande valley, where in 1993 the company simply closed its stores, or of Apple Tree employees the year before, who saw the company declare bankruptcy and a judge void the union contract. Similarly, the efforts to organize farmworkers, which began in the 1960s, have had little success. In some of the rapidly growing sectors of the economy, unionization has been practically nil. The many new computer-manufacturing establishments, for example, remain unorganized. Texas Instruments has been especially unreceptive to union attempts to organize its employees.

These compromising conditions for organized labor, when combined with such management practices as downsizing, contracting out, permanently replacing strikers, and moving to other countries, resulted in a reduction of the number of union members by about a third in the dozen years after 1982. Members of those unions affiliated with the state AFL-CIO, for instance, usually about 70 percent of total union members, dropped from 289,065 to 196,439. Isolated areas of union strength still exist, however. Almost all 33,000 nonsupervisory workers for the Bell Telephone companies are unionized, as are those in oil refining (20,000 members), maritime trades (12,000 members) and rubber workers (15,000 members). But in each of these, while the percentage of union workers has remained high, the number of workers in the industry has decreased. Unions outside the state body have suffered similar declines. The Teamsters (with about 35,000 members in the nineties) were hit hard in 1978–79 by the deregulation of interstate carriers, which drove many companies out of business. The United Auto Workers have seen a decline to about 15,000 members as a result of a shift from cars to trucks at the General Motors plant and reductions of defense spending that have affected Northrup Grumman. Even if the highest estimates of total union membership (about 400,000) are accepted, fewer than six percent of nonagricultural workers were union members in the mid-1990s, the least since the 1920s.

Even as the unions were forced onto the defensive by changing conditions, they also strengthened their efforts in such areas as combating environmental hazards and achieving safe working conditions. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' Union sought compensation for workers afflicted with asbestosis after working at the Pittsburgh Corning Corporation plant in Tyler in the 1960s. A landmark strike was called in 1973 against Shell Oil Company, allegedly America's first environmental strike, in a dispute over whether the union could have some say in monitoring the workplace environment through periodic medical exams and access to mortality statistics. Although the strike brought the oil workers into alliance with environmental groups that were also concerned about toxic wastes, the workers were eventually forced to accept a severely watered-down monitoring system. Texas industries have also been plagued by unusually high rates of work-related cancer and on-the-job accidents. In 1979, for example, there were 2.66 on-the-job deaths for every 10,000 employees in Texas, compared to a national average of .86. In the oil and gas industry, unions opposed unsafe working conditions associated with poorly designed facilities, the bypassing of safety procedures in the interest of greater production, and the replacement of trained union workers with poorly trained contract labor. The 1989 explosion and fire at Phillips Petroleum in Pasadena, which killed twenty-three workers and injured 314, brought investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' Union and led to massive fines for safety violations levied against Phillips and against Fish Engineering and Construction, a contractor. However, unions have been able to achieve little more than token opposition to corporate control of the workplace.

Ruth Alice Allen, Chapters in the History of Organized Labor in Texas (University of Texas Publication 4143, Austin, 1941). Charles M. Gibson, Organized Labor in Texas, 1890–1900 (M.A. thesis, Texas Tech University, 1973). The Labor Story (Austin: Texas State AFL-CIO, 1990). F. Ray Marshall, "Some Reflections on Labor History," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (October 1971). Marilyn D. Rhinehart, A Way of Work and a Way of Life: Coal Mining in Thurber, Texas, 1888–1926 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). Emilio Zamora, The World of the Mexican Worker in Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993). Robert E. Ziegler, The Workingman in Houston, Texas, 1865–1914 (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1972).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II

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

Ruth A. Allen, George N. Green, and James V. Reese, “Labor Organizations,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022,

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December 15, 2021